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My Experience Busking in San Francisco (stevetjoa.com)
126 points by stevetjoa on June 18, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

From the article:

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".

I don't know about San Francisco specifically, but in some cities police forces use this sort of instruction to identify people who need medical assistance: If you're able to respond to the police, you're probably fine, but if you just lay there then you're probably incapacitated by alcohol, drugs, or some other medical condition.

In NYC (and I think San Francisco) it's illegal to sleep on the sidewalks. NYPD enforces this pretty consistently, SFPD on the other hand I'm pretty sure they just do it to make sure the person isn't dead.

Years ago, there was a man who would stand on Market St. wearing a suit and just kind of dance back and forth singing "Gotta keep smiling". It wasn't a song as such, just a refrain that he would roll around over and over, and he would shuffle and sing and point at passersby and smile, encouraging them to smile.

One day my dad stopped and asked him, "You seem sane and well-educated, why do you do this?" (I'm paraphrasing here.) The man told him, "Sir, I make a hundred dollars a day, tax-free."

(My dad saluted him and walked on.)

Plus it beats working your ass off in most professions...

Especially given that post-tax you would be making only a little bit more as an entry level software engineer.

I doubt that very much. $100/day post-tax = $36500, pre-tax is't about $42000. If you're making anywhere close to $42000/year as an entry level software engineer in SF, you're doing it wrong. Even entry level folks should be able to start at double that.

And that's with no vacations and no slow days.

Commenter therein did not specify the locale of the entry-level software engineer. Busking is much, much more reliant on locale than programming.

I was keeping it in the same context. The buskin therein was in SF, so I made a comparison with a software engineer salary in SF. If the busking was in Alabama, I'd expect the busking revenue to be quite different, and so would a comparable engineer's salary in that locale.

Here is a video of Joshua Bell (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Bell) playing a 3.5 million dollar violin in the subway for 45 minutes and making $32:


Well, obviously it doesn't matter how expensive your violin is, or how good you are at your music genre -- it's about how popular the genre/tune is, and when busking, how likable you are (plus, putting on a good entertaining show, with emphasis on the "show" part, e.g. not subtle classical skills).

A good example of the value of marketing, I believe.

And location.

Yeah. He would have faired better in some Vienna subway station around Christmas time...

When I was a kid (early 90s) learning to play the violin those Strads cost under a million.

Since then their price has rocketed just like every other tangible which has become a hotly contested investment asset.

It's sad because it makes these things less and less likely to get played and more likely to end up in a vault.

Good to see at least a handful of them in use out there.

There's a list of all known Stradivarius instruments on Wikipedia and it's actually nice to see that quite a good number of them are made available to musicians via loan programs or specific bequests:


Stringed musical instruments also typically increase in value as they are routinely played. A trained musician, as I understand it, can readily identify an instrument that has lain idle.

The earnings surprised me. I know a decent software engineer whose effective hourly rate is embarrassingly close to the lower limit of Steve’s reported $15–50 range. On the other hand, that’s busking in SF.

Steve here. Thanks for reading! Those earnings are certainly not sustainable over eight hours in a day, nor over every day of the week. But they are attainable in strategically timed bursts. Some earnings are also skewed by a very few who donate $20.

Thank you for sharing your experience!

Doubly interesting to me since I’m thinking of performing as well.

The kind of performance I’m considering, though, would be of a more obscure style and requiring some electronic gear (worth $xxxx), so I’d probably go for a collaboration with a friend at least to have a sense of safety.

Regarding eight hours a day, as a software engineer most days I personally pull off about 5 hours of actual focus tops, though maybe that’s just me.

I think that's a great idea. Electronic aids, despite the overhead, have a higher ceiling than a feeble acoustic violin. It can be more unique, more exotic, and more easily heard.

My focus on software is also 0-5 hours a day, and those hours are only before noon and after 10 pm.

I usually give a dollar or two to performers, especially if they look homeless, unless they are horribly out of tune, in which case sometimes I still tell them the useless advice to get in tune and give them a dollar.

Back in the late 80s, my brother (baroque cello), a friend and I (Baroque Violins) started busking in Harvard Square for fun.

One of our favourites was the Mozart Organ Sonatas. We generally made enough money to buy beers at the end of the evening.

