Busking is basically street performance for tips and gratuities. To read a more detailed definition and description, click here for the Wikipedia entry.
There were two methods that we saw being used by the buskers in Paris - performing on a street, alleyway, or sidewalk for pedestrians as they walked by, or performing for patrons of a restaurant eating at the tables outside of the restaurant. We tried both methods.
Performing for pedestrians entails picking a spot (called a "pitch") where a flow of pedestrians pass by, or a line for a show or performance at a club might develope. A container for tips is made available for people walking by to 'pitch' in a donation. The buskers do their act and accept what people put in the tip container as they are performing. If a crowd gathers, the hat or tip container can be passed, which will often increase the amount of tips.
Performing for restauranteurs while they dine at outdoor seating (commonly referred to as "terraced cafés") requires that the buskers go from café to café to perform. After the performance has ended, the busker will often go from table to table and make the tip container available for diners to make their contributions, and then move on to another café and do the same.
Of the two methods, we found that performing at terraced cafés worked best for us.
In the beginning, finding restaurants where we could perform and pass our tip jar took considerable time. We did this by just walking around until we spotted a likely looking restaurant. As time went on we narrowed our search at any given time to a specific neighborhood, and systematically explored the restaurants in about an 8-10 block square.
We found from experience that a viable location had to meet several criteria: at least 4 outside tables occupied by diners, low ambient noise from traffic, no music supplied for patrons by the restaurant, a suitable location to safely stand where we could be heard by everyone at the outdoor tables, and permission from the maitre d' to pass the tip jar. Four occupied tables of diners, eating or just beginning to eat, (it was disappointing to be playing and have patrons finish their meal in the middle of our set and leave before we passed the hat) usually provided us with enough tips to make performing worth the effort. Since we were using unamplified acoustic guitars, low street noise helped diners hear our performance better - pedestrian-only streets and alleyways were best, but some streets had very low vehicle traffic at certain times, and these worked well, too. Some outdoor dining was lined up next to a narrow sidewalk, and these locations were difficult to play without standing in the street, sometimes a dangerous place to perform. And it was disappointing to play an entire set and then have the maitre d' say "Not possible..." when we went to collect tips. We developed a method of asking the maitre d' if performing was allowed by pantomiming playing and getting an affirmative response before performing.
There were also circumstances that affected our ability to perform and the amount of tips that we made. Rain shut us down - although the outdoor dining area is often covered, we could rarely stand under that cover to perform. If another performer was already entertaining at one of our sites we had to continue on to another. Sometimes another busker would be waiting to perform because someone else had just finished, and in that case we had to wait for them or move on. And playing at a café within minutes of another busker collecting tips and leaving always negatively affected our take.
In Paris, we busked 3-5 cafés at both lunch and dinner, six days a week, and changed our locations daily. Originally, Sunday was a day off, but it became clear that Sunday was an especially lucrative day to busk, so we switched our day off to Mondays. All of our locales had enough cafés that we could choose an area for lunch performances and a different area for dinner. We also changed our set list often (for our own enjoyment, and to keep a fresh feel to the songs), something that we found few other buskers did. We found only one other couple busking besides us, though there were dozens of buskers every day.
Busking worked well in many districts; we concentrated on the ones below.
Montmarte was a good dinner location. For us, it was cafés in the streets and alleys from the base of Sacre Coeur to the Boulevard de Rochechouart. There was an especially good spot in a small alleyway, the rue Briquet, where we could play softly and still be heard because of the acoustics of the alley.
Another dinner district was just down the hill a little further, which we called "Anvers", along the Avenue Trudaine, and included a small triangular park where Rue Turgot and Rue de Rochechouart meet.
The Rue Mouffetard is one of Paris's oldest and liveliest neighbourhoods with many restaurants, shops, cafés, and a regular open market. We found it to consistently be a great place to busk, and usually did so during the dinner meal. Situated in the fifth (cinquième) arrondissement of Paris, its one of those places where we had to perform in the street and carefully watch for traffic as we played, often playing our set to more than one restaurant's customers since the outside dining areas were so close together. This is where we found the buskers whose method we subsequently adopted as our own.
