Busking in Cardiff!

Busking in Cardiff: How not to annoy people.

I’ve been busking regularly for four years in February and this week I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt over the years for those wanting to try it!

Check List:

For Perfect Busking you will need

  • Instrument/talent (kind of important)
  • Stool (if you plan on sitting down)
  • Amplification (If you are using it, in Cardiff you don’t need to but if you’re going to be competing with cars and traffic then it is recommended)
  • Box or ‘Hat’ (not a real ‘hat’, use an instrument case as it won’t blow away in strong winds)
  • Water (important)
  • Umbrella (because this is the UK and rain can sneak up on you)
  • Gloves and Warm Clothes in the winter
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat in summer!

Finding a Pitch

A ‘Pitch’ is a spot to busk… easy!

You want to look for somewhere quiet with the suitable amount of foot traffic to suit your style, if you are using a lot of amplification and are standing up and moving around a lot then choose somewhere with a lot of foot traffic, if you are taking it easy and not using amplification then pick a location with ample but calm foot traffic. In Cardiff, I choose to busk around the Hayes area as it is usually a lot quieter and the acoustic is nicer as well the demographic being different to Queen Street. On the main high street (Queen Street) there is a lot more foot traffic, because of all the ‘necessities’ shops, Primark, Banks, Boots etc, which means most people are going down the street for specific things and so it has a faster pace. Whereas, in the other streets, (Working Street, The Hayes, St Mary’s Street) there are more cafés and a less hurried attitude. There are also fewer Charity Muggers.

You should aim to match the style of street to your style of performance. If you’re a quiet instrument, don’t go down the main street because you won’t be heard and people won’t notice you. If you are a loud performer and you go down a very quiet street then you will be too overpowering and the general public will find it irritating. A lot of people have come up to me to tell me how nice it is that I’m not amplified. It’s Something to bear in mind!

Duration

The official ‘Buskers Code of Conduct’ states that you should perform for one hour then change spots. Buskers in Cardiff do not do this because half of us are very lazy and the other half don’t know this is the guideline. The accordion players sit and play random notes from 9am till 4pm in the same spot, which is doing no one any favours. The rest of us do what feels comfortable some do 1 hour some do 4 and change location after the first two hours. I tend to stick to 2 hours because that is what I’m comfortable with, I don’t have to repeat any material and I don’t get bored. Also if it’s a bad day it was ‘only two hours’ instead of having a bad day for 4 hours!

When deciding how long to play for use these simple phrases: ‘Am I bored yet?’ or ‘Could I do more?’. Some days I’m game for another hour; or a latte, new pitch and another hour, but most wintery days I get to 2 hours and can’t imagine struggling through another freezing set! Do how long you have good material for and feel comfortable doing.

The main factor that keeps me at the 2 hour mark is Repetitive Strain, Vocal health and general effects of cold temperatures on my health in general. I don’t perform more than feels comfortable because if I develop strain from not playing properly or in the freezing cold then my career is finished. If I strain my voice and exhaust myself then I can’t sing for while after and that effects my work and earnings. If I stay out in the cold temperatures for too long it can lead to arthritic joints when I’m older, Coughs and colds and other sniffles! Remember that you are going to be sat or stood still for a long period of time in wintery temperatures!

In Summer you can be more relaxed about timings but remember sunscreen! Don’t burn yourself!

Repetoire

have the pieces you like ready and if it’s your first time it’s ok to take music with you! you will probably panic and realise you have no music memorised!

For about a year I had a 1 hour playlist I would work through and then I would get to the end and do it all in reverse going back to the beginning of the list in the second hour!

The first time I ever went busking I got set up and realised I only knew about 3 songs from memory! So make sure you have an hour’s worth of material you really like doing and then pad it out with some pieces that you like but maybe are still working on, it’s good practice time!

The most important thing is that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do! You can do only the good bits!

Advertising and Business Opportunities

If you are going to busk a lot get business cards! They are very cheap on vistaprint! Especially if you are a classical musician or play a wedding/event appropriate instrument because you will get gigs from busking because you are performing for the public! People will book you on your ability because they can see you and your instrument right in front of them! Busking is basically advertising you get paid for!

If you’re going to do it regularly and want a sign so people can find you online etc. the most important thing is make sure it is weather resistant. Make your sign wind, rain and sun proof! so it doesn’t blow away or fall apart!

