My name is Sean Bradford. I've been "busking" for over a year in Berlin and the last few months in other European cities, including Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo. I'm currently doing a city tour #popupbradford, to help build my fan base and also spread my original music as I am an emerging artist.
I feel like I need to say something about the latest Erykah Badu busking incident, not only because I have a bit of experience on the topic, but also because I don't think her experiment cast the proper light on what can be a helpful and also powerful tool.
First off, there are rules and etiquette to busking, also known as street performance. Rule number one is you never ask people for money. They will give if they want, because they appreciate that you are sharing something with them. This is not an act of desperation, but an act of self-promotion.
Second, there are certain things -- a sign, amplification, CDs, fliers, etc. -- that legitimize what you are doing. I won't tell you how much I make, but the least I ever made (the first time I busked on Warschauer Strasse in Berlin, crying, wearing atrocious pink shorts and sunglasses in the middle of a hot and busy summer day -- I made 12 euro in less than 30 minutes.
Also, Times Square is not an accurate representation of any place on Earth, except for Times Square. I was an actor in The Lion King for over two years and the most anxiety-ridden part of my day was deciding whether or not to approach my theatre (on 45th and Broadway) from the top, exiting at 50th and walking down or walking up from 42nd. It's a madhouse: crowded, noisy, full of New Yorkers rushing to work, tourists looking up and the continual sirens of an army of police cars. It's so loud I used to do my entire vocal warmup while walking to the theatre and no one would even notice. This is not a suitable place to do anything except pass through to a destination... or if you're a tourist, wonder if all of America looks like this.
And while I don't think singing outside in NYC for promotion or money would work (maybe in Union Square or the West Village) due to the sheer noise level alone, there is a strategy to play in places where you can be heard and also represent yourself as a brand. I know numerous artists who consistently make or made a decent wage from performing outside (Amanda Palmer also did as a street mime), but in every city I play, I also pass people with only a few cents in their guitar case or hat, and I must say part of it is how you represent yourself.
If Erykah Badu (who by the way I love as an artist) wanted to do the experiment correctly, she would have been prepared. She could've made a sign with a fake name to see if people recognized her. However (though I wasn't there) it seems the situation wasn't so much about the performance as it was the act of "begging" through music. I heard this story first in Slovakia, then in the airport in Vienna, then via Gawker and lastly on the U-bahn in Berlin on my way home. The media has used this as a social commentary on New Yorkers and the variables are not a reflection on the art of busking, the point of busking or the potential earnings that could be made. The state of NYC is another matter, ousting creatives to the far edges of Brooklyn or New Jersey because of outrageous prices. Art can not flourish in an environment that doesn't allow for it to grow. And that is a result of rising rent costs, lack of performance venues and the cutting of arts funding. But don't blame New Yorkers who are working their asses off just to survive. Blame the city. And, Erykah, get a sign and mic and I guarantee you'll make more money... even in Times Square.
You can see some of my busking experiences by searching #popupbradford on Instagram or Facebook.com/iamseanbradford