In May 2010 I got myself a busking licence and decided to hit the streets of Sydney to get back into the swing of all things musical – and also to try an earn a little bit of tax-free cash on the side, of course 😉 After only a few sessions I’ve come to realise it’s an enjoyable, mind-opening pasttime, perfect for getting my performance chops back up to scratch, which is what I need if I want to start gigging again after I release my upcoming album. Yet on the other hand it’s also highly challenging and disconcerting, especially considering I used to play music professionally, where for much less effort, I earned about a hundred times more than what I’ve banked out on the streets!
So here, I have decided to notate my experiences as I foray into the world of amateur, cover-and-original-singing, acoustic-guitar-playing street performance. Come with me and find out about the songs I sing, the people I meet, the enjoyment, the disappointment, and the coinage – or should I say, the lack thereof!
Busking Take 1 – 16th May 2010
LOCATION 1: corner of George St & Bathurst St in the CBD
Hooray, my first attempt at busking in Sydney! I got off the train at Town Hall and walked around for ages trying to find a suitable location. I was pretty nervous but eventually I settled and opened up with a killer rendition of October Grey by the Screaming Jets.
It took about 15 minutes for the first person to dig into their pockets. She was a professional in her early 30’s and she gave me a very generous 5 cents. And a half-hearted smile.
The next offer was from a middle-aged guy who was in a rush, but kind enough to forage through his backpack and give me a single Vicks VapoDrop.
Not long after that, a Latino-looking bloke came up to me with half a cup of mixed nuts and offered them to me by putting them right up to my face as I was singing October Grey (again). He must have thought I was homeless and hungry! I stopped my song and thanked him, but told him not to worry. He left them in my guitar case anyway.
After 45 minutes of playing to a tough crowd, I left with $2.45.
LOCATION 2: corner of George St & Goulburn St, by the rear entrance of World Square
I initially walked down to Central Station with hopes to play in the underground tunnel, but there were already 4 buskers there so I left them to it and walked back up towards World Square.
There was a general positive atmosphere here, many more people turned to watch me compared to last time.
An Asian guy asked me for directions to World Square, to which I happily obliged. No coinage was offered.
I was grateful for the generosity of an old man with a long grey beard, wearing ragged clothes, and generally looking as though he was homeless, who reached into his pockets and gave me a few silver coins as he walked on by.
A cute Asian couple stood and watched me sing October Grey (yes, again!) – the girl gave $1 once I’d finished.
I played for about 45 minutes and left with an extra $4.15 in the kitty.
LOCATION 3: corner of George St & Druitt St, by the statue outside the entrance to the Queen Victoria building
I thought this would be an ace location because large crowds of 40-50 people were gathering at a time, waiting to cross the road. But hardly anybody cared to notice I was there!
I seemed to be an annoyance to the 15 or so people who were gathered around the statue. Within a minute of me being there, my statue-loitering friends moved on and I became a singing loner beside a stone resemblance of Queen Vic.
It was starting to get dark.
I played three songs, nobody even offered me a glimpse let alone any money, so I packed up & left for the day.
GRAND TOTAL: $6.60, one Vicks VapoDrop, one cup of mixed nuts (which I left on the ground), plus a newfound desire to never busk again.
Busking Take 2 – 1st August, 2010
LOCATION: Central Station tunnel (Chalmers St side)
I got over the disappointment of my first attempt and decided to try busking the streets of Sydney for a second time. I figured that if anything, I really do need the practice!
I added a few extra songs to the repertoire this time, and there were some good reactions to Tip Of My Tongue by Diesel (a young guy singing along as he walked past), The Nips Are Getting Bigger by Mental As Anything (a round of applause from an old couple), and surprisingly, one of my own songs, Misty Water (a smile from a whole family!)
Scar by Missy Higgins didn’t go down too well. A girl laughed and some guys gave me funny looks when they realised I was singing a chick song.
There was one other busker in the tunnel, about 40 metres up from me. He had an amplified electric guitar & played an instrumental version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps over and over and over and over and over and over again. And then he played it again. But I must admit he was really good at it.
I got a visit from my lovely housemate Laura! She plays violin, and we’ve been jamming recently so we’re gonna go busking together one day soon.
