The economics of a street performer

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For anyone other than airplane staff, who manage to seem absurdly cheery wherever they are, adapting to working in a new country can be daunting. This has been no less so for me, as a street performer, than for my fiancée, an economist. For her, the challenges were learning how to work with European clients, negotiating a different set of laws, and finding a decent cup of tea. For me, the challenges were learning to work with European audiences, negotiating a different set of by-laws, and finding a decent cup of tea. After a year and a half we have both managed the first two pretty well. We’re still working on the tea.

Believe it or not, a great deal of economic theory goes into busking. In many ways the economics are similar to those in any job, just much heavier because they’re made up of coins. Obviously a busker’s income is different to an economist’s, but there are techniques I’ve learned over the years to help ‘maximise my incoming revenue’, and other terms my partner uses which I’m still convinced don’t really exist.

Half of the trick is attempting to attract the right people. A family with kids or an older couple out on a date are generally going to put more in the hat than three teenage boys for whom your show is only a brief distraction before heading home to continue discovering puberty. One of the earliest techniques a busker learns is to watch people passing to know the best moment to begin. The first thing I do is to look at people’s feet. When most stride by with some form of purpose, it’s a bad time to start: they clearly have far better things to do than watch some British Muppet fold a card with his tongue. When you see lots of groups slowly strolling, then you know you’re in luck.

There are also obvious hazards to avoid. It only takes one drunk to ruin a show, and there’s one thing the street performer truly fears: a school tour party. Not only is it almost always disruptive, but the one time they aren’t, you can be sure that the teacher will come at the worst possible moment and lead them away – leaving a gigantic hole in your crowd, not just physically, but also in terms of energy.

Besides these logical deductions, much comes down to an innate “busker sense” that we develop. By looking at members of an audience and passersby you sense the kind of people who will laugh more, pay more, and who would make the best volunteers. That, you might think, would be the person who is most enjoying the show – that’s an error young buskers often make. If someone is giving you that much energy then the LAST thing you want to do is take them out of your audience! Ideally you need someone who has come to trust you, but is not loving your show so much that removing him or her would disrupt the careful funnel of energy you have created. You can’t logically work out who the perfect volunteer will be before you need one. You have to rely on this ‘busker sense’.

It’s an insane way to make a living, but not so different to any other. How often have you found in your job that you are reading someone’s body language to try and gauge their mood? Have you discovered that the more experienced you get, the more you instinctively know the right way to approach something? As I say, the economics of the street, and the challenges an expat busker faces are very similar to those of any other kind of job. We just have more incentive to learn the different coin types quickly.

By Owen Lean –

About Owen Lean 3 Articles
British Street Performer, Owen Lean became the Bachelor of Magic when he graduated in 2006 with the worlds first degree in street magic. Making the front page of the Irish Times, and several other national newspapers. A year later his house burned down and he lost everything he owned, ever since then he has traveled the planet, performing his unique comedy magic show on the worlds street, taking away peoples fears and "Entertaining those without even the remotest interest in magic" - The Irish Times.