Chapter 71: How to Succeed at Busking by Not Really Trying

('Robot Joe' by Simon Abrams)
(‘Robot Joe’ by Simon Abrams)


Dear Diary,

So, all eyes and ears in recent weeks have been on the BBC’s 2014 John Peel Memorial Lecture, given by none other than Iggy Pop.



The title was ‘Free Music in a Capitalist Society’.  And if you can wade through all the initial BBC Music backslapping and trumpet-blowing and fairy dust… well, then you’re a better soul than me, to be frank, because I just skipped it all.

In fact, that was one of the things that first struck me as curious about the whole thing.  That “Hey, check me out, I’m hanging with a Rock God!” attitude directed at a guy saying that if he relied on purely recording sales for income he’d have to tend bars in between sets.  It really does feel like the twilight of the gods, somehow.

But anyway, a very interesting talk for anyone trying to make a living (or in my case half of one) in the music business.

And I still love the old stringy dude, really.  Even if I wasn’t agreeing with every word I felt I was agreeing with the sentiment.


So that talk was in the back of my mind when Hannah and I were going for lunch in town yesterday.  A glorious sunny day, and everywhere packed.  Outside our usual luncheon of choice there is a busking spot, and on this occasion there was a guy in a baseball cap, maybe late 20s or early 30s, playing two-handed tapping on an acoustic guitar.  And he was really really fucking good.  He had a good size crowd around him — and we go past there really regularly for lunch so we see a lot of the buskers, and most of them are just playing to an empty space that people are constantly walking through.  This guy didn’t look up for a moment, so I never actually saw his face.  But his playing was fast, precise, intricate.  And more than that, really melodic.

And as we walked on past it got me thinking: I really should get myself busking again.  I haven’t done any in years, and recently did a little on the seafront at Sidmouth Folk Festival and remembered just how hard it is.  By the end I got a bit of a crowd, but really only because half of Threepenny Bit came along and jammed with me.  Numbers definitely make a difference.  Being just a guy with a guitar makes it really really hard to get noticed.  All the more reason why yesterday’s busker was so impressive.

But then we walked up Cornmarket Street, and there was a busker with an even bigger crowd.

This guy had a child-sized model of a robot, with his feet inserted into its shoes.  And he was tapdancing, to a kind of pumping breakbeat jazz.  And it was brilliant.

And suddenly it occurred to me where I’d been going wrong.

Not with busking as such, but with worrying about busking.  Trying to think how to work my set so I wouldn’t just feel like I was sitting by the motorway playing to passing cars.

This is how you catch the attention of an uninterested public: you dazzle them with silver and amplified music and kitsch and charm and spectacle.  That’s how you win Britain’s Got Talent.  That’s how you used to sell Broadside ballads and Music Hall songs in the old days.  Novelty, curiosity.  Gimmicks.  That’s the way it works, and it always has been.

But the point wasn’t that I should figure out a way to do that in my set.

The point was that I should figure out a way to STOP doing it in my set.

In Iggy Pop’s BBC lecture (who in the 1970s would have ever imagined a sentence would start like that?) he talks about how you should concentrate on playing to ‘people who care’.  And that trying to be huge, and appeal to everyone, kind of sucks.

And that made me realise that the key thing is to first consider whether you want to play to passing strangers who haven’t come to see you.  If what you do is suited to grabbing uninterested people’s attention right away — and both of yesterday’s buskers performances were: they genuinely were astounding buskers — then do it, and you’ll hopefully pick up an audience and make a bit of money.  And if you’re a band that’s as on it as Threepenny Bit then you don’t even have to work to get people’s attention: you can just do what you normally do.

But I realised that I’ve played at too many events, with just me and a guitar, where I’ve felt that I’m playing to passing strangers, and so I have done the musical equivalent of tapdancing with a robot.  Something flash, something instantly attention grabbing.  Usually a loud and violent cover of a well-known song.

And that’s fine from time to time.  And, I find, sometimes essential for your self-esteem if you’re playing to a crowd of strangers who are paying you no attention whatsoever.  But it’s become a bit of a habit for me.

I used to go to the Catweazle Club every week, but haven’t managed that for a few years, even when I was single and going out less.  And I recently concluded that I stopped going so regularly when I started rehearsing with a band once a week: I could only manage one thing every week.  And to a certain extent that is part of the cause.  But a few weeks ago I realised I wasn’t going so much because I was just coasting.  Doing the same old showy tricks, and not really playing anything heartfelt.  Not really taking the time (or, to be fair, not having the time?) to prepare properly.

A few weeks ago I was going to play my favourite song that I’ve written, but when I got there I changed my mind.  I knew that there would be some dazzling people performing, as there always are.  And I felt: ‘It’ll just get lost in the evening…’  I suppose, dear Diary, if I’m being honest here, I wanted what I always want: which is to be the one performer that everyone remembers the next morning.  To steal the show.  (Which is really not what it should be about, particularly at Catweazle.)

