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Riley Music Academy Blog: How to make money as a musician Article 1

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In this series of articles I will identify methods to earn money as a musician.  Yes, you heard me right, it’s tough – but it is possible!  I’ve been a freelance session musician for 15 years now and although at times money has been tight, I feel blessed to continue earning a living from music.  I want to pass on some of what I’ve learned so that more people can enjoy a career in this amazing industry.

Busking

thge kings parade busking

I’m going to start with a great tradition and a very immediate way to earn money. All you need is an instrument (maybe amplification these days) and permission. 

Back in the mid 90′s I used to busk on Saturdays in a couple of towns nearby. I took my sax, set up in a busy alley and played.  I rarely performed tunes as I was really into improvisation, so the poor passers by were subjected to some free form jazz. Despite this, I used to earn on average £8ph, which as a young teenager was a fortune!

Busking has always been a bit controversial and it remains confused as each town and borough have conflicting views about how they welcome street performers. Many tourist towns (Stratford upon Avon, Edinburgh, Dublin for example) have strong links with the arts and encourage live music. Because of the tourism they often have systems and dedicated staff in place to organise street entertainment. It is very easy to liaise with the council and seek out permission. The only time I was ever moved on was when I busked on a bridge and it was deemed to be a risk to the ever present “Health & Safety”.

The other towns I used to busk in were working towns in the heart of the Midlands and I think they were a bit shocked and pleasantly surprised to hear a spotty young kid play a bit of saxophone so I always got away with it!

In 20 years, things haven’t changed too much apart from buskers becoming more technology reliant. They often perform to backing tracks using battery powered speakers and perhaps draw in bigger crowds because their music is being projected further. Singers, saxophones, flutes, violins are all very common but more unusual sights can also be seen; my favourite was a guy who stuck huge casters to his battered old upright piano and used to wheel it on to the high street every day.

In terms of earning money there are several sources and for this I am going to use some of the transcript from an interview I conducted with Tom English, a former student of mine and bass player in The Kings Parade. Tom and his band were awarded the Mayor of London’s Big Busk Competition 2013 and have been touring Europe and performing at UK festivals like Cornbury and Brownstock in 2014.

the kings parade

“The idea of going busking came about because we had all moved to London together with no jobs and only a small amount of money to get us through the first couple of months. We quickly realised that busking was not only a great way to support ourselves financially but also serves as a powerful promotional tool for our band. We were able to play our own music and distribute a high number of CDs which helped to significantly increase our following and more importantly increased the number of people coming to our gigs.”

Tom and the band quickly realised that each London borough had different views on buskers although no official law has been established. They would skirt around some of the issues with police by giving away CDs or suggesting donations rather than selling on the street. They are arguably more knowledgeable on busking law than the police.

“Generally it is very hard to arrest buskers because there are no modern laws on the subject. The police try to use scare tactics to move people on but the laws that they often try and use are very dated (1800s).”

This was was probably why they were arrested earlier this year! The police don’t like to be undermined.

Busking in central London, The Kings Parade were arrested for refusing to immediately stop playing. The band acted calmly, responsibility and politely but the officer on duty demanded their names and addresses. After refusing, they were arrested which was caught on camera and posted online.

Watch The Kings Parade Arrested in London

“We told them that they were being unreasonable and that they had no grounds to arrest us. After being under arrest for 8 hours they released us without charge. They subsequently wrote a letter saying that they would not take any further action so we went straight back out to play in the streets.”

The police were wise to not press charges as just weeks before The Kings Parade had been awarded a london busking award by none other than the mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Tom sums up the experience of busking by giving me his highs and lows:

“Highs – Exposure, Gathering and performing to big crowds, promotion, meeting the weird and wonderful people of London
Lows of Busking – Local Authorities and their differing policies, Police Enforcement, Great British Weather!”

So, as you can see, the financial incentives of busking may not be that great initially but for promotion and growing an audience it can be a direct route into the music industry. The exposure can be far more beneficial in the long term. Many of my students go busking and find themselves being offered gigs in cafes, bars and restaurants.  If you are starting a career in music then busking could be a very immediate and simple route to earning a few pounds. Do your homework, seek permission, go play, sound good and have bags of promotional material available when people ask for it.

Buskers tip: if your collection hat/case starts to get full, empty it (all but a few pennies) so that a) someone doesn’t try to steal it and b) people won’t give if they think you’re making an absolute packet.

Got a buskers tip or busking experience? Post below…

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