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How NYC's subway buskers are faring (hopesandfears.com)
40 points by mikeisag on Oct 1, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments



I busk solo violin in San Francisco's Powell Station -- 45 times since January 4, 2014. I last played on September 20 and made $51.02 per hour. My friends have encouraged me to write about my experiences onto Hacker News, but I never have.

You learn a lot about people and crowd dynamics. Donations come in clusters; if a person sees someone else donate, he/she is more likely to. In an attempt to teach empathy, mothers often give cash to their three-year old kid to put in the violin case. The few who drop a $10 or $20 are often over 40 years old.

Twice I've had money stolen, both by dudes in their late teens or early twenties.

Sound definitely matters; you can't just "look good". Busking at the Ferry Building was a bad idea; no one can hear you. I'll never do that again.

High-density foot traffic is not always a good thing. In the evening rush hour, there are so many people obstructing view and making noise 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.

Sometimes the "great works" make poor busking choices. The Bach Chaconne is a great example.

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.

Is it 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.

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. Once you're comfortable, try again next week at 2 pm.


Would it be worth it to pay a someone to appear to donate every time a crowd walks by?

I love seeing live performers although it depends on the situation. In Paris the hallways are too small and the buskers are basically blocking the already crowded hallways. In NYC the ones that actually come on the trains and then go around with a hat make me feel uncomfortable although any performer who's really good I appreciate.

I'd also be curious how those numbers change in countries with larger coins. I assume it's easier to give coins? No worries about bills being blown away. Coins "feel" more disposable? There are €2 coins in Europe. There are 500yen coins in Japan (about $5) where as there are only basically 25 cent coins in the USA (yea 50 cent and $1 coins exist but are not common)


Hmm, interesting. Perhaps it is not worth it to "hire" a spectator to donate, but I think simply a spectator to stand around like an audience member can be more effective. That's another thing that often clusters; people who stop and listen. At really odd times, I'll look around and all of a sudden notice five people who stopped to listen.

Yeah, positioning is key. I do not disrupt traffic flow at all; for those who know Powell, I stand at the end of the long hallway on the 4th street side. That gets me a captive audience for about 30 yards. They have no choice but to listen to me on their way to the BART/Muni gates. Acoustics are good too.

Indoors, there is little chance of bills being blown away, but otherwise, I agree with you about coins. $1 coins are actually not that uncommon.


Anecdote: For the summer between high school and college, I made am average of $17 per hour busking on the subway (an average of 24 hours a week)


I always wonder about how these people will keep getting money as commerce goes increasingly cashless.

I never carry cash so whenever a beggar asks, I say as much. One guy I encountered recently, jokingly said "I take credit cards too!" If he actually did, he would probably clean up.


I've seen a live performer in Stockholm, Sweden (where I live and I haven't had cash in my wallet for a few years, although I guess most people have some "just in case") accepting Swish [1], the instant mobile cash transfer solution (no fees).

I believe it is more about cash being more physical and thereby more immediately noticeable to the perfomer who can give the donator acknowledgement that is the major issue, not the technical transfer aspect.

I guess next step is to have performers carry a small LCD screen and an Arduino to instantly acknowledge received transfers to make it more "physical". (Wooah..! YC, here I come! (jk)).

[1] https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swish_(mobilapplikation) (Swedish)


I've always thought it'd be cool for a bitcoin ATM to be able to laser sinter bitcoins out of steel or titanium on the fly, with the wallet info etched into the coin as a QR code.


NYC is still very much a cash-based economy. Most people have cash, most of the time.


Really? Are there shops that don't take cards? I can't remember the last time I saw a shop in Atlanta that was cash only. Even tiny convenience stores in the really bad parts of town take cards.


Yes. Most shops outside of chain stores prefer cash. Especially bodegas.


Oh hell yes. Especially in Brooklyn... I'm from Texas and also noticed the difference, but you get used to it/pay a lot in ATM fees.


> pay a lot in ATM fees

If you use ATMs with any frequency, you need to get a free checking account and debit card with a bank* that will refund your ATM fees each month. Once you have one, the higher the ATM fee, the better you feel.

(*I use Schwab, particularly because it refunds ATM fees internationally. In general, just about any online bank -- e.g., Ally -- will also refund fees at least domestically. Many credit unions probably do this as well.)


