Recently, to help pay the bills because the economic situation in my city of Philadelphia is so bad, I have taken to playing on the street. The experience has been enlightening, and for the most part positive.
Philadelphia is a 'blue collar' town, and not what one would call a 'cosmopolitan' type city. In fact, it can be quite mean. There is an appreciation of the arts here, but usually it comes with a high price, in terms of tickets and such. You have your Academy of Music, your Kimmel Center, and some other venues where it can be quite expensive to hear excellent music. Of course, whatever rock music that still comes to town is in the vein of a Bruce Springsteen, where tickets start at a ridiculous $100 a piece.
But Philadelphia has been a spawning ground for many great musicians, primary in th genre called Jazz. Also, many R & B and a handful of 'rock stars' hail from the city. So it does have a tradition.
Unfortunately, in the era of the Internet, with 'free downloads' of music, and the demise of stores where you can actually purchase PHYSICAL albums, CDs and discs, people do not want to pay money for music, unless it is a 'big name' like a Springsteen, or unless one is a subscriber to the Philadelphia Orchestra and the like. There are many, many problems for musicians who wish to work, maybe the biggest being the lack of booking agents, and the whole network that is connected with them. People now stay home for their entertainment with the 'Net', DVDs and the like.
But, neccesity is the mother of invention, so when other part time work opportunities fell through, I turned to the tried and true, my guitar.
Luckily, I have been in preparation for this for a number of years. I have been doing some solo work, at restaurants and bistros, and have developed a pleasing repetoire that is simply solo guitar. It is a bit tricky, since one has to play the melody, rythmn and harmony at the same time, and IN TIME. Pianists do this naturally, because of the nature of their instrument. Guitarist can do the same, but it takes more work, and a personalized approach.
Now, playing on the street, I approach it exactly as I do playing a club or concert. I have a prepared program of songs and pieces, which I organize according to my mood, and according to what vibes I feel from the people on the street. I play many 'cover tunes', meaning songs by other artists. I throw in Pop standards (Beatles, Mamas & Papas, Eagles) and Jazz (Adderly Brothers, Miles Davis, Coltrane) but I arrange them for solo guitar and blend in my personal style, which leans on Indian and Middle-eastern influences. When you hear me on the street, I try to present a 'class act', like you were in a good club.
The people seem to like it. The young and the older ones, because the music has a good SOUND, and is geared towar soothing the soul. Since I have worked with many rythmnic elements, I even get compliments from the 'hip-hop' crowd because of the 'funk'.
Now, the money you make is hard earned. An average wage for a street musician might be $5-10 an hour. $10 on a good day or night. I also sell CDs to augment the cash flow. It is possible to make, say, $60 for 6 hours work.
The problem is finding a good spot, with a reasonable amount of foot traffic, and hopefully, not too much 'white noise' from busses and traffic. In addition, there are harrasment problems: from security guards, store owners and even other street musicians. The Philadelphia Police are usually OK. They have bigger problems to deal with, and most are entertained by the sound.
Especially in downtown Philadelphia, there can be competition for 'prime spots' or corners here there is a lot of pedestrian traffic. So, you need to get to spot early, so you don't have to fend off street hustlers or other musicians.
This competition and running around can be taxing. I have a friend, a violinist, who has supported himself by street playing for years, but he is rather frazzled by the whole deal, and can get in 'black moods' when you encounter him on the street. It takes a certain mindset to play on the street constantly, and you have to be tough.
I have been trying to pick and varie my spots, and to be reasonable in my money hopes. Sometimes you can play for 3 hours and make $5. But, if you have patience, there will come an hour where you can make $25-30 or even more sometimes.
What I enjoy most is just the playing for people, and I usually get a great response in terms of appreciative words and reaction, if not in money terms. People will come out of stores and listen and applaud. I like to set up, on a nice day or evening, near an out door cafe or restaurant, where people are relaxing enjoying a meal or a drink. Then, I provide the musical backdrop. After they finish, many people come over and tip you, and sometimes buy a CD. And you can meet the nicest people this way, people who genuinally like what some beautiful music can bring to an othewise ordinary day, or to a concrete jungle.
I would say to all that, if you see a street musician, give him something in terms of money. I can sit in a spot and play for two hours. Maybe, on a busy day, 300-400 people will walk by. If each one tipped just 25 CENTS that would earn the musician around $100!. Amazing. But most people are way 'too busy' or cught up talking on their 'self phone' or whatnot. But, you must stop and smell the roses! This is what life is about.
I tip my hat to all street musicans and artists, the 'Evangelists' of beauty and humanity.