Street Corner Disaster
If it's money you're after, that's easy. Just grab an instrument and a tip jar and set up shop at the Powell Street cable car turn-around. You should average about 20 bucks an hour as long as you stick to a repertoire of jazz, soft rock, and other genres favored by European tourists in matching track suits.
Lucky for you, I talked to Art, who plays sax accompanied by a karaoke CD down in the BART station. He is old and crotchety and dispenses wisdom like a street smart Grandpa Simpson. Here are his basic busker guidelines:
... with lots of foot traffic – duh.
You want to get the most volume possible from your surroundings. Office alcoves, underpasses, and BART or Muni stations are all good.
It gets windy in SF and you don't want
your profits blowing away.
Also, crack heads might steal it.
The best spots are highly coveted. If you play for more than a few hours you will probably piss off other buskers. Unless you want to fight for your temporary bandstand, it's best to keep it short and then graciously move on.
Your sound, look, and location are all equally important. And don't forget your audience. Your original material played for the wrong crowd is a like the tree falling in the forest. You might as well not even make the sound.
Let's say you're a burgeoning rock band and you want to put on a guerrilla concert. You want to do it in a neighborhood full of drunk kids wearing skinny jeans and expensive tattoos. In San Francisco, that means the Mission. Parts of Lower Haight can also work, and maybe even Polk St. But I'd stick with the Mission.
In fact, you would be well-advised to follow the example set by The Ferocious Few. The duo plays a distinctly West Coast style of cowboy punk, and they do it on sidewalks and street corners across the city. On a recent weeknight they set up on the corner of 16th and Valencia and played uninterrupted for over an hour.
It takes guitar player/singer Francisco Fernandez about 20 minutes to set up. Drummer Daniel Aguilar erects his tiny drum set and then spreads some homemade CDs out in front of their impromptu stage. A crowd of hipsters and bike messenger types start to gather as they rip into their first song. One girl texts her friends to come join her: “Sweet band playing in front of check cashing place."
A few minutes into the show, a glassy-eyed derelict moves in next to the band and starts playing tambourine. He has a wild, unkempt beard and is wearing a skirt and 2 aprons. He is definitely drunk and/or off his meds. He dances and shakes the tambourine in erratic, off-time bursts, talking to himself in between songs. Aguilar and Fernandez simply ignore him.
(Note: if you're going to ad lib a rock show on a Mission District street corner, you have to accept the fact that drunk cross dressers may invite themselves to play with you at any time.)
Unlike other Valencia Street musicians (see: Omer aka "Bum Jovi"), The Ferocious Few are actually good. This is something to keep in mind when contemplating your first guerrilla show. Not only do people tolerate The Ferocious Few's music, they stop to listen to it. They buy CDs and throw money in the kitty. And, at least in the Mission, no one calls the police.
Thinking that a sidewalk performance is the best and most effective way to get your music heard? Take note: the only real rules you really need to follow are pick your spots, know your audience, and make sure it's worth hearing in the first place.