So, my old friend Chris just posted on Facebook asking for advice in re open mic sessions and busking on behalf of his brother-in-law, and I wrote a far longer reply than is reasonable for Facebook in response.
Clearly, the only sensible thing to now do is to post an edited version of that reply here on the blog. Otherwise what the hell are we all doing here? (Don’t answer that.)
In the words of Neil Innes: ‘I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.’
Herewith. Oh, and it’s all bullet points. I hope this may be helpful to you. You’ll know.
Advice For Chris’s Brother-in-Law Who Hankers To Go Busking Or Open Mic-ing And Wants To Improve
- Just go out and do it.
- Busking and open mic-ing are completely different animals though, with completely different upsides and downsides.
- If you’ve never done either one before, probably best to go open mic-ing first.
- Feel free to completely ignore me though.
- Open mics are great places to meet other open mic-ers and see how they do it.
- Open mics are great places to try out new stuff, learn mic control, learn what does and doesn’t work - for you - in front of a crowd.
- Not all open mics are the same; some are friendlier than others; some are better run than others. Running open mics is hard. Always be nice to whoever is running them.
- Some people turn up to an open mic and leave as soon as they’ve done their spot, or sit there ostentatiously ignoring everyone else’s set and hooting at the top of their voices about crap. This is rude. Don’t be that guy. Commit to the whole night. Talk to the other players in breaks. Don’t talk through other people’s sets.
- If everyone at an open mic session is leaving as soon as they’ve done their spot, find a better run open mic.
- Arrive early at the open mic if you want to guarantee that you get to play; this may still not guarantee anything depending on how it is run - check beforehand if it’s a ‘get in touch beforehand’ deal or not.
- Sound at open mics is often patchy because doing sound at open mics is really hard. Fifteen or so musicians playing two or three songs each with different guitars and different experience levels is your basic soundperson’s worst nightmare. Be extremely nice to the soundperson even if they seem grumpy. They will always seem grumpy. They are right to be grumpy. They’re probably not even getting paid for this shit. Make sure you give yourself the best possible chance of sounding good by a) if your guitar plugs in, make sure the battery is working (always carry a spare), b) find out how to set your volume and tone controls to make it as easy as possible for the desk - typically 3/4 volume, and on many acoustic guitars with older pickups, rolling off the treble completely - you’ll know you need to do this if the guitar sounds like a banjo if you don’t, c) if your guitar doesn’t plug in, get one that does or get a pickup for your guitar - pointing mics at guitars is hard both from the soundperson side and the player’s side; no-one ever gets this right at open mic sessions, d) have your own jack lead but don’t insist on using it, e) if your lead does get used make sure you get it back, f) carry a clip on tuner, try to turn up for your slot with your guitar already in tune if at all possible, g) if (when) someone else borrows your tuner, make sure you get it back, h) mark your tuner - someone else will have the same model and may accidentally run off with yours.
- All the above goes double if you’re playing something other than guitar.
- Don’t lend your guitar to anyone you just met, but if you are the guy who always has spare strings to offer when someone else breaks one and doesn’t have spares, this is not a bad position to be in.
- Busking. Busking is hard. Busking is psychologically the most challenging form of music performance there is. Are you nuts? Only go busking if the answer is yes.
- Ok fine. I’m nuts too. Busking is fun. Or can be.
- If people can’t hear you, they won’t respond to you. Get a battery powered amp or be somewhere with really good acoustics.
- Another busker is probably already there in the really good acoustics spot. Get an amp.
- You’re singing too? Now you need a mic as well, and the amp needs to take both a mic and the guitar. Head mounted mics mean you don’t also need to carry a mic stand, but they aren’t cheap. So. Mic stand. Leads. Spare strings. Spare leads. Spare strings. More spare strings. Did I mention spare strings? Are you playing something other than guitar? Ok, fine, spare reeds. Spare whatever will be a deal-breaker if (when) it breaks and you don’t have a spare.
- The Crate busking amps are pretty good, but heavy. Now you also need a trolley.
- I told you you were nuts.
- Be really friendly to all other buskers and people of the street at all times. Do not under any circumstances queer anyone else’s pitch by setting up too close to them. Ever. Anyone who does this to you is an asshole. You will soon find out who the assholes are.
- Find out what the local busking etiquette is. Some places have an agreed meeting point where people work out their slots for the day. Some places have licensing schemes. Sometimes its just a free-for-all.
- Always seed your collecting tin / hat / guitar case with a few coins before you start, or you will make no money at all. But never have too much money showing or you will get robbed. You will get robbed anyway one day, but this way it won’t hurt so much when it happens. Collect notes immediately and put them somewhere safe.
- Dress the hell up for busking. A sharp suit / tie / hat combo or similar will make you stand out, will remind people that you are doing a performance art thing and not begging and you will at least double the take.
- If you aren’t really busking for the money, be hyper aware that many of the other buskers very much are, and each coin you get is a coin they don’t.
- If you are really busking for the money, take the long view and don’t get discouraged when you get bad days. You will get bad days and they will be very bad. You can’t rely on a single busking outing to go the same way it went last time. But you’ll soon learn where and when are the best times and places for you to go in order to maximise the take. This may involve a process of elimination where you first have to go to all the wrong places at the wrong times and end up spending more money to get there and back than you actually make. Keep a diary of where you went and how you did.
- It is possible to lose money busking - this doesn’t mean you are a bad player, just that you haven’t figured out how to make what you do work yet. It’s hard and it takes time.
- Nothing will teach you what people’s attitude to music really is like busking does. There will be a sweet spot between what you want to play and what people want to hear you play that will take time to find; you’ll know when you find it. Weird stuff happens at the edges of that spot.
- If there aren’t enough passers by in a spot, it’s not a good spot. If there are too many passers by in a spot, it’s also not a good spot.
- Is your show an attract-a-crowd or a catch-the-passers by show? This will affect a) your show and b) your choice of spot. If you’re doing the former you might need someone to bottle (collect the money) for you.
- Busking takes it out of you physically more than any other kind of music performance. Look after yourself. Look after your voice. Don’t get dehydrated. Don’t get too hot or too cold. Don’t play for too long. Take breaks. Have a sense of humour about it.
- Good luck!