For Bookings it is easy to give people your card and wait for them to email you but if it’s a nice day and you have time try and finalise a booking in person, it simplifies the whole process for the person booking you and it means you just have to send follow up emails to confirm bookings and deposits and turns 10 emails into about 3!

Additional Factors

Other Buskers

Try not to annoy other buskers! Don’t stay in one spot for more than 4 hours, don’t occupy an entire street, make sure you are out of ear shot of the other busker and don’t set up right next to them. All of these things have happened to me.

Benches and Cafés are your friends

try and find a place where people can sit and listen to your music. easy! If it’s nice weather people will come and sit outside so they can hear you. Best way to get an audience is give them somewhere to sit.

Noise!

If you are busking on a Sunday, don’t play right next to a church while they are having a service. If you are busking near an office block don’t hang around too long or play the same song over and over again! very simple but make sure you are aware of your surroundings!

Charity Muggers

Charity muggers are usually on a Thursday in Cardiff and can effect your earnings by about 1/3 because people are going to be more concerned about being harassed in public by a stranger than listening to some nice music. It’s a real issue so make sure you address it when you find your pitch! I like to yell ‘Go Away no one likes you!’ Just kidding, I ask nicely because I’m a good person!

 

Most importantly be nice to other people and have fun! If you don’t want to be there you don’t have to!

Here’s some glamour shots of my busking harp!

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Fees: Why I’m NOT giving you a discount.

Before Starting this please refer to the Musicians Union’s Campaign ‘Work Not Play‘ It’s not as in details as I remember but you get the point!

This Week’s Video

 

Musicians are regularly asked to work for free or reduced rates, because people assume musicians are just charging what they can and not because it is the least they can charge to make sure they are still eating by the time your event comes along!

Everyone thinks musicians lives are basically this:

 

but in reality we are all very poor…

Especially harpists because harps are expensive, and then strings are also expensive and cars to get to gigs are expensive and having a house big enough to put your harp is… you guessed it… expensive!

But we all pretend like we’re all very wealthy because that is what you have to do as a self-employed musician.

This is getting too much like a buzzfeed article so I’m going to type in paragraphs now.

I can not give you a discount because if I do that then playing at your event is not worth the time it took to get there. Let me explain this in a work thing. If it costs you £25 to get to the office and you are only paid £6 an hour and your boss says ‘We only need you for 4 hours today’ you have lost £1 getting there. So you may have well stayed home and been £25 richer!

This is an exaggeration I know, but it’s the way it looks for musicians. If I am playing at a wedding for half a day, and have to take time off my residency and they want me to work for less than I would earn at my regular gig it is not worth the fuel to get to the gig in the first place.

When you work out what you charge, you look at how much everything is:

  • Rent
  • Bills
  • Council Tax
  • Tax TAX!
  • Car, MOT, Insurance
  • Instrument Insurance!
  • Food and expenses
  • lessons with teachers
  • new strings/equipment

Then you look at how much you can afford to charge in order to keep all that and there is your total. So when I say I charge X amount for an event it is because that is the most reasonable amount I can charge without hitting the poverty line or making a loss for the year. Most young musicians just starting out will be in quite low income brackets unless supported by their parents or a full/part-time job. That’s the reality of it, asking someone on £10,000-£16,000 a year to work for less is the equivalent of asking your maid to come in on the weekends pro-bono just to ‘tidy up a bit’. It’s not fun.

Here is some tips to talking to musicians about money:

  1. Ask if you can pay in instalments! (I do 50/50 split between deposits for events because it lightens the load)
  2. Change your event to be in the middle of the day Monday-Thursday. (Musicians basically work weekends, unless they teach during the week. I do not, I do discounted prices Monday-Thursday)
  3. say things like ‘What would suit you?’ for payment, they may have a system.
  4. Pay promptly and as close to the event as possible. Rent waits for no man!
  5. Say things like ‘Really?! How affordable’ and ‘You are such Good value’ because it shows that you appreciate the musicians work, talent and time!

And that’s it. so, to review:

Be nice to your musician they are probably a lot poorer than you and never ask for a discount. Got it? Good, learn it!

 

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Amateur vs unpaid professional gigs

how to tell the difference!