And I saw Mark in the audience, who hadn’t been for a long while but was there that night, and I asked him if he wanted to join me for my slot.

And here’s what we did:

(Thanks to Hannah, as ever, for filming!)

We had a blast doing it, and I think the audience enjoyed it.  And Mark is just a natural at that shit, and it was good to see him out taking centre stage again.  So I’m glad I did it.

But I knew that it was only Mark’s contribution that stopped it from being another lazy contribution from me.  Wrecking Ball.  Wuthering Heights.  Teenage Dirtbag.  Easy button-pushing stuff relying on the hard graft of another artist.  Fine on occasion, but it’s become a habit.

Because it works!  It works like a tapdancing robot.  Wey-hey – it’s Teenage Dirtbag!

But there is a time and a place for the cheesy pop covers, as we all know, and that is after 10pm at the Bastard English Session.

What the Iggy talk made me realise is that if I’m in a situation where I need to crack out the easy crowd pleasers (not where I want to but I feel I need to in order to get a response) then either I need more confidence in my own material or I shouldn’t be playing in that venue in the first place.


But then where do you play?

The music business is in a moribund state at the moment.  Is it really wise to turn down opportunities just because it’s hard to win the audience over?

Well, sometimes yes.  I tend not to say yes to the two-men-and-a-dog gigs anymore, because they’re quite easy to see coming, and I don’t feel I need the practice.  And sometimes no: I think I need to be able to play gigs without concentrating so much on the audience’s reaction.  (Often I’ve been in the audience when people are clearly enjoying a show but just a bit shit at showing their appreciation.)

It’s just that the Iggy talk made me realise one more thing: if you want to play in a place ‘where people care’… then that place is the Internet.

Because no one is going to click on the link to your song or video or website if they’re not interested.  You’re not in people’s way.  And you can organise what you do so that the casual listener can quickly find what they want and then move on, but the dedicated musical explorer can find out much more if they want to.  It allows you to control your own venue, get the lighting just right, and put out the performance you intended to put out.  And you don’t need to hear the applause, or even be aware of the reaction.  You just know that you’re happy with it, and it’s out there.

And yes, the Internet is still this vast ocean of content that it’s so easy to get lost in.  But it’s a really good showcase for all of the less obvious, less flashy, quietly shimmering gems.

As well otters that look like Benedict Cumberbatch.  And tapdancing robots.


And a funny little coda that’s just occurred to me: I have this strange problem with YouTube.

Have I told this story already?  I forget in my advancing dotage, and can’t be bothered to check.  If so then apologies — here it comes again.

In the old days, when I used to write long rambling blogs (seriously, they make my recent ones seem like leaflets), I considered that I was way too far under the radar to worry about copyright.  I was writing, recording and publishing for an audience of Me and maybe a couple of people out there in the Internet Darkness.  So I would sample a great deal – put up pictures without copyright details, add whole chunks of films to my recordings, and make videos with the picture taken from Hollywood films.  Then I had a massive cull, as so many closet emo-kids do, and deleted all the accounts.  Or so I thought.  I think it was actually years later that I discovered that my old YouTube account was still up there.

But… I was blocked from it!

I couldn’t log in anymore, because the sheer number of copyright infringements had triggered some sort of Google algorithm in YouTube’s new owners, and they’d frozen it.

Now by this time I had come to the conclusion that I actually wanted to take my own music seriously, and start releasing records and doing gigs professionally, so I thought it was time I grew up and stopped nicking other people’s ideas – and also all those old songs were just bad memories for me by now.  So I tried to delete the account.

And I couldn’t.

Without getting into the account, I couldn’t see how to destroy it.  So I wrote to YouTube.  And that was a headache, because they obviously didn’t have any useful contact details, but I said something like: “Hey YouTube!  You froze my account because I did a cover of ‘True Colours’ by Cyndi Lauper that basically had the entire film ‘Bringing Out The Dead’ running over the top of it.  I don’t blame you.  It was kind of cheeky.  Point of fact, I’ve seen the error of my ways, on so many levels, and now I would like to delete the whole thing.  Can you just shut the whole account down for me?”

Resounding silence.

Unsurprising, really.  An enterprise that big – no one is going to give a shit about something like that.

So my old videos are still up there, as if trapped in ice.  And I go back there every once in a while, and see this thing that now belongs to Google.  It’s weird.  And strangely funny, for some reason.

Anyway, just to tie the end of the piece back to the beginning like I always do, I can’t hear Iggy Pop talk about how to make it in the business without thinking of this song.  A snapshot from my days on the outer rim of the Oxford indie scene.  If I could get into it I would remix it so you could hear the words.  It was always a fairly slight song, I suppose.  But, after all these years, I think I still feel the same way today.

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