The Odeon was a great Sunday lunch/early afternoon area, and here I'll give you the path we would walk. We'd start at Le Bonaparte, across from the Eglise Saint-Germaine de Prés on Rue Guillaume Apollinaire. From there we'd walk away from the Eglise down Rue Guillaume Apollinaire, and turn right on Rue Saint Benoit, play one or two places as we continued to (and turned right onto) the Rue Jacob. We'd follow the Rue Jacob to the Rue de Furstemberg, turn right and walk until we veered left onto the Rue Cardinale, and follow it to the Rue de l'Abbaye. We almost always played to the café on the corner of the Rue de l'Abbaye and the Rue de Buci. If we were still looking for more spots, we'd cross the Rue de Buci and continue down the Rue de Bourbon le Château.
The streets bordering the east side of the Forum les Halles - the Rue Pierre Lescot and the streets between it and the Rue Saint-Denis - held a good concentration of cafés that were usually busy. The streets were predominately for pedestrians. Sometimes there were delivery vehicles, but the sidewalks are very wide and the deliveries didn't cause us much of a problem. We especially enjoyed playing for the diners at the Au Pere Tranquille - their huge outside dining area usually insured a better than average amount of tips.
And last but not least was a circuit in the Latin Quarter which started on the Ile Saint-Louis. Our favorite starting spot would be where the Rue Saint-Luis en l'ile met the Rue Jean du Bellay. From there we would cross over the Pont Saint-Louis (this bridge was a great spot for a "pitch" for amplified instruments), and continue up the Rue du Cloitre Notre Dame where we'd play a couple of cafés. We'd walk in front of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, cross the Seine again on the Pont au Double, and maybe play a couple more places on the Rue Galande or on the Rue du Petit Pont just before it reached the Boulevard Saint-Germaine.
We found busking to be a challenging but rewarding experience: challenging in that it was, in essence, a vocation we needed to act on regularly to generate income, but something we enjoyed tremendously, so rarely did it feel like work. The rewards were many.
First and foremost was that we were able to survive from the income that we derived from performing. Up until we became buskers, we had been supporting ourselves from various skills as professionals (remodeling, painting, teaching, Reiki therapist, flower essence/essential oils practitioner, etc) where we were self-employed contractors, performing services for fees. Our talents as musicians and performers were limited to sharing music with friends at social gatherings. As buskers, our musical and performance skills and talents became our sole means of support. This was exciting, and validated the artistic side of our personas in a way that had never been before. Receiving appreciation from audiences (even very small audiences) for our musical creations and interpretations was wonderful, and affirmed our self-concept as artists helping to increase the beauty and harmony in the world. Its great to know that, of the many 'hats' we wear, the professional "artist", "musician", and "performer" roles are included in our collection of potentials.
We also found that being musicians (which carrying our guitars announced to everyone) improved our opportunities and acceptance. Many times we were invited to join a group or share a meal if we would play a few tunes. Indeed, we met our first trip's roommate and found an apartment to share because of our musician status (which led to our contact with Chuck and Emily and an apartment for the next 2 trips). Over and over we met complete strangers who'd share their homes, or invite us to their performances, for no other obvious reason than that we were musicians.
Being successsful buskers enabled us to greatly extend the length of our stay in Paris. We had already purchased the tickets for our return flight, so as long as we made our day-to-day expenses, we could stay virtually indefinitely in Paris and enjoy the fabulous opportunities in the 'City of Lights', a definite plus for our trips.
Lastly, we became part of a busking community that we'd not even guessed existed. As we played in the city, we crossed paths with many other buskers many times, and we pleasantly acknowledged each other as we passed. Sometimes we would share a conversation or commiserate about the weather, other times we even got impromtu evaluations or suggestions of a good place to try. By our third trip it was obvious that many buskers came to Paris during the same time period that we'd chosen, and it was always special to refresh a friendship from a previous trip amongst what came to be our peers - a loosely formed but connected-through-street-performance community of artists and performers.
Our memories are many and rich. A few of our favorites follow:
One night as we walked past a barricade that blocked the Rue Saint Louis en l'Ile we came upon a most cozy site – a circle of 10-12 people sharing a meal by candlelight. They had put Persian rugs in the closed-off street and had even hung some as backdrops on the barricades. There were a couple sofas, some chairs and a table; 6-8 candles provided soft light for a small dinner party. “Ahhhh… that looks cozy” one of us said, and we smiled at each other. As we were just passing by on the sidewalk (outside their little ‘room’ area, behind one of the sofas) one of the women there said to us, “Play us a song, and then eat with us, please” (they had all just about finished their meal). “OK” we said, and threaded our way between the furniture into their cozy gathering, and while one man offered and poured us each a glass of champagne, we got our guitars out and played them a couple songs.
