The Busker Hustle: 6 Steps to Raking in Revenue as a Street Performer

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As portrayed in Abbi and Ilana’s hilarious busking scene on “Broad City,” street performance is a classic part of the portrait of city life, as integral as bright lights and bustling traffic. And while it might conjure up the image of a musician strumming contemporary classics on an acoustic guitar, busking isn’t just the musician’s domain. Comedians, dancers, and other creatives can show off their talents in numerous and ingenious ways that draw in viewers and (hopefully) some good tips for the night.

What is busking?

Street performers

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Put simply, busking is street performing for tips. Anyone who sets up in a public place and begins performing with the hope of earning a bite to eat or a few dollars is a busker. The practice dates back to antiquity, with artists performing their craft for the entertainment of passersby on the street in the hopes of earning money and fame.

Most common among these street performers are musicians—think singers, guitarists, even the occasional pan flutist—but many creative types can flaunt their talent to an unassuming public. Street performers might also be dancers, especially those who perform popular street dancing styles such as breaking and house. Clowns, mimes, and other comedians make popular buskers, too, using quick wit and good timing to infuse the unexpected into the everyday.  

Street performances can generally be put into three categories according to their arrangement in relation to the audience:

  • Walk-by: The most common is the walk-by act, which, as the name implies, is a performance where audience members will come and go as they please. They might walk right on by; or a quizzical viewer might stop for a moment and even drop some cash into the tip jar before heading on their way. 
  • Circle: If it’s especially eye-catching, a busker’s walk-by performance might also turn into a circle show, where an audience gathers around the performer to watch their act in full. Not only does this kind of show keep people engaged, but it also draws in more curious passersby wondering what all the fuss is about.
  • Stoplight: Finally, the stoplight show is a type of busking where performers sing, dance, or otherwise perform for people waiting for their light to turn green.

How to make money busking

Street performers


Performers eager to have their creative voices heard and hopefully earn some cash along the way ought to try busking. There isn’t a linear path to follow per se, but performers should plan carefully to maximize their success and avoid any trouble with the law.

  1. Decide on your act. First and foremost, the budding busker must decide what act they’ll do to earn money and applause. Consider the skills you’re best at: Are you great at pantomime, know how to dance, or have some unique talent that’s sure to catch people’s attention? Many street performers are musicians and dancers, so consider what you can do to stand out in the crowd. You might even consider picking up a new skill (à la Pierce Brosnan, who was a fire-eating busker) so you can catch more attention from passersby. 
  2. Plan your show. Setlists aren’t just for musicians. Be prepared with at least an hour’s worth of material that you think will bring in the biggest audience. Think about the type of audience you want to attract and plan accordingly. Musicians especially will benefit from having a deep repertoire of popular songs; not only does this generate audience buzz, but it prepares you for inevitable requests, too! That said, expect the unexpected and don’t get too flustered if things don’t go exactly according to plan.
  3. Check for permits. Before just setting up on a street corner and strumming a guitar, performers who want to try busking for money need to be certain they’re following whatever guidelines are in place at their “stage” of choice. Many towns and municipalities require performers to have a street-performer permit before setting up, so check in with your local authority to avoid any hassle when the time comes. Similarly, be aware of any other rules or regulations of these performance areas, such as not using amplifying devices, and adjust accordingly.
  4. Pick your pitch. Speaking of the busker’s “stage,” any spot used by a street performer is commonly referred to as a “pitch.” Perhaps even more so than your talent, your pitch is a main driver of your earnings potential as a busker. Find a spot with good foot traffic where you can get lots of eyes on you in a short period of time. Make sure that you’ll also be comfortable in the space where you’re performing. Look for some shade to avoid sunburn and heat stroke, and avoid setting up too close to another performer—after all, no one wants to hear two musicians battling for dominance of the soundscape in competing styles and keys. Try not to hog a good pitch once you’ve found it; the best spots are limited, and you want to give your fellow performers a chance to earn well, too.
  5. Put out your tip jar. Many performers use a standard tip jar or box, but don’t be afraid to get creative and use something related to your performance (like a musician using a guitar case or a magician using a top hat). Before you get started, drop in some money of your own, since audience members are more likely to tip if they see someone else has done so before them. If you want to go the digital route, prepare a sign with your PayPal, Venmo, or other digital wallet so patrons can tip you straight from their phones. Whichever method you choose, research if your chosen pitch has any regulations regarding money collection.
  6. Get the audience involved. Nothing brings up the energy of a street show quite like audience participation. Encourage your viewers to sing and dance along, or bring them in on the joke if you’re doing a comedy routine. Brush up on your improv skills so that you can react to whatever situation presents itself, and remember to have fun!

Famous performers who began as street buskers

Bernie Mac, Pierce Brosnan, Ed Sheeran

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While busking is no guarantee of making it big, these famous actors, comedians, and singers got their start on the streets. 

  • Pierce Brosnan: James Bond himself began his career on the streets, though not as an actor—instead, Brosnan was a skilled fire-eater. This unique talent eventually got him enough attention to get admitted to Drama Centre London.
  • Tracy Chapman: The “Fast Car” singer-songwriter got her start as a student at Tufts University. Between classes, she would perform in the highly coveted Harvard Square, where she soon got the attention of a fellow classmate whose father just so happened to run a record label.
  • Bernie Mac: Another iconic actor and comedian, Mac initially made money by doing his comedy routine on Chicago’s South Side. 
  • Ed Sheeran: Sheeran began his performance career at a young age when he moved to London at age 16 and began busking for money and exposure.
  • Robin Williams: The beloved actor and comedian made extra cash as a mime in NYC’s Central Park while attending Juilliard.