A friendly Maori guy walked past with his girlfriend. He said quite loudly, so I could hear, that he wanted to stop and listen to some music, but the girlfriend didn’t seem interested and wanted to keep walking. He gave me a generous $2 anyway 🙂
A young couple were walking towards me at the end of my session, and the guy was holding his girlfriend’s shiny silver handbag. As they passed me, he threw the handbag back at her, but she wasn’t looking and it hit her on the head. It was hilarious and totally made my afternoon worthwhile.
I played for an hour and 40 minutes all up, before darkness fell and I decided to go home.
Although I didn’t make much money, there were a number of times where I actually enjoyed myself.
I’m starting to like busking now. I might even come back tomorrow.
GRAND TOTAL: $10.65
Busking Take 3 – 2nd August, 2010
LOCATION: Central Station tunnel (Chalmers St side)
What a mob of tight arses.
Let me put it this way. I was in the Central Station tunnel for the Monday evening rush hour, and there was about twenty times the traffic walking through the tunnel tonight as there was this time yesterday. Let’s assume that on average, one person walked past me per second. I was there for just over an hour, so of course, 3,600 seconds in an hour = 3,600 people. According to the World Wealth Report, there are around 173,600 millionaires in the country, meaning that out of a population of 22,000,000, one person out of every 127 is a millionaire. If 3,600 people walked past me then I make that out to be 28 millionares who were within my presence during that hour – more if you take in the fact that this is Sydney and there is likely to be a higher percentage of rich folk here then anywhere else in the country. Yet all I managed to make was a feeble $4.65!
I guess people are just immune to the repetitious drone that is the Sydney busker?
Either that or I’m not singing enough Lady Gaga…
Ok so I’ve come to the conclusion that busking definitely isn’t going to be a moneymaking venture any time soon – but I must say that I did thoroughly enjoy myself.
A woman walked past me while she was searching through her bag and pulled out what looked like a stick of deodorant. But she dropped it, and as if possessed by some kind of evil magnetic force, it somehow managed to slide its way into a drainhole, disappearing right before her eyes. Oh my god that was so random and funny to watch!
Once again, Tip Of My Tongue got the best reaction of the evening; a guy walking on the opposite side of me braved the opposing traffic to chuck some coinage into my guitar case and offer some kind words of encouragement for singing a Diesel song.
Follow You Down by the Gin Blossoms is quickly turning out to be my favourite busking song to sing. I don’t think anybody has given me any money for it yet, but I feel relaxed and happy whenever I throw it in the set.
I forgot the words to one of my own songs and gave up on it half way through. Because I could!
All up, I feel my performance skills are on the increase again, my vocals in particular. You really have to project it to be heard.
I took a quick snap of the coinage before I left:
GRAND TOTAL: $4.65 (not including the $2.10 of my own money!)
Busking Take 4 – 5th August, 2010
LOCATION: Central Station tunnel (Broadway side)
Today I realised that despite what I said in my previous entry, it IS possible to make a bit of money from busking – and have a bloody good time doing it as well 😀
It was a really good session.
I went with my housemate Laura.
She plays violin, and she’s great at it.
We’d only rehearsed our set once, for about 20 minutes a couple of days beforehand.
We met up after work, and we travelled into Central Station together before settling on a location in the tunnel, near Basement Books.
By the end of the second song we had an offer from a guy asking if we wanted to play an acoustic gig one night at a venue with his band. I took his number & will give him a call next week 🙂
A few minutes later a group of about 15 Indonesian school students appeared out of nowhere and started taking photos and videos of us. Then they all came in around us and their teacher took a photo of them while we were playing. I asked one of the boys “apa kabar?” and he smiled & actually knew what I meant. And that made me happy, because it meant that three years of Indonesian lessons throughout primary & high school finally paid off, 15 years later.
Not too long after that an Asian father interrupted us mid-song asking if he could get a photo of us with his daughters. They were very cute and we happily obliged.
An old guy stopped and watched us intently for a few minutes, so in between songs I thought I’d say hi and asked if he had any requests. After five minutes of him gibbering on about Peter Frampton, the Godfather movie, an old TV series from the 70’s called F-Troop, something about a tribe called the “Fugawi” – and that’s not to mention groping Laura’s hands in the middle of all that – he finally said goodbye and went on his merry way without even requesting a song.
I reckon the tunes that got the best reactions were Laura’s awesome violin version of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, and out cover of the 90’s classic, Breakfast At Tiffany’s by Deep Blue Something.
