Why I Turned to a Life of Busking
This is the 1st part of a 2 part series on “Busking in Barcelona.” Here is “Busking in Barcelona Part 2: 10 Reasons Why You Should Let the Public Pay You for Your Music by Busking.”
When I tell people that I’m a busker now, many people don’t even know what the word means. Well, to clear that up, the term “Busker” comes from the Spanish word (verb) “Buscar” to look/search for something. In my case, I’m a street musician, and I am in search of fans and an income while I perform and better my art.
Maybe it was never my plan to get an expensive degree in Music and Spanish and spend many years plodding through an indecisive career trajectory and then move to Barcelona, Spain to begin a career as a busker. It’s probably not what my parents had in mind when they told me to choose something stable when I graduated from university. No, this career does not provide me with a stable income. There are no benefits or paid vacation or sick days. I can’t take a paid sabbatical from it, but infinitely it’s a lot more idyllic than you would think.
**What is not idyllic on the other hand, is that I’m in the middle of a public square in Clot watching a live concert for children. In the daytime on a Saturday afternoon, and there is some scruffy looking guy urinating on the side of the tree nearest me, but I digress.**
Busking for me was like something you fall into. You get addicted to something (in my case music and performing) and your personal boundaries start falling by the wayside all over the place. You are putting yourself in front of people and you have to be a little bit aggressive to get attention from the public and to collect payment. There is very little courting. You are asking for the sale from the first moment. I am doing things, all legal, but still difficult. I am vulnerable to silly teenage boys who like to emulate (horribly and with comic intentions) my runs when singing Alicia Keys’ “Falling.” Do you know how hard it is to sing with conviction and continue setting the mood when someone has just mocked you and you’re about to cry/laugh? It’s like a sales job-which I still find difficult. The sales process is just shorter. “Here I am,” I say with my eyes, “Pay me if you think it’s worth it. If you are sold on me.” If you are too “fino” or “precious,” this career isn’t for you. You may be judged by others in mainstream, lucrative careers. That’s all fine though. It’s what is growing my art and fan base and it’s paid practice. What could I be doing that’s more important in this moment? If others don’t share my values that there are more important things than a title or money, than we aren’t compatible anyway.
Busking is big in Barcelona. Another city where it’s huge: Berlin. I will be going there next week and let you know what it’s like. Before I left the US, I had finally found a career I liked: teaching Spanish. Though the situation I was in at the time wasn’t right for me, maybe someday I will return to teaching. But in this space and time, music is the only thing that makes sense, and I can only follow where the path is opening. One foot in front of the other with more steps being shown as I step out in faith.
There’s a documentary about busking in Barcelona that’s soon to come out in 2016. I got a chance to be in it. It’s called “The Association.” When I come across other buskers from Spain they are quizzical as to why I’m here in Spain. There’s the crisis that everyone’s always bemoaning and America is so rich, they think, and opportunities endless (or so they think). I get all this, I say, but It’s always been my dream to live in Spain, and I’ve always wanted to pursue music. Everything else that I was told I should be doing, just got in the way. Coming here, everything just transpired into a serendipitous cataclysm of the right timing, the right place, and the right vehicle in which to do my art. When I originally wanted to move here after finishing my undergrad, my well-meaning friends said it was silly. It would be escaping. Life is short and long at the same time. Aren’t these same people escaping their dull dreary lives through spending too much, and buying more and more? Some people are dead long before they’ve died. Though I don’t make a lot, I find it doesn’t matter when you’re making sacrifices for an ultimate purpose. I no longer need to online shop like a fiend. I no longer buy loads of cosmetics that go half unused (ok that still happens). My rent is cheap and I am saving and living below my means. I am also hungrier. Forced to seek multiple channels to earn and market myself nonstop. In the words of Jay-Z, “I’m a hustler.”
How it All Started
I credit my original duo partner for making this all happen. With him by my side, he gave me the confidence to start busking. We started in the streets of Barcelona, in the Gothic neighborhood. It was noisy. He only had a guitar and I, my voice. No amplifiers. Occasionally people passed us and gave us a few euros in the guitar case. Then we realized we needed to be more aggressive so we started the “terrace trick.”
So, as an example of how far out of my comfort zone I’ve gone: we started going up to terraces with people dining and announced. “Hello, we’re going to play some music for you. If you like it, show us some love.”
We played around 2 songs. Passed the hat around on the final one (usually “Dock of the Bay”) and then walked away. At first we found that we could make around 5 euro for each terrace, and with a plethora of them to be found in the Gothic and Raval area, it was adding up. Then we realized there was competition for these terraces. We were infinitely better than the drunken, haggled, older men playing their accordions, and singing in tuneless voices. Those were harmless enough, just annoying, but then we found other more menacing folks. For instance the Dutchman who arrived after us in one lucrative square. His guitar in hand, singing English songs in a gravelly, tobacco-affected voice, telling us to leave, and that it was his. We never did get to play in that square that was enclosed in 3 walls of perfect acoustic heaven. With all of this competition, though we had a better chance of winning Eurovision than any of them, it meant that the diners in the cafe had already allotted all of their busker tips to our less-talented predecessors and we were not as widely received when we were the 4th round of musicians playing and asking for donations. We did manage to find better spots and we learned through many months of trial and error where to go, and how to avoid the Guardia Civil.
Here’s a link to a neat idea by Derek Sivers (creator of CD Baby): https://sivers.org/busk
This Series is continued with the 2nd part: 10 Reasons Why You Should Let the Public Pay You for Your Music by Busking.