They were very receptive and pleased; a warm group of people, and they insisted that we eat. They didn’t need to twist our arms; not only were we hungry, we’d eaten basically only two different dinner foods for three weeks, and were tired of both. They presented us with a Persian rice dish that was very tasty (it had golden raisins and flavorful spices) and a beautiful green salad with a light vinaigrette dressing, followed by fresh raspberries, various delicate cookies, ice cream, more champagne, and light wine as well. It was a magnificent vegetarian feast – home cooked foods we’d been sorely missing, plus some very tasty treats. Even more special than the food was the company of these people – they were so warm, and easily included us in their party, making us feel very comfortable. As we talked with them during our dinner we found out that this was actually a pot-luck block party, and the first time they’d ever done such a thing (it was because the street was closed to traffic that they’d thought to do it). The group was composed of several shop owners and nearby residents, and some spoke English quite well, so good communication was possible. After eating, I got my guitar out again and played some soft background music (the main thing I could share/contribute) and once more they were very receptive and appreciative. We realized we still had a good mile-plus to walk, and began saying goodbyes – handshakes and 'cheek kisses' all around. Everyone felt the specialness of the evening. They started dismantling their cozy party room; everyone was leaving together, now. Such a wonderful time, place, group of people, dinner… Eileen and I floated home, even avoiding the busier boulevards so as to savor the mood and memories.
On ocassions too numerous to count we were photographed and video taped by the tourists and diners that we entertained. Our favorite of these instances happened at the Au Pere Tranquille outside of Forum les Halles. While Eileen was collecting our earnings one afternoon, (I was still playing the final collection instrumental) a young man asked her if we were interested in being in a movie! When we finished our routine we talked with him more. His director had just seen us and wanted us to be part of his new film that needed street performers to help portray Paris as a setting. We liked the idea; we gave him our number, and he gave us his number and production company’s card. The only shooting date possible was October 30; we were planning to leave Paris on October 1, so we were unable to take advantage of the offer. However, we saw it (and still do) to mean: 1) street music is an integral part of Paris, and 2) for some reason our act was very in tune with (possibly almost the epitome of…) the indigenous, Parisian busker. To be this was a goal; this director’s offer was feedback telling us we’d attained that goal. It’s exhilarating to have achieved this.
At our very last spot on our last day of busking, at the end of our third and final trip to Paris, we were approached by a woman working with two men carrying audio recording equipment. She asked if we were willing to be recorded for their project entitled "The Sounds of Paris". We consented, and played our set with larger than normal smiles as they positioned the microphone covered with a wind sock at the end of a boom where our performance could be recorded. Although we have no idea what happened to this recording, we were thrilled to be recorded for the project, and felt it a most glorious way to end our three seasons as buskers.
Another fond memory occuured several times at different locations. After performing for a restaurant on a narrow street (once near Sacre Coeure and also at a café on the Left Bank) people leaning out of windows above the café got our attention and dropped coins down to us as we were collecting tips (not to be confused with throwing coins at us!) Ahhhh... francs from heaven. It was a small thing, but a beautiful memory.
Playing for parties/groups was always unique and provided vivid memories.
We played for the opening of a restaurant near the Place de Bastille. A new musician friend took us inside and introduced us to a few people. We put our gear (including our friend's mandolin) in the corner and had a drink and hors d’oeuvres as we squeezed through the crowded, small café. We socialized a little, but didn’t overcome the language barrier very well. After a short while we got our instruments out and slithered through the people. Three times we were able to play a couple tunes, shoulder to shoulder, instruments only inches apart – just barely audible even right next to us… very close quarters. Each time we played it was appreciated by those around us, and we added an ambiance that seemed cool/groovy and enriching. We did a small encore for a Madame Schmidt in the courtyard outside the back door. (Madame Schmidt and Eileen developed a rapport earlier, though language failed both of them, neither able to speak the others language).
We also played at the reception party for a marriage – two Americans running their successful restaurants/ café/coffeehouse in Clichy. Here we played twice – once after the presents were opened, and also later on when the group was smaller and able to be more intimate. The first time ended by being the accompaniment for the newlyweds’ first dance (a waltz). There was more space to play in and more English spoken at this affair than at the open house, and we stayed until the end.
These are but a few of the wonderful memories from our busking adventure that we'll never forget; we thoroughly enjoyed being part of the ambience that contributes to making Paris special.