Is busking still a substantial way to break into the music industry?

  • In an industry overrun with talent shows, will busking still provide a good platform for budding musicians?

Breaking into the music industry is no walk in the park and for anyone trying to do so, the question is how?

For a lot of musicians, taking the longer route from busking to playing small gigs and clenching onto the hope that they will one day be recognised is the only way to get to the top. Every time you visit Manchester City Centre you are swarmed with an abundance of buskers – some make you wonder how they haven’t already secured a record deal, others are clearly only there for a little bit of fun.

Nevertheless, there has become a quicker way for musicians to secure the deal, and they usually feature on your television on a Saturday night. The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice; an array of talent shows for individuals to show case their talent, or in some cases, claim five minutes of fame, which leads us to question whether busking is still substantial way to break into the industry.

Some musicians take talent shows within their stride, audition live on TV, get a makeover to make them look like a ‘star’ and continue to sing 80’s love ballads every week in the hope that Simon Cowell will take them to break America and obtain the Christmas number 1.

Others however, think that whilst talent shows offer you a queue jump to the front of the rollercoaster that is the music industry, it also damages your reputation as a respectable musician.

Many feel like talent shows offer a ‘kickstart’ into the music industry (Elton John reportedly being one of them) as opposed to the traditional music artists who would work their way up from the bottom, working long hours showing passion and determination.

Of course, talent shows are not always all they are cracked up to be, a lot of the winners become one hit wonders and take their career in a different direction. However, there has been some successes with the likes of JLS, Leona Lewis and One Direction, but one thing is for sure, for anyone who does not consider themselves a pop singer, talent shows will not lend a hand into the industry.

Does it come down to the fact that some musicians no longer want to put in the hard graft to reap the rewards of success and crave the fame as soon as they can?

A huge perk of entering a talent show is that it is televised, you can gain an audience of thousands despite the fact you’re only performing in front of a small fraction of them. This ready-made audience also comes in handy when it comes to sales. For example, One Direction, a boy band that would cease to exist without The X Factor, surpassed The Beatles for the most top 10 Hot 100 debuts among groups, thanks to an audience that would not exist without the televised show.

Buskers arguably have a much tougher time breaking into the industry. Playing in the streets, fighting to obtain a small audience and selling EP’s. Booking small gig venues, supporting musicians with slightly large audiences and praying they will come and see you again.

Chris Tavener, who has been busking for 6 years, explains the difficulties of busking he faces:

“While busking is a great way of earning money from music quickly, it’s not without its challenges. It’s weather dependant, you often have to get a license in many places and in many other places you can’t busk in the same spot for more than two hours.

Getting the best spots becomes very competitive and you’ll often get to a town only to find you have nowhere to play. There are also strict rules on selling CDs as that would make you a street trader. Overall though, it’s a great place to make up some extra money and even pick up a few gig bookings.”

Despite the obstacles busking presents, Chris’ career boomed in 2015 when he was able to become a full-time musician following a dramatic increase in his gigs.

“Performing live is very important to me, I’ve managed to attain a small audience and loyal following mostly through touring. I don’t think I could have achieved the same numbers by promoting my material exclusively online. I’m not entirely able to sustain myself on my original music alone but if things continue on this upward trajectory, I think I’ll be close to doing that in the next two to three years.”

Chris has never applied for a talent show of any kind, although he has carefully considered it, he feels a talent show does not appreciate or nurture an artist’s originality:

“They’d rather mould them into an accepted model of what’s come before. Being an artist who takes pride in their originality, I couldn’t go through that process.

Unfortunately, those who do opt for a TV talent show route are considered to be taking a short cut. It’s not just musicians who think that, I’ve heard stories of promoters, managers and agents refusing to represent TV talent contestants due to their connection with the shows.

 I will always be a big believer in earning your stripes while gigging to small audiences on your way up. The things you can learn about your performance ability, your style, the industry, your own originality, your business sense etc. are incalculable. I feel like the musician I was a year ago was naive compared to the one I am now; let alone when I started.”

Someone who did decide to take the route of auditions is busker Lucy Black who has been singing for 5 years, unfortunately for her, she has not been able to make a full-time career from performing just yet:

“I was invited to a “buskers” audition first where I sang a couple of songs that were filmed and sent off to the producers. I didn’t hear anything back. The year after an agency contacted me and asked if I wanted to go to a “producers” audition. I went to that which was the same sort of experience but just with the producers present. I didn’t hear anything back from that either.”

Despite auditioning for Britain’s Got Talen twice, Lucy feels that talent shows do not produce a long-term career:

“I feel that there are too many singers and musicians that have been made famous by TV talent shows now and that it seems like an easy way into the industry and a good way of promoting yourself but not necessarily good for long lasting success or a career.”

Although busking and playing small gigs may be a prolonged route to breaking into the industry, both Lucy and Chris believe that busking still provides a valuable path when it comes to starting a career within music:

“It’s a difficult and long road but there are rewards for those who are willing to stick at it. We’ve witnessed the growth of independent artists, ie. no record label involved, over the last few years and I think that’s a really positive thing.

Musicians are making a living from their work by selling it direct to fans. Small independent record labels have also been a big help in helping hard-working artists who are busking or playing gigs. Since they’re not in the charts or on the news, the general public aren’t aware of them but as far as the musicians themselves are concerned, they’ve broken into the industry.”

In a society where it seems that most people will take a quick step-up into fame, whether it be talent shows or online singing videos, for dedicated musicians who are willing to work hard, put in the hours and working their way up from the bottom, busking and playing small gigs still presents itself as the best way to break into and keep a respected reputation within the industry.