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Busking, money, and "the scene"

Discussion in 'Bluegrass [DB]' started by Remyd, May 18, 2016.

  1. Remyd


    Apr 2, 2014
    St. Louis, MO
    My #1 band right now is an acoustic group - a little string band (banjolele, guitar, percussion, DB). It's mostly original roots-y tunes with some goofy retooling of bluegrass standards and a Decemberists cover - on the eclectic side for this instrumentation. Group now has its first couple sets and on-stage act together judging by the half-dozen folks that were dancing in our second venue's (usually very not-dancing) 20-25 audience.

    We've played actual venues twice in the last couple of weeks. We met a couple of people and made a couple of contacts, but nothing that was directly gig related. We'd hoped to meet some people from "the scene" but there wasn't anyone at either of these, despite one of the venues' history as a good place for Americana. The club owner took my card though. ;-) It was depressing, and my bandmates don't have much in the way of income, so they were a little bummed.

    Last weekend, we busked (our 30 song, 3 hour book) from 10p-2a in an area with 4 fairly busy bars within a block. Made $135 and the folks complained that it was a slow night. This weekend, there's a good spot scouted that will work for the lunch, dinner, and night-out crowd. They tell me that we should double the amount we made last weekend with a couple or three two hour sets, but I find that hard to believe.

    Originals = $40
    Busking = $135-200

    I'm having trouble getting enthused about going on our local club/venue circuit (we have a fairly good local music culture) if there's no money. Festival season is upon us and there are more specialized venues and the demo is getting tracked in a couple of weeks and there are many other various upcoming possibilities, but still...

    I already asked some locals, but I'm interested to get TB's take on this. How do acoustic groups survive with these kind of market conditions?
    Last edited: May 19, 2016
  2. Day jobs.

    That said, in my limited experience I've found:
    Weddings pay the best, but require more work and organization.
    Festivals of anykind are next (my favorite)
    then Bars - the loud, drunk, late night kind

    and in dead last ...
    anything that resembles a scene. folk nights, cafes ... But I am not really there for the money anyway.
    Jeff Elkins likes this.
  3. Jeff Elkins

    Jeff Elkins Supporting Member

    Sep 13, 2007
    East Tennessee
    In my region the answer is "barely." Or they don't.

    My experience is limited to bluegrass, but I've been exposed to a lot of old-time as well. What *I* think:

    1. Patience. And a sustaining/outside income of some kind.

    2. Know your audience. Cold. If someone stopped you in the grocery store, you should be able to define and identify the crowd that would enjoy your music. Club owners want to know what your draw is... but more importantly, YOU need to know this. Who's Liking your Facebook page? Where do they congregate? What do they wear, eat, drink, care about? What do they spend on entertainment?

    3. Play for your people. Find them and be where they are. See #1 & #2.

    4. Merch. Bands that make a go of it in East Tennessee and West North Carolina have a CD. Or two. And knick-knacks--branded bottle openers, original artwork (hand painted CD covers?), something. For starters.

    5. Perform incessantly. The one hugely successful band I know in the Americana genre played every single gig they could for three years, even if it didn't cover gas money. They built a regional following, then when gas money started getting covered, they quit their day jobs and built a national following. They were able to slowly raise their rates from nothing to $200/member over that span. And now they have a video on CMT, and have relocated to Nashville...

    5a. Make connections. Radio DJs and Local/cable TV in your area are always looking for guests. Be nice to them and it'll come back. Not to say you won't get taken advantage of--free gigs w/promise of paid work down the road that never materializes, for example. Happens a lot. Or you'll be yelled at by folks that say you shouldn't give it away, undercutting yourself and others...

    Regarding 5a: each member can also do this individually. Often a connection made by the lead singer, say, gets a foot in the door for the rest. We played an event for our guitarists' church that led to referrals to 3 other churches for pay. We did a July 4 party for one guy's neighbor that scored a wedding gig. I played some fill-ins subbing for a friend that got us on a few double-bills with that group.

    Be good and be sincere.

    Doesn't hurt if you're also cute; one reason we stayed regional!

    YMMV, of course.
    Stuart.C likes this.
  4. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    The only scene is the one you make. When the venues aren't paying (and generally they're not), I advocate creating and producing your own events. This requires applying the promotional skill set as well as solid performing skills, and very often involves investment and partnering with vendors, nonprofits or other musicians and renting a space, but it's not beyond the reach of anyone who has half a business head and the temerity to ask.
  5. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    Acoustic roots-y string band Americana-style music with eclectic song choices exists in a world outside the law of supply and demand.

    There is only supply.

    I say unto you: Day Gigs!
    YosemiteSam, Remyd and misterbadger like this.
  6. sevenyearsdown

    sevenyearsdown Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    Sanborn, NY
    I have a ton of experience with this topic, but I'll try to keep this short. My comments here relate only to playing originals.

    First, if you are an original band (acoustic or otherwise) - you better have good songs and be a well oiled machine live. Lets face it - 90% of original acts are derivative, hacks, or break up before they get good enough to be....good. Writing good songs is hard, and arranging them with 3 or 4 other people is even tougher. Write as much as you can, because like any other musical skill it requires practice to get good at. BTW I'm not suggesting your band isn't good.

    Next, do you have professional representation? I don't mean a manager. I mean do you have a professional recording to hand out? Do you have a press kit? Is there a band aesthetic? If you don't look like a professional band, then all the musicianship in the world wont get you into better venues. Terrible bands get good gigs all of the time because they can present themselves well to booking contacts.

