In three days I am riding solo out of Seattle towards New Orleans. Again. Technically, I am not ready to take this trip. I never really have been, but that never stopped me from doing it. This time I have more experience, the bike is in the best shape it’s ever been, and there’s a special Horizons Unlimited world travelers event I’m looking forward to attending. Over the summer I poured all my resources into the bike, and now I’m left scrambling to cover the costs of upgrading my riding gear. My income tapered off fairly quickly, as Fall suddenly showed up. I’m learning more and more about how the yearly cycle of busking works, what time of year is best for me to migrate south/north. Over the summer I didn’t ride anywhere near as much of WA as I’d hoped to, but after I do the ride back in the Spring I’ll probably stick around the NW for a while.
The cruise ships stopped coming late September, marking the end of the summer season for busking as the air grows crisp and the sun gets shy. You win some and you learn some, and now I know through first hand experience what it’s like to be a snowbird that stayed too long. Though this last weekend wasn’t a big winner money-wise, there were a bunch of lessons I learned. The worse the weather, the more silver linings there are to find — even a bad day ain’t so bad when you consider the lessons you learned when you weren’t too busy failing.
I had one show where I had a decent sized crowd going, but there was barely any energy in the spectators. After each trick there was a smattering of applause amongst a bunch of blank stares. The audience had zero pulse. Fifteen minutes of putting myself out there without much response, after the finale I looked around at them and decided not to hat them (hold out hat for tips). This is not a common thing to do, and it’s probably detrimental to busking as a whole, as it conditions people to walk off after a show without paying. It had been a slow weekend for me, and since the weather had me out for a few weeks, my resilience to failure had dropped noticeably. I didn’t feel good about the show, so I just let them go.
I thanked them for watching, and set about picking the rope, helmet, and paintbrush off of the ground. I put the props back in my bag, and when I looked up there was still three or four different groups of people standing there.
A gentleman asked “So, uh, where do we put the money, man?”, holding a dollar in his hand.
“Honestly sir, I appreciate the gesture, but I didn’t really see many people having fun. I didn’t feel like that was a very good show, so I’d prefer it if you just kept the dollar.” I smiled. This confused the hell out of the ten or so people standing there.
A mother with two kids in tow seemed particularly interested in my strange behavior, and kept asking me questions about why I wouldn’t accept their money. Instead of just taking my damned hat off, I hesitated for a moment before reluctantly continuing to explain myself. I talked about how there’s a common misconception that all buskers are beggars, desperate for a dollar. As a personal preference, if I don’t feel like I created something worthy, then I don’t want to even go through the awkwardness of collecting a couple of dollars and some change from unenthused passerby’s. One benefit of having a short show is that it doesn’t kill you to throw away a few a day (though not the preferred method).
I talked for a few minutes, everyone stayed and listened until I finished, and then a young man in his early twenties stepped forward and asked if he could give me a tip. Feeling a bit vulnerable at having just explained myself to ten strangers, I said “Do you mean advice, or an actual tip?”
“Like, an actual tip. Can I give it to you?”
The tone of his voice said it was a plea. This guy really wanted to give me money. My pride caved and I held my hat out, and watched in disbelief as two tens, a five and four ones fell into my hat from the tiny portion of my audience that was actually enjoying themselves. I was shocked.
Not everyone in your crowd will tip. Sometimes half will walk away after your finale. Sometimes more. I’m learning it’s important to give it your all nonetheless, and be sensitive to the audience. Crazy stuff happens in street theater. Sometimes you’ll see 9 out of the 10 people in your audience walk off, but that one person that does tip happens to have a crisp $20 for you. I was too quick to judge the crowd as a whole, instead of looking past the stoic faces to find the few people having fun.
The website is finally back up, incomplete though it may be. I’ll go back through and fill out the Street Theater and Adventure Touring parts later, I just needed to get the platform running again so I can get these blog posts out. Once I hit the road I’ll be getting a few posts up each week. I do hope you’ll join me on another trip of a lifetime =)