My Experience Busking in San Francisco: 63 sessions, $5000
Posted on 2016 June 17. Edited 2019 June 2 (reinstated the photos which I deleted in 2018).
Some of my friends in Powell Station in 2014. We were playing the Mendelssohn Octet. That's my violin hanging on the stand.
Many of these sessions were accompanied by my friends in the San Francisco Civic Symphony, a community orchestra. Earlier tonight, we eclipsed the $5000 mark in donations from busking. All donations benefit the San Francisco Civic Music Association, a non-profit organization.
People have encouraged me to write about it, so I thought I'd crystallize some of my thoughts below.
- Performance practice. Hilary Hahn says, "You do not know a piece until you get it on stage... there's no way to replicate a concert in a practice setting... you don't have the energy of the audience... even if you have a couple of people in the room listening to you play something through, it makes a difference." Rehearsing at home is nothing like performing in front of others. Home is comfortable. There is no audience. What happens when you're busking and all of a sudden you have an audience of ten people? Will you speed up? Will your intonation suffer? Will your bow shorten?
- If you're an aspiring professional, which I'm not, then I suppose it could serve as marketing.
You learn a lot about people and crowd dynamics. Donations come in clusters; if a person sees someone else donate, it creates a chain reaction. Sometimes, I think people are just too polite to interrupt the performance, but when they see someone else donate mid-performance, they realize that it's acceptable to donate at any time, and then they donate and leave. Either that, or they're wondering when this boring piece is over, and it just keeps going on and on, so they donate and leave, and then others donate and leave.
Unsurprisingly, older people donate greater amounts than younger people. The few who drop a $10 or $20 are often over 40 years old. In an attempt to teach empathy, mothers often give cash to their four-year old kid to put in the violin case. It's a very common sight.
Some donations are unconventional. I have been given a bag of coffee, 5 UAE dirhams, and a flower. (Not from the same person.)
Perhaps the nicest, most thoughtful gift came from a woman who was sitting on the ground about thirty feet away, maybe writing notes in some journal. It turns out she actually made this drawing in pen.
Most people are really friendly. Some stop to chat about music, some ask which school or orchestra I belong to, some ask if I teach lessons for their kid, some ask about my violin. One teenage girl who made a generous donation asked if she could try my violin.
I think that men and women donate roughly the same.
Some recommend seeding an empty case with money. I don't think it makes a difference.
By and large, most people passing by don't care.
Sound definitely matters; you can't just "look good". If I play poorly, I don't get donations.
Sometimes the great works make poor busking choices. The Bach Partita No. 2 Chaconne is a great example. Joshua Bell famously busked the Chaconne and other pieces undercover at L'Enfant Plaza in 2007. Not many people stopped to listen.
The Chaconne is one of the great masterpieces of solo violin literature. It is also difficult, slow, and 15 minutes long. Something faster and more vivacious like the Bach Partita No. 3 Prelude is a much better choice. In fact, the Partita No. 3 Prelude is easily the piece which gets me the most donations.
Faster music may be more captivating, but slow lyrical melodies can also bring donations. For example, I've had success with the Elgar Salut d'Amour. Because it's fairly easy, it allows you to focus on tone and interpretation rather than technical accuracy.
Unsurprisingly, an ensemble with more performers earns more than a soloist. On August 20, 2014, we played the Mendelssohn Octet in Powell Station and collectively made $461.64 over 90 minutes, or $307.76 per hour. However, that's $38.47 per hour per person. I make $15-50 per hour solo. So I wonder where the diminishing returns begin, i.e. what ensemble size maximizes revenue per hour per person.
So what do I play? My solo rotation consists of the following:
- Bach Sonata No. 1: Adagio, Presto
- Bach Sonata No. 2: Grave, Fuga, Andante
- Bach Partita No. 2: Allemanda, Giga
- Bach Sonata No. 3: Adagio, Largo, Allegro assai
- Bach Partita No. 3: Preludio, Gavotte en rondeau, Giga
- Schumann Träumerei
- Wieniawski Violin Concerto No. 2: Romance
- Schubert Ave Maria
- Chopin Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2, transcribed by Sarasate
- Elgar Salut d'Amour
- Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto: Canzonetta
- Shostakovich Violin Concerto: Passacaglia
- random orchestral solos
You may be wondering if some of these sound thin without an accompaniment. Who cares, it's just busking.