Actually, the majority of the songs had good reactions, and people were only too happy to spare some change and stop to listen. It honestly wasn’t like any busking experience I’d had before – it was enjoyable, rewarding and so much more fun to be interacting with another musician, rather than merely strumming & singing by myself.
We played for maybe an hour & a half before it started getting cold. The cool evening breeze is a bastard down in that tunnel!
Just as we were packing up we got a visit from our housemate Suze, so we un-packed-up and played one more rendition of Breakfast At Tiffany’s for her! Suze also took this snap of Laura and I in action:
GRAND TOTAL: $65.30 (so that’s $32.65 each) – plus one US cent!
So I guess busking isn’t that bad after all?
Busking Take 5 – 19th August 2010
LOCATION: Central Station tunnel (Broadway side)
Well this turned out to be another profitable and highly interesting session!
As with last time, I met with Laura after work and we returned to the same spot where we had so much success with our previous attempt.
My mate Sam bought me a Rabbitohs shirt for my birthday a few days ago and suggested I wear it while busking to see what kind of reactions I get from the people who walk past. So I wore it.
(I don’t follow rugby league, let alone the Rabbitohs, by the way!)
A woman gave us a few dollars as we were tuning up, before we even started playing.
All was going well until our second song, Eleanor Rigby, where we were lucky enough to gain the company of an absolute lunatic of a woman.
She was completely insane.
She hated us.
Laura in particular.
She appeared out of the blue the moment the first chord of Eleanor Rigby was strummed, and began yelling, screaming, abusing us and carrying on as if we had just committed blue murder.
I’m going to attempt to repeat here the general gist of what she was saying. Kids, block your ears because the language ain’t too pretty:
“YOKO ONO? I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE YOU’RE PLAYING THE FUCKING BEATLES, FOR FUCKS SAKE, YOKO ONO, YOU BANKERS ALL SCREW IT UP FOR EVERYONE, I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE THIS, YOKO FUCKING ONO, YOU’RE JUST FUCKING JEALOUS BECAUSE I GREW TITS WHEN I WAS 13, YOU SHOULD WORK IN THE SEX TRADE AND SELL YOURSELF ON THE FUCKING STREET, OH THAT’S RIGHT, KEEP PLAYING YOUR FUCKING YOKO ONO BEATLES SHIT YOU FUCKING BANKERS, FUCK YOU, YOU’RE SCREWING IT UP FOR EVERYONE, IT’S PEOPLE LIKE YOU WHO ARE FUCKING IT UP FOR MY DAUGHTER, FUCKING YOKO ONO” and she went on and on and on.
We tried to ignore her to begin with, but she came right up to Laura and started yelling in her face, so we stopped playing and waited for her to finish. She didn’t leave when we told her to move on, and when I made a “go away” gesture with my hands she accused me of giving her a Nazi salute. Eventually she walked away yelling more obscenities to anyone and everyone who got in her way and we resumed where we left off once she was gone.
She heard us and kept yelling from around the corner, but didn’t come back, thank heavens.
Although it was pretty unnerving, the whole episode was incredibly fascinating and eye-opening to watch unfold. It’s experiences like this that make up the joys of busking!
A young guy who was overlooking all the action was kind enough to leave us $10. He must have felt sorry for us.
We were visited by some of Laura’s friends shortly afterwards which was really nice 🙂
A couple of young Irish lads stopped by to watch us play a few tunes and ended up hanging around for 15 minutes. They were really cool guys, they offered applause to U2, sang along with some Oasis, and even left a decent amount of coin despite the fact that we didn’t know any Bob Dylan (their one and only request).
Laura pointed out during one of our songs that we’d somehow amassed a $20 note. I didn’t see who put it in there but apparently it was a young female student. We were blown away by her generosity.
We played for just over an hour and called it a night before heading to the pub with Laura’s friends for a few drinks.
Nobody said a thing about my Rabbitohs shirt…
…until a guy at the pub asked if I’d shot any!
GRAND TOTAL: $81.10 ($40.55 each – I make that out to be double what I earn at work!)
Busking Take 6 – 26th August 2010
LOCATION: The open area just past the Central Station tunnel
I ventured out busking again today after work.
I was playing solo this time.
The Central Station tunnel was full as always – there were already four musicians, two people handing out flyers, an artist and a beggar.
