Friday was my last day at my full-time job, meaning today is my first weekday out of that particular yoke. And wow, have I been busy. I was up at 6am for a “gig” (more on that in a moment), before assisting a colleague with some online media. After I got home, I had just enough time to eat, practice some tuba, and send a few emails out before running to a rehearsal with a band called A Fistful of Sugar. I got home around 6, and am currently in the process of making dinner (vegan jambalaya!). I hope to get a bit more practice in and perhaps some rest before heading to an open mic tonight.
I have been making good use of my handy white erase board. So far, I’m content with tasks to accomplish across the day and week, but should I need to, I can nail down the times a little more. I’m hoping this can take some of the panic out of determining what to do on a given day. I also can start to use it as a baseline for what I can realistically accomplish across the day.
You might notice across the top on almost every morning is SEPTA. For the uninitiated, this is Philadelphia’s public transportation system. About a month ago I applied for a permit to perform in the regional rail station, and last week I found that my application was accepted. My slot is for the first half of the month, from 6am-9am on every weekday. I chose the early slot because I wanted to be there during the commute, and I thought the afternoon commute might interfere with my evening schedule.
The reactions I’ve gotten from friends upon telling them that I would be busking ranged from extreme enthusiasm (THAT’S THE BEST THING EVER!) to muted reservation (Oh, you’re doing that huh?). I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow musician who was curious if my classical conservatory background got in the way. Essentially, he asked if I felt like I was selling out or working beneath my station (my words, not his) by being a street musician. While I don’t deny that I’m a little apprehensive about what the musicians I regularly play with in a professional atmosphere would think about what I’m doing, I also know that I love performing in many different contexts. I especially like performing in a context that is unorthodox, which is why I was excited to bring my accordion to the train station today. There are a ton of guitarists, drummers, and saxophonists, but I had not seen an accordionist in the station in all my time passing through.
Like many things in my life, this is just an experiment to see if it’s something that’s viable. A part of me worried that my coworkers at my former job would think I was crazy for leaving a steady job to play on the street. That’s not the reason I left though. It just happens to be a part of my journey along the way.
So today I set up around 7:15 with my accordion. I opted to skip the first hour, partially because it’s tough to find a train that gets me there early enough, but mostly because I thought the crowd would be too sparse before 7. I primed my accordion case with a few dollars, and started playing a few instrumentals before moving onto vocal numbers. It wasn’t long before my first dollar came in, followed by my first quarter. The rest went by rather quickly.
Starting around 7:45, the commuters began coming in larger waves. For about 45 seconds at a time, the crowd streaming pass me would thicken, before dwindling to an occasional passerby. I started trying to time my more engaging material for when people would come through. That often meant vamping until the moment the wave broke, and quickly jumping into a song like Everything In It’s Right Place by Radiohead, or Toxic/Rock Lobster. I got a sense that people responded better to the songs they recognized, so I saved my originals for some of the slower times.
The vast majority of the people passing by ignored me, rushing by while avoiding eye contact. And I get that, as most of them were commuting to their job and didn’t have time for distractions. I saw one person pull her phone out to film me while I was playing Everything In It’s Right Place. Afterwards she thanked me, and I was delighted that someone heard what I was doing. Another time a man came up after I had butchered Girl by the Beatles and gave me a dollar while I profusely apologized. When I played Lover, You Should Have Come Over by Jeff Buckley, a woman came around the corner to thank me for playing it. I’m not 100% sure, but I think she was the one who left a 20 in my case.
That $20 went a long way towards making it a productive morning. With it I ended up doing pretty well, easily paying for my trip to and from the station. But as the time elapsed, I started planning ways to make my performing more engaging.
And here’s why I called this post “An Empiricist’s Dream Job.” I have so many variables to tweak to see how I can improve my earnings and connections (and honestly, the connections were as important as the earnings). Do I play more songs that people recognize, or do I try to introduce people to the unique stylings of my originals? Would I make more money playing the tuba or toy piano instead of the accordion, or would I just be catering to a different segment of the people passing by? Is there a more efficient way to ride the wave of commuters that surged from time to time? Do I smile or grimace? Do I put up a sign that says who I am or do I let my music speak for itself? Do I find quirky ways outside of the music to connect with my audience, or is it just fishing with a net? I have a seemingly infinite number of ways to tweak my shows at the station. I need to get to work collecting data.
Tomorrow I’m trying out the tuba to see how that goes, though I am a little apprehensive for playing so long so early. Maybe I can find a way to break it up. In any case, if you or a friend happen to pass by the Market East station in Philadelphia and see a guy playing any number of instruments while feverishly collecting data, come say hi, as odds are good he wants to play your favorite song.