Business lessons from street singing!
Playing on the sidewalk for tips is sometimes associated with the destitute and homeless, but it can be entrepreneurism at its finest, with maximum freedom for performers (who can play anywhere) as well as for customers (who contribute as much as they like). Many big-time musicians began their careers on the street.
Buskers (“people who perform in public places for gratuities”) have included B.B. King, Rod Stewart, George Michael, Tracy Chapman, Jewel, KT Tunstall, and dozens more. (Even Benjamin Franklin as a young lad hit the streets of Boston with his songs nearly 300 years ago, but fortunately for the world his show biz career was short-lived.) Peter Mulvey, a veteran singer-songwriter, once recorded an entire album in the Somerville, Massachusetts subway—complete with the sound of trains pulling in and out!
So let's get to it. Here are a few business lessons that buskers can teach us…
1. Deal directly with customers. Disintermediate! That’s a fancy way of saying, “Remove anyone in the middle of the supply chain.” (As a business consultant I’m required by my profession to use pretentiously incomprehensible language.) When you play the street you eliminate the bar or concert club as an intermediary (in which the customer pays the establishment and the establishment pays you), which is one less obstacle or approval layer to deal with. Also, you can sell product (CDs, etc.) directly to customers or "end users," eliminating the retailer. This doesn't work for all businesses of course, but it's an option for some.
2. Get intimate with customers. (Please don’t take this the wrong way. It’s a marketing term.) When you serve customers face to face you get to see up close—real-time—what’s working and not working about your product or service. On the street when a crowd starts to form that’s validation that you're doing something right; when people drift away that’s a sign that the song or performance isn’t grabbing folks, so you can do something about it—immediately. Regardless of what you do for a living, you do have customers, and it's smart to get to know them first hand.
3. Adapt. The street is a wonderful teacher. It trains you to rapidly adjust to the unexpected—from rowdy drunks hectoring you, to urchins running off with your tips, to cranky listeners throwing food at you (yes, it’s happens), to humorless police telling you your audience is blocking sidewalk traffic. Flexibility, agility, and diplomacy are useful skills to master—on and off the street.
4. Get used to the fickleness of customers. On the street they love you and leave you. In one moment they’re hanging on your every word and in the next moment they’re gone. They may reappear tomorrow—or never again. (I may have to include this in a future blog, Love Lessons From Rock.) This is tough learning for subway performers especially, given how quickly an entire audience disappears at once. (Peter Mulvey, after he graduated from subways to coffee houses, expressed surprise when he’d turn his back to the audience to fiddle with his equipment and then turn around to find the audience was still there!) Getting used to the vagaries of customers—or to the whims of the human spirit in general—is always a good thing.
5. Learn how to get customers' attention. There’s usually SO much going on in the street you have to learn how to grab the interest of distracted passers-by. Some do this by jumping around, wearing strange garb, playing unusual-sounding instruments, being funny, or—ideally—displaying their extraordinary musical gifts. Bottom line: to get your customers to notice, you have to cut through the clang and the clatter. Marketing 101 for all of us.
There's more, but that's enough for otherwise distracted blog readers.
I've done a fair amount of street singing, and taken my lumps, mostly early in my career, including a time with the almost-famous Uncle Crusty and the Venice Canaligators—as described here and here—whose street singing antics got the band on national TV in the '70s.
I should add that performing for tips inside coffeehouses or bars is often considered busking—but it's really a wimpy alternative to "the street."