The other recent negative is that 5-10 years ago, NYC buskers used to make 80% of their money selling CDs... people will pay $10-$15 for a CD, when they'll only give a dollar or two for a live performance. Oops.

(source: several friends who busked a lot)


I think it'd be pretty rad to see a busker selling iTunes download codes.


There's gotta be a busker with a square reader somewhere...

Also, there are a lot of places in NYC where they still take cash only, especially bodegas and dive bars.


I think this is what you are looking for - https://www.dipjar.com


When I busked, donations always came from 40+ year olds anyway, very rarely from young men in professional clothes.


Just for fun, one night I sat next to a street performer in Japan on his performance from the start at 10pm to end at around 3am. Total take was 2500jpy ($25), which was 100 jpy from 5 different people + 1000 each from two generous gentlemen.

He said the highest donation ever was 30000 jpy from a very drunken salaryman.


was this in Tokyo? It's true I don't see the performers earning much, but wasn't expecting 500 yen an hour

I guess most of these people have day jobs


Jeff, the multi-instrument guy in the Times Square station who briefly shows up in the article's picture section, needs to be thoroughly documented by some kind of historical-record-preserving outfit. Now that James Brown is dead, Jeff is probably the hardest working individual currently working in show business. He's always hustling.


Isn't it generally thought that albums are just marketing for live performances, and concerts are where all but the biggest artists make all their money anyway? Since busking is live performance...


Live shows are typically more lucrative for artists than recordings anyway...


I've seen dozens of articles with similar headlines. I don't think anyone should be concerned with how much Spotify pays, for 2 reasons:

1. The people who made the music sold the rights to the music to the people who own the music, who then licensed the music to Spotify for an agreed-upon amount. Everyone agreed, presumably because this deal was beneficial for every party involved, which it most likely is otherwise Spotify wouldn't have been able to obtain licenses to almost every artist's music.

2. There will never be a shortage of art in this world, whether it's compensated monetarily or not. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I don't see a big need for artists to be compensated. If they stopped being compensated, we'd just be left with a few million artists of every medium producing art for free because that's what most artists do, whether it pays or not. If they weren't compensated, there would be less mass-market art, but since the quality of art is both subjective and relative, we'd probably all be just as satisfied with it.

If you stop compensating most professions, their output drops to zero. If you stop compensating artists, they just keep producing art. One could argue that we'd get even better art if we stopped compensating artists. We'd be left with nothing but the passionate ones.


I can't believe you can say this seriously. Have you not played an instrument or drawn before? Art is in many ways relatively, but objectively, quantitatively more people enjoy listening to Mozart than Cage's 4'33", and more people enjoy Picasso than a 5 year old's finger painting.

Those art things require training just like any other profession.


I don't think GP's argument hinges on art enjoyment being 100% relative. Whatever kind of art you happen to enjoy, be it Mozart's string quartets or Cage's 4'33'', someone out there is making exactly that kind of art for free. The difference in quality is tiny compared to the difference in popularity.

Yes, making good art requires training, but so what? These people are willing to get training, create art, and give it to you for free. You might say that it's immoral to take stuff from them for free, but that's what already happens. The overwhelming majority of artists lose money, rather than make money. If you removed artist compensation completely, fewer people would go into art hoping for the pie-in-the-sky chance of success. The overall societal loss in terms of smashed hopes etc. would become smaller. And the quality of art you consume might become higher, because you'd lose the cookie cutter commercial crap. That's how the argument goes.


Passion is nice, but skill is at least as important.

You get vastly more skilled working full time than at side projects on your spare time.

You also produce much more art at whatever your quality level is working full time.

Subjectively, I agree we'd still have favorite artist and enjoy their work if quality was cut 80% across the board.


Silly comparison -- linkbait headline. It doesn't even delve into Spotify economics, nor particularly the passive aspect of streaming income that starkly distinguishes it from busking.


Ok, we changed the title to an abridged version of the subtitle.


All income from content creation could be seen as passive, but there's an initial amount of work that is much more difficult with little chance of success.


Except busking (indeed any performance) carries an active component. There's opportunity cost with busking - not so with Spotify.


The article doesn't even attempt to answer this question.


Probably OK since the question doesn't really make any sense.




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