I guess my biggest memory was the time we started playing in front of Au Bon Pain when we just started out. I thought we were doing OK until some guy, with a grim fierce smile, took out a fistful of pennies and chucked them, one at a time, into the violin case. Apparently we had taken over the spot where a much-loved group regularly played. He made it more than obvious that we were not welcome there. We had no idea there was politics involved!

We moved on quickly, with our tails between our legs.

One of the nicest things we got was a sketch by a local artist. It's still got pride of place in my violin case.

I used to busk, playing guitar and singing in Bradford (UK) city centre in the early 1990s. I wasn't very good, but it was funny. £30 on a good day? Not bad for a couple of hours.

I busked in Covent Garden in the middle of the summer for about an hour and made something like £100. That's literally my only experience though so it's probably an anomaly.

What instrument and music?

Bassoon and Miami Bass style hip hop.

I encounter too many buskers to feel like paying on a regular basis, but I'd have dropped some cash in your case if you were even remotely able to pull this off!

I wonder if those impeccably dressed Jehova's Witnesses in SF subway stations collect data on their pamphleteering/conversion efforts

They use pamphlet a/b testing as a service for continuous improvement of user acquisition

I used to busk with a friend on NYC subways. We each made $100 a day for 6 hours of singing consistently.

That seems incredibly low, was it a while ago? Considering how much money I see people connect sitting silently with a cardboard sign, I would think performing in NYC would net a lot more.

Its actually a lot more than most random beggars make - and at $17 an hour, more than many New Yorkers.

How much did your singing improve?

Lots. Got a lot more range.

Just sent a week in SF staying on Union Square loving the trumpeter who played every night. Amazing tone, clearly a professional.

Some years ago I was in Boston. Walking through a park somewhere near the Boston Park Plaza hotel, or Legal Seafoods, on a sunny afternoon, I saw a large man with a bald head, playing a trumpet, surrounded by a few admiring kids, listening. Reminded me of the Wizard of Oz or some such fairy tale. I also listened to him play for a while before getting back to my meeting.

Steve here. That guy is great! Perfect idea for a trumpet. He's always standing on a bench/podium in the northwest corner of Union Square. His sound really projects; you can hear him from inside the 2-Muni bus that rides on Post.

> And I fully understand the picture of inequity created when someone donates to a musician while homeless people are on the ground yards away.

"Inequity"? Yea, right. I sure feel inequitably about those who make our public spaces more vs less pleasant.

My son would play his bagpipes at Penguin and Pirates games. The people of Pittsburgh are quite generous. Perhaps partly because of their Scottish heritage--there's even an endowed chair of Highland piping at CMU.

Steve - how do you feel about people taking photos or video of you?

I welcome it. I enjoy the challenge of staying focused when I notice out of the corner of my eye a crowd forming or people filming.

Sometimes I cope by playing with my eyes closed. Violinists have options where to position their eyes: on their bow, on their fingers (rare, but helpful sometimes in practice), out into space, or closed. For example, James Ehnes and Hilary Hahn look at their bows, but Itzhak Perlman and many others play with their eyes closed. I focus on the bow, but when someone is taking a video, I might close my eyes to remove the distractions.

I find it saddening that so few people care for culture that he and his peers have even had to consider busking, instead of playing formally at a concert.

I don't understand why you think that even in a place where lots of people care about culture one can simply decide to play at a concert whenever they want, especially if they are still students. And he specifically says he's busking as an alternative to practicing at home, not as an alternative to playing at a concert.

In my limited experience, places where there is more interest in erudite music also have more people busking, not less, since there are more players overall.

Steve here. Indeed, I already play at least four orchestra concerts per year and a number of chamber performances. Busking provides a performance opportunity of a different sort by playing solo music which is more exposed and musically dense.

And yes, you're also correct that for some instruments, concerts are not easy to come by. Our orchestra has a wait list of 70 flutes! Our #1 organizational challenge is figuring out how to provide more performance opportunities to more people in a financially sustainable way.

(Incidentally, I have seen one solo flautist busking in Powell Station. He was a high school student.)

Since I can't give some coins as I live in another timezone - if you have Paypal I will donate a few bucks.


We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11929625 and marked it off-topic.

Doesn't seem off-topic to me.

It was pretty obviously designed to be provocative (i.e. trolling), which is close enough.

There are numerous subway stops in NYC where the noise is so loud that a death metal band would be an improvement.

Some people say, 'this subway is so noisy it's a problem; I know, I'll drown it out with death metal bands!' Now they have two problems.

Music is not "noise pollution". Especially in a city like NYC.

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