I recently finished up my third month of busking in the SEPTA terminal. This month I got to play in my preferred location and time. I continue to learn what I’m doing down there (and how to do it better).
In addition to the actual music I play and how I play it, I’ve been looking for other ways to connect with the people in the station. By and large, everyone is in a pretty big hurry, so I only have a few moments to make an impact. One way for me to connect that I have been using is Twitterstalking afterwards to see if anyone mentioned me and introduce myself. It’s been great, but by the nature of it, I only get that connection after I’ve stopped playing. So I started playing with signs.
Since the beginning, I’ve been putting up a sign with my Twitter handle asking for requests. For the most part, it got a quick glance before people moved on. And I got zero requests for music, meaning it wasn’t having any impact. After viewing it from the audience perspective I realized why.
They were clearly wary that I was selling something (which I sort of am). I thought the novelty of a busker offering an online correspondence would be amusing enough that someone would try it, but apparently that’s a bigger hurdle to jump than I thought. It turned me into just another guy trying to sign people up for my mailing list.
So I opted for a much more innocuous sign to try to connect with people without their feeling like they were at risk of further contact with me. A simple sign with a singular message: “GOOD MORNING!”
Apparently it was too innocuous. Or perhaps to much of a commonly disingenuous statement that people make without thinking. In either case, I got barely a glance at it as the throngs passed by. I meant it sincerely, in a “hey, we’re all in this together kind of way,” but no one cared to infer that much sincerity. Which I completely get.
The next sign was a product of the whimsies of my mind. For example, when I see a jar of garlic, I immediately think “Jarlic.” So one night, I came up with a silly little riddle about public transportation, that looked something like this:
This one got peoples’ attention. I saw a few double-takes as people walked by, and a few smirks. I posted it to Twitter and Instagram at the same time and got a bunch of peoples’ responses. And as I finished my final song that day, a man approached me and gave me the answer:
The next time I played, I didn’t have a sign, and I was playing sousaphone instead of accordion. In the Twitter comments that day, a few of them mentioned that I was playing a different instrument.
(And by the way, I didn’t let that comment at the end slide. We ended up having a nice 140 character conversation about it.)
What this told me was that people were actually noticing that I was down there, even though it looked like they were rushing by and ignoring me. I was having some impact, because when I changed it up, they commented. So for my final day, I printed this sign:
At the bottom, I included cards for people to take with my Neon and Shy info on it. In addition to making a more personal connection by acknowledging that the people in the station acknowledged me, I also had a small hope that this would earn that precious sympathy dollar.
Now, interestingly, I had offered cards for people to take from the first time I was down there playing, but no one would touch them. The sign and the connection gave people a bit more permission (and trust) however. Across the 2 hours I was down there, about 10 people took cards, which was huge as far as I was concerned.
Later that morning, I got a call from the owner of a few restaurants in Old City who asked if I would be interested in busking in front of his bar during happy hour. We ironed out the details, and suddenly I had my first gig from busking.
When I had first started playing in the station, I was not looking at it as a stepping stone to getting paid work. However, I knew it was a project that had many potential doors. It was incredibly exciting for me to open one of those doors, and reap the fruits of my labor.
Last Friday I played at the restaurant, and had a blast. The people there were incredibly friendly, the atmosphere at the bar was great, and the food was delicious. I took some time to talk with the owner before I played. We had an interesting conversation about live music in a restaurant setting (told as a dialogue for dramatic effect).
“Thing is,” he told me, “whenever we have a live music event here, we are guaranteed to lose money.”
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, for sure, but it was something that rang true to me. It certainly explained why restaurants frequently balked at the prices I charge when trying to book Polkadelphia. I thought it was because restaurants don’t explicitly budget for music, but I never considered it was because it was an active loss. He continued.
“When we bring a band in, people are more interested in listening to the music than buying food and drinks. It hurts our sales and we end up with a lower than usual income that night.”
He went on to tell me that even so, he still has bands play from time to time. And clearly he was going against the grain by hiring me to play that night. So why does he do it?
“We don’t do music events for profit. We do it to build the brand. To build loyalty in our customers. So they know that when they come to our place, they just might see an accordion player singing Toxic strolling through the bar. That’s a draw.”
And suddenly everything seemed to fall into place for my experiment down in the train station. While making enough money to sustain myself by busking is a noble (and incredibly ambitious) goal, my real purpose down there is building my brand. I’m exposing myself to thousands of people each morning as a snapshot; a character; a brand. When I make a sign that connects with people, it’s further defining my brand and creating loyalty in my fan base.
Just because I don’t quite know what my brand is yet, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the building of it. The more I do know, the more I can focus, but at the moment, it’s once again just a bunch of doors waiting to be opened.
The bar owner’s comments also made me re-evaluate the way I approach restaurants when trying to book Polkadelphia. Unless it’s a special event that is advertised, a German restaurant is (probably) not going to make more money the night we play their restaurant. They might even make less. But they become known as the place where that awesome polka band that plays Radiohead performs, and that causes both buzz and customer loyalty. They build their brand.
I was struck today that playing in the train station has given me significantly more exposure than performing in established venues over the past year or two (even some big ones). I’ve also made more money in the station than I have as a solo artist playing bars and clubs. Whether this is an indictment of the music industry or my own personal loophole, I’m not sure; so much remains to be seen. But I can see the path unfolding around me, slowly coalescing into something awesome.
Time to stoke the fire, heat the metal, and see where the sweet sizzle of flesh takes me.