The ideal busking location is
- without wind or sun
- with good acoustics
- along the path of foot traffic
- and frequented by people with money.
However, it is possible for foot traffic density to be too high. In the evening rush hour, there are so many people making noise and obstructing others' views that I imagine it's difficult to appreciate the music by the time you've reached the fare gates. I believe that a medium traffic density works best where the sound can travel and there is always a direct line of sight between pedestrian and performer.
For example, Russell here is in the long corridor in Powell Station beneath 4th Street, warming up for our Mozart Duo No. 1 for violin and viola. This corridor has decent traffic but isn't too busy.
Inside Powell Station, there are three informally but widely accepted busking spots: (1) the aforementioned long corridor beneath 4th Street, (2) the middle pit between the BART and Muni gates, and (3) the 5th Street side by Hallidie Plaza. The 5th Street side gets the most foot traffic by far, but I find that fewer people donate because the spot is not a focal point, it's too crowded, and the acoustics are bad. Ensembles of three or more are virtually impossible.
Left: Dale Henderson, founder of Bach in the Subways, plays cello on the 5th Street side of Powell Station.
On the other hand, the long 4th Street corridor may have less traffic, but the busking spot is a focal point (you have a captive audience for 25+ yards between the stairs and the musician), acoustics are better, and there is less background noise.
For ensembles, the middle pit (shown left) is the best because it has the most space.
Of the BART/Muni stations, Powell is far and away the best; it's no contest. Embarcadero is too large and has too many exits, so the traffic is diffuse. Montgomery is okay, but it lacks focal points, and the tech and finance crowd seem in a rush to go to or from work. Van Ness and Church don't have enough foot traffic. And Civic Center... well, let's just say I prefer Powell.
Busking at the Ferry Building was a bad idea; no one can hear you over the road and pedestrian noise, and the sun made my E string snap. I'll never do that again. (In general, I try to avoid playing outdoors for many reasons. I rarely enjoy myself.)
Safety and Security
At least twice I've had money stolen, both by young dudes in their late teens or early twenties.
I don't like people standing behind me. Often, performers will play with their back against a wall or advertisement for that very reason.
Once, in Powell Station, a seated homeless person threw a AA battery toward me. It fell short.
The police do periodic rounds inside the stations. While I'm playing, I'll routinely see a policeman ask a person sleeping on the ground to sit upright. I'm not sure if that's because of the civil sidewalks ordinance or to "prevent obstructions". But it's thought provoking. When the Super Bowl came to the Bay Area in February 2016, police were everywhere, and there wasn't a homeless person in sight inside Powell Station. It's a sad exercise to wonder where they went instead during that time.
Fear, Nerves, and Anxiety
Is busking scary? The scariest part was leaving the apartment that first day. Exiting the apartment door was the point of no return. "Okay, I have my jacket and shoes on and my violin, I might as well go on with it." That moment when, for the first time, alone, I plopped my music stand in the middle of Embarcadero Station was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life.
However, once you start playing, that's easy. The music is the easy part. Nowadays, I can decide to busk on a whim and be at Powell Station playing Bach within fifteen minutes of leaving my apartment.
Realize that for 99% of passers-by, you mean nothing to them. You're part of the background. They see people like you all the time. That's a Good Thing! Once you can embrace and internalize that notion, you can relax and focus on the music.
If you want to busk but are scared, I recommend going at a less busy time, e.g. Saturday morning at 10 am. Get used to the surroundings; embrace your anxiety. No one will be there. Once you're comfortable, try again next week at 2 pm.
Questions? Email steve at stevetjoa com. Or follow the discussion on Hacker News, if that's your thing. This post reached #11. My life is nearly complete.
[18 July 2016, 10:05 am PT] Matt B. comments, "Hi Steve. My nine year old boy plays the piano and sings rock classics. He is mostly self taught and fairly courageous, but was afraid of street performing. We found your busking page by searching: busking muni on Google. You are the first result.