The spot in the second tunnel where Laura & I play was taken by a guy selling Big Issues, and there was yet another guitarist further up the tunnel.
So I set up in the open area between the two tunnels.
I’d played four tunes to an abundance of completely disinterested passers-by, before a security guard stopped me mid-song and asked me to leave, as I was on private property.
He was cool about it, mind you, and I could tell he didn’t like having to ask buskers to move on.
So I went home.
I don’t think I’ll bother going busking by myself again. I might as well just practice in my room and save the cost of the train ticket.
On a lighter note though, Laura texted me and said I should check out page 27 of MX magazine. Now, I wasn’t at North Sydney station, but I did walk past it, and I was carrying a guitar!
GRAND TOTAL: $1
Busking Take 7 – 19th September 2010
LOCATION: Central Station tunnel (Broadway side)
Despite my earning of one measly dollar and a “get out of here” for my last session, I bit the bullet and decided to busk solo once again.
After warming up with Breakfast At Tiffany’s, I went on to play an hour and ten minutes of entirely original songs.
Previously I’ve only ever thrown one or two in with the set, but I’ll be doing some open mic nights and looking for gigs soon so I figured I need all the practice I can get.
It turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable! I went through all the tunes I plan on recording next month for the album. With exception of the poem and the one that’s in the crazy open tuning.
Some of them hadn’t even been heard outside the walls of my bedroom before.
Although I was cringing to begin with, by the end I was really getting into it.
About 10 minutes in, a group of young hooligans, all around 15 years old, loudly made an entrance and proceeded to kick/throw/roll/bounce footballs up & down the escalators, causing havoc amid the people passing by. It looked pretty fun actually. After they finished they walked past me and started singing the “sha la la la” bit from Brown Eyed Girl, continuing until well after they’d exited the tunnel.
A guy stood and watched as I played an improvised instrumental introduction to one of the songs, then gave me a few bucks and said it sounded great. I’ll definitely be playing that intro again.
In my vague peripheral vision I saw a strange, middle-aged man in the corner of the bookshop holding a camera, aimed at me. I heard the click of the shutter three times, then he disappeared as quickly as he arrived. He clearly didn’t wish for me to notice he was there. Weird…
I was getting to a line in one of the songs where I say Fuck (:-o naughty!) but some young girls were walking past with their parents, so instead of the really passionate delivery that I intend when I sing that line, it turned out to be more of a fizzling incomprehensible murmur.
In the end I still barely accumulated any coinage, but it felt good to run through the originals, and I had a constant audience of people waiting at the hairdressers who’d moved their chairs outside to watch.
So I can’t have sounded too bad after all!
GRAND TOTAL: $7.40
Busking Take 8 – 25th September 2010
LOCATION: Kirribilli, near the Harbour Bridge steps
Well today proved to be one of the more interesting busking sessions I’ve had so far!
It began with a visit from Pristine, Emilie, Keyu, Katie and Rebecca, who were all media students at uni. They were in the process of creating a documentary about busking, and had gotten in touch with me after finding this blog, asking if they could interview me and film me perform a few songs out on the streets.
The interview was quite thought-provoking and very professionally carried out, after which we all walked to the nearby Kirribilli Markets and I set up close to the steps of the Harbour Bridge.
My mate Jarred who was staying with me at the time took on the role of the official photographer:
An interesting observation we made was that the public was much too scared to give money for fear of getting into the camera shot – well, either that or my performing was really bad!
However I did receive donations from two polar opposites: a 7 month old baby, and a 70 year old lady.
The baby’s mother had faced the pram towards me so she could see me play, and after the song ended she put a dollar coin into her hand and wheeled the pram towards my open guitar case. It took two goes for the baby to drop the coin into the case. So cute! And she even waved me goodbye, despite her profound look of confusion.
The 70 year old lady stood by watching for a few minutes with a huge grin on her face, and kindly offered me 20 cents. Later on, while walking home, we noticed that same old lady had made her way to the wedding celebrations outside the church across the road, again happily grinning and soaking in the atmosphere along with the bride, groom and wedding guests who clearly had no idea who she was.
We packed up after the tape ran out, by which time the market was reaching its conclusion as well.
All up, it proved to be a unique and enlightening afternoon, and I wish the best of luck to the girls for their documentary!
GRAND TOTAL: $2.85
Stay tuned for more busking adventures coming soon to a location near you.