    Are you networking with other good bands that play in the same style? Get out to the clubs that you want to play, and meet the musicians that you will need support from. My best contacts still come from getting out there and supporting other bands. It takes effort to go to a club, pay a cover, and take in a show. People tend to over look this in our social media connected scenes these days, but musicians will always appreciate seeing people in the club - especially other musicians.

    Lastly, don't expect to make any money playing original music for a long time. It's a grind. Not many of us live in cities where there is great music happening on every corner 24 hours a day. Those places are few and far between.

    Save up your busking money and go make a record.
    Seth Miller and neddyrow like this.
  7. neddyrow

    neddyrow Captain of Team Orange Jacket Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2011
    Cortland, NY
    like what others have said: patience

    and you have to be good....and look the part.

    if you are going to do bluegrass, you have to dress nice, sound like a bluegrass band (hot rize, del mccoury), and play to the crowd - good banter is key.

    i think that this is the one genre of music where the original/covers part is of less importance. you have to play both. we have 2 albums of original music and still play lots of covers in a night. as long as your originals sound like bluegrass songs, that part isn't huge. that said, catchy originals are going to set you above the rest of the pack.

    the audience part is key too, as someone mentioned above. know your audience. our fans are adults and above or little kids and their parents. tough but the truth. it'd be nice to have millennials and youth to like the music but that was a short fad a few years ago thanks to wagon wheel and mumford. you are not going to be playing for a full house in a bar at midnight on a saturday for 20 year-olds in most towns. now you have to grind it out like the rest of us and hope that your shtick is better than the others around.

    since we have put in the time, we get a decent amount of gig offers. now we get to be a little more picky, especially since we all have jobs and families. we follow a filter: we have a minimum pay we accept, maximum travel distance, etc.
    as mentioned above, weddings and corporate gigs are the best followed by festivals and last bars. avoiding the scene comment was interesting to me. same goes here. the local bluegrass chapter just holds jams and bbqs. no real gig opportunities. plus the bands that do gig, play churches, coffee houses and libraries for little to no money. don't think joining the scene is going to give you a great boost - they are mostly hobbyists. you got to get a good album, social media presence, professional looking pics and videos plus a full press kit out there.

    good luck!
  8. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Get yourself a beautiful girl who plays the fiddle and sings well and the tip jar will triple.
  9. harleyman888


    Feb 11, 2014
    Or a 12 year old that can play. Bring my son with us at times. Tips triple.
    Jeff Elkins likes this.
  10. madbanjoman


    Feb 23, 2011
    In my area, we do pretty well with mostly corporate gigs. We aren't really bluegrass but are often booked for gigs where the client is looking for something like bluegrass / Americana. We do busk occasionally during the winter months when the weather is nice and we are light on regular paying gigs. Busking got us our best and most consistent corporate gig playing in front of a fish market every weekend spring through fall to entertain the potential customers. Here is a video of us playing at a local bluegrass festival. If you watch the video, you will see we are an unusual choice for the festival, but hey we never argue with the paying customer. When you busk, make sure you have business cards out for people to take and a sign with your name and contact info on it. We have booked a lot of gigs by playing in front the fish market. Most people think we are busking anyway. The gig in the video was developed from someone taking our card on the street.
  11. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    My group isn't too far off. Acoustic guitar, violin, clarinet, vocals, and upright bass. We do mainly old timey tunes with a jazzy tinge and sometimes cross into americana territory. We do a few originals in the same vein, but don't market ourselves as an original group. We try to push a 20's esque appearance...vests and hats and dresses.

    We are getting some pretty good gigs for being a fairly new product and really not having a solid following outside of family/friends/acquaintances. Plus our style is in no way mainstream...very niche. I think this works to our advantage for certain types of events. We don't get gigs because of our draw, we get them because we play fairly neutral music well, have a good look, and are family friendly(senior citizen friendly too).

    I attribute this to our band leader's networking skills and getting us into events that fit the group. He's gotten in with alot of organizers of recurring events. I think that is key, you need to get yourself in front of the people doing the booking and build a positive relationship. We get bar/cafe gigs, but those pay crap. The good gigs we get are event based, like festivals and community events and music series'. Sometimes parties too. To break down the events that paid over the $600 mark:

    Arts Festivals - done a couple of these and doing one in June. Pay well, usually don't play more than 2 sets(sometimes just 1) and sound is usually provided. Bluegrass groups tend to rule these things around here, in the Virginia country.

    Cultural Arts Center - has annual music series so we get an annual call. We provide the sound but the pay makes up for it. 2 sets.

    Themed Charity event(corporate sponsored) - played on our 20's theme as a prohibition era style party to raise money for charity. Played 2 sets, sound was provided, and pay was VERY good.

    Local NPR station - put on a Downton Abbey season premier viewing at a local theater. Whole evening was 20's themed and we play a short set on the stage before the show came on. I predict we may get more gigs involving local public radio in the future, where there is an old timey jazz theme.

    Birthday party - played a 100 year old birthday party. This was booked via contact made at cultural arts center. Took place at a local botanical garden in a rented space. 2 sets, we provided sound, nice pay.

    Outside of those types of things we do the usual bars and cafe's to fill in the gaps. We just find the ones that actually pay. Still end up with $50-75 in my pocket between pay and tips so i dont complain. So as you can see, the best paying stuff isn't(and may never be) the bars and even music venues. It's the events that rake it in, then you do the bars to supplement on that when you have nothing else to do. We do very well depending on the non-profit organization scene, so i recommend you start looking there.
  12. Holdsg

    Holdsg I should be practicing Gold Supporting Member

    Sep 10, 2009
    Alta Loma, CA
    Endorsing artist: Remic microphones
    Well done, Seanto, that's a great treatise on how to market yourself as a band.
    Seanto likes this.