"Anyway, he has played once in front of Citibank on Chestnut, and once in front of the Embarcadero/Ferry Terminal during evening commute (we should have read your notes better about noise). He made a lot of money, which he is saving for a drum set, and a cello. He does not need the money at all, and we nudged him to perform in public because he is fairly talented and pitch perfect, but immensely lazy. Before an audience, he performs much, much better and gets more practice.
"Thank you again for a very informative post, and guidance, and even the link to the Fisherman’s Wharf rules. BTW, BART requires permits, and they are free."
[18 June 2016, 11:30 am PT] Michael K. writes, "Do you think the sign that "all donations go to XYZ" made a difference in donation amounts?"
A: Yes, I think it does help. We've had a variety of signs contributed by our members for different occasions, and I believe that it does make some people stop and think twice. That said, I'm often too lazy to carry a sign to the station even though I know it helps. It's difficult to bike with a violin and a sign.
[18 June 2016, 9:33 am PT] Josh A. asks, "I thought at one point that some cities required a busking permit (seems like a more popular policy in Europe, but I know several US cities that do or did.) Does San Francisco require one?"
A: I believe you're correct about other cities. To my knowledge, no, SF does not. I've never been bothered about it. People just play. One exception is Fisherman's Wharf, a very touristy area. There is an official program that standardizes 12 performance spots.
[18 June 2016, 8 am PT] Jon T. asks the following questions:
Q: Did you ever try to busk only to find there were already other buskers already there?
A: All the time. My first choice is usually Powell. Yesterday, in the three busking spots, there was a string quartet, an elderly man playing the erhu, and a guitarist. So I took Muni to Montgomery. Some days of the week and times of the day are clearly more popular among buskers than others.
Q: Did people ever mess with you or say rude things?
A: Hmm, good question. Yes, one comes to mind. I was playing in the middle pit in Powell, solo, facing the Muni gates with by back facing the BART gates. Then I hear loud banging behind me. At a distance, a frail elderly man resembling a vagrant was banging his shoe (held in his hand) on the BART turnstile while looking at me. He repeated for several minutes. I occasionally stop and turn around wondering if he will stop or tire out. I continue. The banging becomes nearer and louder. I ask him what's up. He wasn't happy that I was collecting so much money. Eventually the police asked him to stop.
That leads to another important point: believe me, I have no illusion that just because I'm playing violin in the subway station, I'm immediately loved by all. Some people hate you. They have their reasons. I feel sorry for the elderly man; perhaps either through mental decline or being a foreigner, he was unable to communicate his objections through words. And I fully understand the picture of inequity created when someone donates to a musician while homeless people are on the ground yards away. If I'm in the 4th Street corridor, I will often give a dollar when I'm done to 2-4 homeless regulars who are there listening.
Q: Did you take an expensive instrument or use a cheap one?
A: I currently possess two violins, the bad student violin that I used until age 17, and the good one that I use today. I only perform with the good one. I'm generally not too worried about the violin itself when I busk as long as I'm indoors.
Q: Did you run into any legal issues about busking?
A: No. I'm told that there is "no busking in the paid area", i.e., you supposedly can't play after passing through the fare gates and onto the platform. But I've seen people do it and it doesn't seem to be a problem for them. At the Ferry Building, there is a line on the ground that demarcates the Ferry Building's property from the sidewalk. A police officer kindly asked me to take a few steps so I would be on the sidewalk.
Q: How many minutes / hours did you settle on for a decent session?
A: 2-3 hours. If it's too short, I feel like it's a waste of time and overhead. I'm just getting warmed up after 1 hour. In three hours, I can repeat a piece 4-5 times, and each time it sounds better and more relaxed.
Q: Thoughts on solo busking vs group? Which is better?
A: Playing with others is easier and generates more donations. But that takes planning, and with each additional musician, the probability that the ensemble is available at a given time decreases. And you also have to have something to play which takes rehearsal. And of course, you need colleagues who are keen on busking, and not everyone is. But I'm fortunate to have great friends with whom I've done this several times now, so it's become more routine for all of us.
Playing solo is tougher. But it is worth knowing exactly how well you can play a difficult solo piece in front of others.