Showing up

rockstarStreet singing on weekends continues to be a source of endless fascination for me. Boundless food for thought—and always a business lesson or two.

As I played Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” last Sunday evening in the Public Gardens of Boston, two young girls who were walking by with their mother—perhaps ages 7 and 8—stopped and began slow dancing with each other in front of me! I doubt that they were paying attention to the words of the song, but I couldn’t miss the irony. These sisters, giggling all the way, were innocently waltzing to a tune about a grown woman who despite her adult ways (her “fog,” her “amphetamine,” and her “pearls”) can “break just like a little girl.” Being thoroughly entertained by the girls’ antics (I always consider my audience to be the real entertainers who are performing for me)—I extended the length of the song, and they just kept slow dancing. At the end they even contributed a dollar (from their mother). Not the primary demographic I’m trying to reach with my music, but…I’ll take it.

The turnover of potential customers is rapid on the street. People usually walk by at a fast clip, often in animated conversation with each other, which I try to interrupt with my performance. I have about 15 seconds to make an impression (unless they’re walking very slowly). That's 15 seconds to get them to stop and listen or toss in a dollar. But of course this is like other kinds of sales activities (a 15-second commercial for instance) designed to grab eyeballs. And it finally occurred to me that I could apply techniques I’ve taught in sales courses for years: make strong eye contact, project enthusiasm, move your body around, etc. Meanwhile another local performer has taken to wearing an animal costume to get people’s attention while he plays guitar. I’m not there yet.

It’s also true that when it comes to making money from street performance “sales” is not always related to any traditional notion of customer satisfaction. I’ve seen many people continue to talk to each other, not look at me, and still throw a dollar in my guitar case. I suppose they think of me as a poor mendicant. (And when I sing an old blues song and play bottleneck slide, it may reinforce that notion.) Are these folks “satisfied” with what I’m offering? I don’t think they even notice. But maybe giving me a dollar is satisfying an altruistic need? At any rate, I’ve taken a new perspective on this: half of success is just showing up (to quote a phrase). Some folks are rewarding me for simply being there. And for many years when I was not playing music, I was not there. (There’s something profound in that thought—or maybe I’m staying up too late?)

Bottom line: I'm now learning—in all areas of my life—there’s value in showing up.

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


  1. In an online thread recently I claimed, vehemently, that I didn't want anyone buying my books just to be supportive, I only wanted buyers who planned to read them.

    But if I were busking and someone wearing noise-canceling headphones tossed me a buck without a sideways glance I'd take it.

    I don't know if I'm corrupt or confused.

    I went through a very very long period where tossing a dollar into a guitar case would have meant walking the last half mile to work on Friday. These days, I try to make up for it when I get the chance.

    1. I try not to think about the fact that street singing is costing me money — given what I could be earning in the same time — but somehow it's worth it. Someone told me recently that a senior VP from Wells Fargo has been singing on the streets of Boston, so there are lots of us crazies.

  2. Hey John!!
    Wish I knew you were there, I would have stopped by!! We are in the studio this Sunday the 2nd starting at 3pm if you would like to come on over!!

  3. Simply showing up can be important (show support etc) but the thing about busking is that you're not simply showing up: you're showing up and doing something. You may be doing it because you need a few dollars or simply because you enjoy doing it but you're making an effort. Back in the business world, I think too many people think showing up stops when you walk in the door. Showing up is about what you do when you've gone through the door.

  4. have you thought of dressing like a bum -- if you're not already -- to maximize peoples' sense of guilt so they'll pour more money into your coffers?

    1. I would never do anything like that of course, but I am encouraging tithing. There are lots of affluent folks passing by — all tourists, Americans are too poor — who might like to commit 5% of their income towards my "church."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »