Busking: A Beginner's Guide

Busking: A Beginner’s Guide

Busking, or performing music in a public area, is a great way to hone your performance skills. It’s also an incredibly fun way to make some pocket change and meet people. Starting to busk can also greatly reduce stage fright/performance anxiety.

Most cities require a street performer license to legally busk, and below are links to the paperwork required for the most populated cities in the US, plus some additional popular busking locations. Each city will have it’s own rules, and you should look them up if you are unclear about anything.

Busking Guidelines

By and large, these two guidelines will keep you out of trouble:

1. Don’t block the public pathway

Number 1 is self explanatory. Don’t block a sidewalk or entrance to a business. Period. You can and will be fined hefty sums.

2. Play an acoustic instrument, keep percussion to a minimum volume

Playing an acoustic instrument keeps your noise to a reasonable level.

Some cities actually require additional permits if you use an amplifier. In addition, should a police officer feel you are too loud, you can be fined and/or asked to move. Bucket drums are the number one culprit of busking noise complaints; a cajon and foot-strap bells are a great cheap alternative. Some cities have banned drums altogether from street performances.

Now, the minimum distance to move following a complaint is often defined as 2-3 blocks, depending on your city. Remember that busking income is supremely based on location. Once you find a profitable patch of concrete, you won’t want to move, especially due to noise complaints.

I also recommend playing an acoustic instrument because if you break out a bunch of gear (amp/chords/pedals/whatever) it looks like you do not need money. People will (not) donate accordingly. Again, some cities have banned amplifiers so keeping it acoustic is the way to go. In addition, police are allowed to confiscate your amp if you break a city ordinance.

Finally, many cities require an additional permit if you sell a CD or any kind of merchandise. Play just for tips and you should be good. For each city, call ahead to see exactly what is needed to obtain your permit. Usually the most you will need is a government ID, permit application, two 2×2 inch face photos (without hats/sunglasses, obviously), and permit fee. If you play as a group, check to see if your group can get a license or if each individual member needs their own license.

Nervous about busking? Scared? It’s OK. Put yourself out there. You have nothing to lose.

For those ego-sensitive folks, get over yourself and take it to the streets. Talented men, women, and kids are out on the corners doing their thing. If you have a semblance of talent, you can money today from busking (~$10-$20/hour if you are musically decent, more if you know how to put on a show). To put it in perspective, a 12 year old Justin Bieber is braver than you.

3. Get Your Busking Permit

This is general information, not legal advice. If you are unsure about anything ask a local music lawyer in your town.

Getting your permits:

Busking in Chicago, New York, Boston

Busking in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego

Busking in Phoenix, Nashville, New Orleans, Boulder

Your city not listed above? The best place to find info is your town’s police and county clerk’s websites. Be sure to help out others and share your city’s info in the comments.

Guest article by Aidan published on Keep Strumming.

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David McWilliam
David McWilliam
2 years ago

“Starting to busk can also greatly reduce stage fright/performance anxiety.” I can second this comment from personal experience. As someone who busked around Europe for several months, I can tell you that (for me, at least) any “pre-show jitters” quickly dissipate soon after the case props open and the music starts. Regular performing keeps you loose and helps improve the quality of your playing before a crowd. The positive feedback is also a great motivator and source of validation.