Ben Williams graduated from the University of Salford in 2005 with a first class honours degree in Popular Music and Recording and has forged a career as a musician and songwriter. After leaving university Ben joined forces with Kristyna Myles and won Radio 5 Live’s Busk Idol competition, after busking on Market Street in Manchester for two years. This led to appearances on BBC1, ITV, Radio 2, Radio 4 and many regional radio stations including BBC Manchester, as well as being featured in The Manchester Evening News and various other publications.
Kristyna has now signed a 5 album deal with Decca, and Ben and Kristyna are going busking once again to raise awareness of the charity Centrepoint, and promote Kristyna’s album Pinch Me Quick due for release in September. (Read our post about Kristyna’s busking tour here)
My top 10 tips
1. There’s no point in busking without amplification. – Unless you’re playing a saxophone or another instrument with a lot of natural volume, it can be very difficult to be heard in a busy city. When we first started out Kristyna and I tried busking unamplified in the Manchester Christmas Markets and couldn’t be heard from just a few feet away. We barely made enough money to cover the parking.
2. Get a car battery- Although you can get some battery powered amplifiers, most of these seem to run out of power quickly and sound distorted. We used a car battery attached to an inverter, which converts DC to AC. The best type of car battery is a gel leisure battery which are used for golf buggies etc. If you use a normal car battery the acid will soon burn little holes in all of your clothes. For an amplifier, I can’t recommend the Roland AC30 highly enough. It has two channels, one for a guitar and one for a microphone.
3.Other useful gear- A compact camping stool means that you can sit anywhere and don’t need to rely on finding a bench. A trolley is important for carting all the gear around as it can weigh quite a lot. A battery charger for obvious reasons. If you’re planning on reading music, take some pegs so that the wind doesn’t blow it away. Fingerless gloves can help with guitar playing in icy conditions. A bag to store the money in afterwards can be useful.
4. Two’s company- Busking on your own has the advantage that you don’t have to split the money. But if you go with two or more people it means one person can watch the gear while the other can buy food/drinks and take a toilet break, especially if you’re making a day of it. It also makes you less vulnerable if there are more of you.
5. Be safe- Keep all your gear where you can see it. Empty the money out of the guitar case every now and again and hide it away. Busking at night can be more intimidating as people have had a few drinks and can be a bit ‘lively’. We never had anything too serious happen to us. Kids threw sweets at our heads. Someone crept up to me and shouted ‘BOO’ in my ear which made me jump out of my skin, much to the amusement of the crowd that had built up. Occasionally people would make as if they were putting money in but actually slyly take money out. But generally the good outweighs the bad. And if you’re busking in a busy town centre there will be a lot of people around if anything serious does happen.
6. Licence- Different towns have different rules. They are much stricter about licences in London than they are in Manchester for example. It’s worth doing a bit of research before you start in a new town. Some places have the rule that you can busk but without amplification. I tried to get a licence for Manchester once but after a whole afternoon of phone calls I still hadn’t managed to speak to anyone who knew what they were talking about. We busked for two years and were never asked for a licence. Occasionally a shop would complain if we were too loud and they couldn’t hear what their customers were saying, or an office would complain on weekdays if we were putting their employees off work and we would be asked to turn down or move on. But very rarely.
7. Sell CD’s- If you have a CD to sell this can enhance your income significantly. It can also help to have a person to sell CDs for you and talk to people while you’re busy playing.
8. Respect other buskers- Generally the rule is first come first served. If you find someone playing where you had intended to busk, you won’t become very popular if you set up next to them and drown them out. Have a word with them and see how long they’re planning to busk for or look for another spot.
9. Repertoire- If people passing by hear a tune they know, they may be more likely to throw some money in the case. But busking is also a good place to try out new songs as the reaction from the public is immediate and you can quickly learn what’s working and what isn’t. Busking is a great way to develop quickly as a musician and as an artist.
10. Go for it- If you’re busking for the first time it can feel strange to just start singing in the middle of a busy town. You just have to go for it. Lots of great artists have kicked off their careers by busking- Bob Dylan, Kt Tunstall etc. In a busy city, so many people walk by that you never know who might see you or what might happen .
Photos: provided by Ben Williams
- Emma Spedding