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How To Pick A Street Performer Spot

What makes a good spot to perform on as a street performer, or “busker?� There are several layers to that question. I will address the interpersonal human etiquette side of performing spots, or “pitches,� as they are called in street performer lingo, in another article. This is about the actual physicality of choosing street performer spots. For a successful show, one needs a spot where traffic passes, to gather a crowd. But the spot must also not interfere with the businesses around you, or police will be invoked. Obviously, the spot needs to be situated in a way that the sidewalk is maintained as a functioning passageway, while the area around the spot must have the capacity to hold an audience. You need to think, “Could this spot hold about 30 people without interrupting sidewalk flow or access to the doorways of the surrounding businesses?� This may sound difficult, and looking for good spots does consume a lot of street performers’ time, but it can be done. You’ll find a set back doorway of a closed business. Or some placement of planters, benches and payphones that you can exploit as some kind of street performer feng shui.
How To Pick A Street Performer Spot
By Kirsten Anderberg

What makes a good spot to perform on as a street performer, or “busker?� There are several layers to that question. I will address the interpersonal human etiquette side of performing spots, or “pitches,� as they are called in street performer lingo, in another article. This is about the actual physicality of choosing street performer spots. For a successful show, one needs a spot where traffic passes, to gather a crowd. But the spot must also not interfere with the businesses around you, or police will be invoked. Obviously, the spot needs to be situated in a way that the sidewalk is maintained as a functioning passageway, while the area around the spot must have the capacity to hold an audience. You need to think, “Could this spot hold about 30 people without interrupting sidewalk flow or access to the doorways of the surrounding businesses?� This may sound difficult, and looking for good spots does consume a lot of street performers’ time, but it can be done. You’ll find a set back doorway of a closed business. Or some placement of planters, benches and payphones that you can exploit as some kind of street performer feng shui.

The next consideration is sound, the noise around you. Setting up next to loud construction work is not a good idea, for example. I used to busk on the Santa Cruz Mall, and this electric band would play for the outdoor seating in front of the Cooper House. I was in the middle of a great set, with a great crowd, when this loud amplified music drowned me out! From then on, I never played around lunchtime, which sucked. That one band took up six plus blocks of airspace, never thinking how many buskers that put out of commission, I am sure. You also do not want to perform too close to another busker as to distract from their act. Some businesses blare radios out of their establishments to attract customers, and sometimes they will turn them off while you play music, if you ask. If you can have a good working relationship with other buskers and the merchants, that can minimize having a relationship with the police. It is usually merchants who call the police on buskers.

The acoustics of a spot matter, too. An awning or wall behind you can help amplify a voice naturally. Performing in an open intersection, such as when streets are shut down for street fairs, can wear out a voice really quickly, whether you juggle or sing, as either way, you are still talking, usually, to a large audience with no acoustics, basically. I found the ocean at the Venice Boardwalk in Los Angeles would suck the sound out and make repeating sets harder and harder, in a way I did not experience at places like Seattle’s Pike Place Market which has a ceiling and walls around nearly all of its busker spots. I found a voice will bounce off an awning, as if amplified, if you aim your voice correctly from underneath it.

This issue of cover is not only important for acoustics, but also for weather-related reasons. Standing under the beating sun, for 8 hours a day, over 2 days, with no cover, at a street fair is not good. Fried to a crisp, bright red performers are common after events such as the University Street Fair or the Fremont Street Fair in Seattle during the summer. The Fremont Street Fair is notorious for sunburning buskers, as there are few trees along the main or side streets, except where the canal is, where no one busks. There is also the issue of sun in people’s eyes. Sometimes you have two choices, the sun is in your eyes, or it is in the audience’s eyes. Other times, such as when you are playing with a wall behind you, the direction of the wall determines who gets sun in their eyes. People are less likely to stay and tip with sun in their eyes, making them squint or hold visors up to see the act. Another reason to notice whether your audience space, or at least you, are under cover is in the event of rain. If you are dry performing, but your audience is getting soaking wet, that won’t work. If it looks rainy out, or is raining, you need to procure a spot large enough to cover you, and approximately 30 people as a potential audience, without interrupting business or traffic flow.

