Thursday, August 6, 2009

'Will you recognize me, call my name or walk on by..?'

One of the things that has fascinated me since I've been doing this is the simple idea of why people put money in the case? What makes us give? Or not? As a passenger, I'd be inclined to lay a dollar down if the player sounded good, or was playing a song I liked. And recognition of effort is always a factor.

I know that wherever I play, I pretty much play with the same enthusiasm every day. There are always some exceptions, of course.

So why is that some days I wind up with nothing, and other days it just seems to click? Today at 50th Street, I played for about two hours, ran through 25 different songs - the most yet - and made $14.32.

I’ve tried to break it down to a few thoughts from my own experience:

1. Choice of station: Seems obvious, I know, but ideally you want a busy station with plenty of foot traffic - probably with an interchange between lines, but with separated platforms - that isn't too noisy. There should be a decent length of time between trains so you can play a complete song, but also one where the trains come often enough that there's a regular turnover of your ‘audience’. Choosing my stations at random has been a bit hit-or-miss sometimes, but generally I've had more good than bad ones. So far, there's been only one I couldn't bear to even try at.

2. Where to stand on the platform: At the foot of a staircase, if there is one, is helpful both in the numbers of people who pass and for resonance. Don’t forget the ‘25 feet’ in the MTA rules. If there's benches on a narrow platform, try standing just by them, but give people enough personal space. You want to be seen and heard, but you don't want people to feel like you're in their face, or that there's no escape from you.

3. How I'm dressed: Basically, do I look like I need that dollar more than you? I’m not saying I deliberately dress down, I don’t; but what I'm wearing might not immediately strike some people as ‘deserving’. And when people give you money, it's partly to make them feel good about giving it, and partly about rewarding your talent. Generally though, because it's so hot, I usually wear a plain tshirt and shorts.

4. What I’m playing: There's absolutely nothing worse as a passenger than hearing a busker murdering your favorite song. But at the same time, there may be few things better than hearing someone play something non-mainstream that you might like. I've tried to keep the songlist varied between recognizable stuff and songs that are good to play, although I'm conscious that a lot of my songs are of a similar genre. Foot-tappers are always good, whether the audience is familiar with them or not. Also, you have to enjoy playing them - especially over and over - so that's also a consideration.

(I'd say that the songs that I most often get some money thrown in while I'm playing would be "People Get Ready", "Peace Love and Understanding", "Rosalita" and "May You Never").

5. Interaction: How engaging am I - or indeed - how engaging should I be? Am I smiling, is my body 'open' as you walk past? Did I make eye contact? I always say 'thank you' when someone comes over to put money in the case. And I always talk to people who want to talk between songs. So far I've found that people will often throw something in just as their train is pulling in, so obviously playing while the platform is quiet is better than talking, but if someone wants to chat, I'm cool with that.

6. What's people’s general mood? The one thing you don't have any control over. I found that in New York the weather really affects how responsive people are. Time of day matters; obviously the more hurried people are, either to get to work or to get home, the less inclined they are to hear you. Also, how crowded the station is, and whether the gates and ticket machines are working matters. Generally the less hassle people have had getting onto the platform, the more they're happy to decompress for a couple of minutes.

I know there are others I haven’t thought of, but these are the ones that come to mind tonight. Any buskers out there have any to add?

My efforts today brought the running total to $96.38.

Don't forget, people don't know I'm giving the money to charity, so I hope that when they throw something in the case it's a reflection of my being able to make their day a little better, even for a couple of minutes.

Today's songlist:

Knockin' On Heavens Door - Bob Dylan
Sweetheart Like You - Bob Dylan
Crazy Dreams - Paul Brady
Galway Girl - Steve Earle
You Can't Always Get What You Want - Rolling Stones
Queen Jane Approximately - Bob Dylan
The White Hare - Seth Lakeman
Secret Garden - Bruce Springsteen
Drift Away - Dobie Gray
Nothing But The Same Old Story - Paul Brady
Crazy Love - Van Morrison
Chance - Big Country
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
Rebels - Tom Petty
Welfare Music - Bottle Rockets
Roxanne - Sting
The Longer I Run - Peter Bradley Adams
Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
Tonight Will Be Fine - Leonard Cohen
People Look Around - Catie Curtis
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Lakes of Pontchartrain - Paul Brady
The Promised Land - Bruce Springsteen
Tumblin' Dice - Rolling Stones


Going downtown on the R train tonight, I ran into three members of a Mariachi quartet. I know there was supposed to be four of them because when they got on, one of them - a guitar player - inadvertantly got into the carriage behind and only caught his bandmates up at the next stop. In, out and gone - the usual very efficient modus operandi for these players. Play the song, pass the hat and move on.

But little did these guys know that on this particular day, they broke the deadlock between Mariachis and Pan Flute players I've randomly encountered so far. (Actually, on reviewing the videoptape, I think one of them appeared with a previous band of different players, or just that type of shirt is particularly common; but hey, they're a whole other band and they're playing a different tune, so they count!)

Tonight makes it Mariachis 5 Pan Flutes 4, and there's just a few more days to go...

The other Mariachi bands I've run into are here here here and here.

Three of the four Pan Flute players I've seen are here here and here.




Finally, farewell, John Hughes.

For those of us of a certain age, he helped define "cool" in the 1980s. In retrospect, that may seem a tough task, but the stories he told had timeless themes. A comment on The Guardian today said: “John Hughes's legacy was to put the voice of wise-cracking common sense into the mouths of those more used to being told to shut up.”

And at the time, this was pretty much perfect.

Here's Glasgow's finest, with one of the best songs not just of that year, but of that increasingly fuzzy decade; and one that likely will always be associated with him.

*This, however, might well be the only obit he'll ever need.

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