This is another one for those young musicians out there, sorry everyone else! I’m just kidding no one reads this, I can say whatever I like, I won’t but it’s nice to know I have the option to if I wanted.

So This week I thought I would discuss the difference between an Amateur gig and an unpaid professional gig, because they are sometimes identical and sometimes a bit of a trap and a waste of time!

http://cardiffweddingharpist.com/media/ (for more music)
There are four main contributing factors I take into account they are; Venue, other musicians taking part, Event, and Media Coverage.

Venue

Is it a concert setting or is it a bar or pub? If it’s a concert setting it is more likely that you will be appreciated for your work, time and effort. It doesn’t need to be in a concert hall, church or musical venue as long as you are given a quiet and respectful environment in order to perform.

Over the Christmas break I performed at ‘The Immigration removal centre’ in Heathrow, it was to an audience of 60 men who were all stuck in a high security prison until being set back to the country they had come from or (the very lucky ones) being allowed into the UK legally. It was in a Gymnasium and had the acoustics of being underwater, I was performing with other young professionals and half way through the evening the event coordinator turned to me and said ‘Sam, can you do “Oh, Holy Night” now’. I got my harp and sat in the middle of this circle of rowdy men and managed to quiet the entire room, one of the men whispered to my friend ‘Is she a professional?!’. This performance was in an unorthodox venue but had a concert setting, which is what my style of music requires. It was also very uplifting to people who needed it most.

Being a bad ass… As per.

A post shared by Sam Hickman. Singing Harpist (@samhickmanmusic) on

The polar opposite of this is an ‘open mic’ at a pub, unless you are going for the fun of it and you were going to be in the pub anyway so you might as well get up and do a number it is not worth going out of your way to work for free. A lot of open mic nights have the feeling of background music and if you’re providing background music you might as well be getting paid for it.

Standard level of awesome

A post shared by Sam Hickman. Singing Harpist (@samhickmanmusic) on

 

Other Musicians Involved 

When I performed at the ‘Immigration Removal Centre’ (that’s actually what they are called, isn’t it horrible!) it was along side peers and other musicians who were training and performed regularly. If the musicians are at your level then you should be their. If you are doing concerts with other trained musicians then it is indicative of the caliber of the performance. If you are the only trained musician at an event with amateur musicians then it might not be worth it.

I say this because, if other professionals are giving up their time to do this gig it means that it has some value or reputation behind it that your peers would be willing to do it for free.


If you are there with your oboe or your four years of training in classical guitar and you’re in a line up with singer/songwriters then it’s safe to say you will be ranked the same and feel rubbish when you’re piece that has taken two weeks to learn from memory is given the same amount of credit as someone poorly playing four chords and doing their best sprechstimme over the top.

Event

Charity or Commercial? That’s the main questions. If it’s a Charity fundraiser and they aren’t paying any of the other musicians then it’s fine. If it’s just a commercial performance and they aren’t paying musicians, and they don’t have a good enough reason, don’t do it. you will not be valued for your time! ’nuff said.

Media Coverage

Is it a big thing with lots of ‘exposure’? ‘Exposure’ is the worst term horrible people use to extort musicians but if you’re tossing up whether something is professional or amateur, if it has a good media presence and if you’re going to gain an audience from that! Often when I do unpaid gigs the exposure and advertising is at a standard that it lands be paid work because of it.

Deciding to do it, the check list:

once you’ve gone over these four factors you then have to work out the gig’s value over it’s worth. Does the gig have personal significance? is it a charity or cause you support? will it help build your audience and reputation, will you fit the program or will you be the only musician of your style there? Is it the right setting for your music?

Then you work out the events worth, can you financially afford to do it? For example, I only do free events if I have no other bookings over lapping it, If I am completely free then I will do an event for free because otherwise I would just be sat at home. However, I live in a city where I can walk to a lot of venues and if I’m doing an event I can just walk to the event for a sound check, perform my set and be home in 20-25 minutes. However, if it an event were I have to drive, wait around for other musicians and then hang around all evening for the gig to end I often feel like I’ve waisted a lot of time. When you do professional concerts your not paid for the performance, you’re paid for all the work to get to the performance and then the performance itself. What you’re being paid for is the hours it’s taken you to become a good musician, the food you’ve eaten, the house you live in, the car that takes you to your events and lessons, the lessons with more accomplished musicians, and all the hours practicing the specific pieces played on the evening.