The two weirdest places I have busked were in an elevator and a parking lot. I wanted to see Neil Young’s show at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, but I had no money for a ticket. My friends were all leaving for the show, and I said I was going to busk out front and someone would give me a ticket. They said I was crazy. I played out front of the Catalyst a bit and this guy told me I should come out back, and play in the parking lot, where Neil’s bus was, and there was a party. So, I went back there with this guy, and he sort of introduced me, and I played some music. In the middle of my rendition of “I’ve Got A Black Magic Marker,� to the tune of Black Magic Woman by Santana, Neil leaned out of his bus and told me to come into the bus. When I got in there, we joked a bit and he asked me if I wanted to open the show. I said sure, and so my friends’ jaws dropped when Crazy Horse introduced me on the stage. I lived in a school bus then, with no phone, no address. I did not try to lay some promo package on Neil, I had no business card. I just entertained him one night on the street, no more, no less, and I like the simplicity in that.

The other really bizarre spot I usurped was with my partner in crime, Linda Schierman, when we were a feminist duo called Raw Sugar. We were trying to busk the line waiting for the Backstage club in Seattle to open, for a Phoebe Snow concert. The Backstage crew came out and told us to leave the property. Then the Backstage guy went back inside the club that was not yet opened, and the crowd begged us to stay. So we backed up into the elevator and played from there, even collecting tips in the elevator! When the Backstage guy came back, the crowd warned us, we hit the button for another floor and were gone. A few minutes later, our elevator landed back on the floor with the line of people, and as the doors opened, the crowd cheered! We performed some more, people were buying our tapes out of the elevator, the guy would come back, we would leave again. It was hilarious, sort of a group anarchy that the Backstage never knew about.

So never blow a chance to seize the moment like Raw Sugar and the elevator. You can find places with acoustics, protection from sun and rain, with space to hold an audience without blocking traffic or commerce if you learn what to look for. You can find good pitches by watching for pitches other successful buskers frequent. Also, if people know quality buskers will be in a certain spot, they may frequent that spot. Building a clientele on a certain spot is actually quite common in busking. And thus, buskers can get very territorial about the pitches they work. All in all, finding and working good pitches is part of the art and finesse of busking. It is something buskers learn to fine tune their eyes for, and it gets somewhat easier with experience.

 
 


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Comments

Santa Cruz is very unfriendly to Street performers

Too bad the City of Santa Cruz passed all these downtown ordinances which forbid street performers from standing next to a building or under an awning.

The City Council, led by Ed Porter and Cynthia Matthews, passed these innane restrictive ordinances in order to grant the merchants wide latitude to call the cops to remove performers they don't like.

Performers they like, can stay, but only by risking a $162 ticket.

Likewise, Matthews one-hour "move-along" law which was loosely based on the Voluntary Street Performers Guidelines (VSPG) which had operated in Santa Cruz for over twenty years, requires a performer using a "display device" to move-along after only one hour in a spot. This blatantly unconstitutional law limits free speech to one hour at a time out of 24.

The VSPG's were voluntary. They allowed for a person to ask for a spot, and the performer could then perform for one more hour before giving up the spot to the next performer. The new law sets in stone the one-hour limit and backs it up with police power.

Please contact Mayor Scott Kennedy at (831) 420-5050 and demand that the council revisit these ordinances and to prove why they are neccessary.
 

Hold Your Nose--Here Come the Politicians

And try not to vote for Kennedy, Porter, Reilly, and/or Primack--all of whom have taken out papers to recycle in again at the November election. All of them voted to criminalize street performing with a tip dish on 80% of the downtown sidewalks and 100% of narrower sidewalks.

Even on the remaining 20%, you'll be threatened with a ticket if a merchant doesn't like what you've been playing.

The other potential candidates who've taken out papers (Bonnie Moore, Aldo G., Ryan Coonerty, and Tony Madrigal) have not come out with any clear positions on these issues.
 

Re: How To Pick A Street Performer Spot

And you are right that SCruz IS hostile to street performers. I was lauded with 8, count 'em, 8 peace disturbance/obscenity tickets in SCruz for street performing and was literally chased out of town under the threat of more. I cannot tell you how sick it makes me to see the way SCruz city council treats its street performers.
 

Re: How To Pick A Street Performer Spot

a friend and i play on the streets in albuquerque NM, the cops don't care but neither do the people, don't let that whole artsshmartsy crap fool you the only way to make money in this town busking is on friday and saturday nights near where all the bars are, or at a starbucks in the morning where we've befriended the manager, in both cases people aren't in their right frame of mind (read: drunk/tired) if one is playing anywhere else no one cares, or they look at you in an agitated way, one could argue it's because were bad, but were not, we were asked to play at the african cultural tent during the state fair last year, so obviously we're not bad at what we do...
 

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