Two weeks ago, I embarked on an experiment performing in the Market East SEPTA station. The experience has been a fair amount of fun and a fair amount of frustration, but has overall been a delightful learning experience. Since I posted about it, I’ve had several requests for a follow up about how the experiment went. Some were from friends and family who were merely curious about the experience. One musician friend of mine asked me to sit down with him at a later date to compare our experiences in busking. A few friends expressed curiosity if it was a viable means of making money, hoping to try it out themselves. I figured that I learned enough so far to give at least a few answers to these questions, as well as an overview of how everything went down. I also have some ideas for how to improve on it for the future.
So let’s get to the raw data, first of all. I’m usually pretty squeamish about telling people what I earned, but since several people have asked if it’s a viable means of supporting oneself, I think giving the actual numbers is important. Just promise not to judge me for it, and I’ll promise not to judge you for judging me. Wait, what?
|Wed 7/3/2013||Toy Piano and Accordion||$62.82|
|Mon 7/8/2013||Sousaphone and Accordion||$30.52|
Yikes, that’s a fast trip downhill! And didn’t I mention that I have a permit to be there for half the month? Why only 5 days here?
I suppose I should detail my adventures.
Each day I played from 7-9am. Also, keep in mind, it costs me $9.50 to take the train there and back, so lop about $10 off each day to come up with my net income.
On Monday, 7/1, I went to check in, as per my instructions, at the Passenger Services Desk. The man behind the counter didn’t in fact ask me to sign in, but instead pointed to one of Market East Station’s 3 designated performance areas. He actually pointed me to the wrong one, but I discovered that the one I was actually assigned to was a good 40-50 feet from any pedestrian traffic. Additionally, there were no other performers that time of the morning, so I just set up in the busy area and played for 2 hours. I detailed that day in my original post.
Net income: $41.20
On Tuesday, I wanted to change it up a bit, so I brought the tuba. I came back to the same spot as the previous day, and for 2 hours I played everything from Danny Boy to Bad Romance to Chameleon to random improvised grooves. Even though I made less on this day, within the first 15 minutes, 3 people had put $5 bills in my case. So someone was appreciating it.
Net income: $30.64
For Wednesday, I wanted to shake things up a bit. I put on my tuxedo with tails, grabbed the toy piano and accordion (along with a small vase) and set up one again in my usual spot. I played toy piano and sang for about an hour before moving to the accordion. It seemed most people were entertained, yet disoriented by my performance. At one point I was singing Radiohead’s “Creep,” and I got to the line in the chorus “What the hell am I doing here?” and a passing (somewhat rude) woman shouted out “Good question!”
I don’t think I made very much during the first hour. When I switched to accordion, I seemed to do better. Of course, it might have been that my good friends Samantha and Rachel chose that moment to visit me and accompany me on egg shakers. At the end of the day I was shocked to learn how much I had made. As I was packing up and getting ready to go, a man came up to me without having heard me play anything and gave me a dollar. I thanked him and played a quick rendition of Natural Woman. It’s always a crowd pleaser, and apparently, so is the toy piano.
Net Income: $52.82
When I got home, on a whim I decided to search twitter to see if I made any impact, and was excited to see a few positive tweets:
Things looked to be going well so far. I was making some money and making an impact.
On Thursday, it was July 4th and I had a parade in the morning, so I couldn’t go to the station. I probably wouldn’t have made much anyway, since most of the commuters would be gone. I planned on coming back on Friday to play solo Sousa marches on the sousaphone. However, between Wednesday and Friday I injured my arms in a freak weightlifting accident (the freak being that I was actually lifting weights). I decided to heal up, and skip Friday. I also figured that I wouldn’t make as much, as a lot of people would take a 4 day weekend.
By the following Monday, I was healed up and ready to go. I brought the sousaphone and accordion (no small feat on the train!) and started out by playing the aforementioned marches on the sousaphone. Despite my red white and blue attire, this seemed to garner little attention. Well from the commuters anyway. I unfortunately attracted a different attention.
A SEPTA employee came by about 45 minutes into my set and asked to see my permit. I showed it to him, and he told me I was in the wrong location. I told him no one was in my current location, and I had come here because there was much better foot traffic. He told me that this wasn’t allowed even though no one had taken that area and time slot and that I would have to move to the remote and distant space. After a little pleading on my part, he told me I could stay for the day, but “I’ll be back tomorrow.” I finished out the day on accordion, but for some reason made much less money for the day. I was however given 2 SEPTA tokens among my tips for the day. I thought maybe someone was trying to tell me to leave, though they might have wanted me to come back afterwards. Or maybe 2 different people were telling me to leave.
Net Income: $20.52 + 2 SEPTA tokens
Resigned to my fate, I decided to try out the remote spot the following day. Before I played a note, a different SEPTA official came over and told me that I was now playing in the “quiet” part of the station, and that if I was too loud he would make a complaint. This did not bode well. Neither did the construction going on 10 feet in front of me (but still 30 feet from the nearest foot traffic). After playing for an hour, I saw I had made $3. I decided to cut my losses and head home.
Net Income: -$7.00
After my negative experience, I called the SEPTA performance permit phone number to see if they would change my permit to my original area, but I couldn’t get a live person and received no response to my messages. Rather than lose money the rest of the week, I decided to wait until the following month and request the spot I really wanted this time around. Which I just did a few moments ago. Let’s see what happens.
So let’s look at the numbers for a second and see how I did. On the days in my preferred performance space, I made an average of $36.30 across 2 hours, making my hourly rate $18.15. That’s nothing to scoff at, especially when combined with the free practice and exposure. Knowing that I made more playing accordion and toy piano (or maybe more when I was playing theatrically), I could probably up those numbers. I have to take into account that some people might have given me money the first day because I was new and a novelty at first. However, I don’t know for sure. This calls for…. MORE DATA!
Now, let’s say I can up it to an average of $40 per day. Since I only get half the month to play, that spreads across 2 weeks or 10 working days, bringing me $400 per month. That’s really not a huge amount, especially for how much I’m playing. As a musician, though, we earn our livings across many different income streams. When it comes down to it, there’s not much else I could be doing to make money from 7-9am, and to be making close to what I made hourly at my full time job doing something I love, that works just fine for now.
Provided my permit is renewed, I plan to continue experimenting with instruments, song choices, clothing choices, miscellaneous accoutrements, and anything else I can come up with. I hope to settle into a nice groove and continue to make connections with the people whizzing by. As with any experiment, there may come a time when I decide to pull the plug and find uses for my time that are more worthwhile. Until that moment, you can find me during the first half of the month from 7-9am at Market East right next to the Gallery. Come by and listen, shout out a request, tweet the moment to your friends (@neonandshy), or just say hi.