The Musicians Union Campaign on this.

So, You’ve worked out that the venue is somewhere nice that you could fit in, you know or have researched the other performers and they are of your standard or peers, you care about the charity or event personally and it has good enough ‘exposure’ to secure you paid work following a good performance. And after all this you’ve worked out that it is worth your time and effort to do it. Go and Do it! It’s an unpaid professional engagement.

 

Working for Free is often just a straight up ‘NO’ from most working musicians, but I think there are some exceptions that work out being fun and beneficial.

Fees however, that is a different story. Next Week, ‘Fees: Why I’m not “Giving you A Discount”.

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Basic Guide To Residencies

Like most actors in Hollywood, I have no idea how I became successful but I’m going to give you advice on it.

Harpy Friday, Here’s something to get you in the mood to read this today:

 

Settle down, settle down class.

Right, Let’s start from the begging.

What’s a Residency?

Well, a ‘Residency’ is when you have a gig that repeats and keeps repeating on a weekly or monthly basis or all one big cluster. you could have a 3-6 month residency on a cruise ship for example. It’s pretty great! there are many perks, Someone parks my car sometimes!

The Residency is idea for pianist and harpist who are their own accompaniment. Finally, that crippling loneliness lands you a killer gig! I mainly have my residency at the Hilton because they can’t fit their baby grand piano into the restaurant, win for Sammie!

http://cardiffweddingharpist.com/media/

How do I get one? 

well, like most actors in hollywood, I have no idea how I became remotely successful but I’m going to give you advice so you can also attempt this!

I’d like to say I got my residency through hard work and being the best harpist in Cardiff, which is probably not true, there are some pretty famous harpist here. I got my residency through busking… yep, good old fashioned sitting on the street, singing Bette Midler classics!

I was playing ‘The Rose’ and the lounge manager for the Hilton gave me his card and I drop them an email on the way home.

I went in for a trial session and then about two month later they booked me full-time.

So, ‘How do I get a residency’? be lucky. sorry. Be lucky, go ask places you could see yourself playing, you’ll find it pays to be bold! ask local businesses and make sure you don’t go crazy with the prices and let them know your taster sessions are free! (that’s the main fear, that even if they don’t like you they may have to pay you).

You’ve Gotten your residency, now what?

well done my friend! First thing’s first, make sure you state your demands early on, you want amount of money, a latte waiting for you each session and full access to the spa and gym. This is where I messed up, when I got my residency I was so scared of annoying members of staff and getting kicked out that I didn’t push the limit at the beginning. I didn’t make outrageous diva demands, which is what you’re SUPPOSED TO DO!!! I didn’t even ask for a coffee or if I could use the piano stool from the lobby… I was there for 6 months until I realised I didn’t have to bring my own stool in from home! I also didn’t get some fancy drink ordered every time and now have to wait at the bar for tap water like a chump! So remember:

  • Make crazy demands
  • Don’t annoy the staff
  • Ask annoying questions about stuff.

Getting paid.

The saga I have to explain to all of my friends when I talk about my work is that the hilton didn’t pay me for almost 4 months after I started working there! crazy I know!

It takes big hotels ages to pay their musicians, this is just something you have to deal with, the Hilton, Celtic Manor and I’m sure any other hotel with a harpist have a terribly tricky time doing it all. So my harpy friend, Just wait it out! but do follow up and be pushy about it because otherwise they won’t actually pay you…

Know that you don’t know your audience!

When you’re playing a concert you’ve got a program, the people who like what you are playing have come to hear you play, or how like your instrument etc. With background music, you are not the reason people came. you are simply a delightful addition to the experience!

So, try new things, vary it as much as possible! when I do my stuff I start with Jazz and meander through musical theatre, some folk and whatever else takes my fancy on the way. as long as you’re good at your job you’ll be fine!

Just keep it interesting and remember that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to because most of the time no one cares what you play! just play it well!

 

Practical check list

  • Talent? (are you good at it? great!)
  • Luck (They aren’t going to find you magically)
  • Gumption! go ask people for things!
  • A good repertoire (I just use lead sheet and improvise chords with my left hand)
  • Outrageous demands, Mini-bar in the shower? but of course!
  • Killer wardrobe. I’m kidding I’ve wore the same dress to work for the last 3 weeks and no one’s noticed!

 

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