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Brainiac

Making a living as a street performer in Boston

A street performance by singer-songwriter Alex Navarro.
A street performance by singer-songwriter Alex Navarro. (Courtesy)

When you pass a street performer — or busker — it’s natural to wonder: How much money can you make strumming a guitar on the sidewalk? Last month an interesting post on the website Priceonomics took a stab at answering that question.

Mark Sandusky ran the numbers on 10 busking sessions that he conducted with his music group “Dirty Little Blondes” on the streets of San Francisco this past January. On average, he and his bandmate, Kendra Moriah, made a combined $42.55 per hour. But not all busking sessions were created equal — from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. on a Monday, for instance they earned just $3. From 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on a Friday, they collected $117.

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After reading Sandusky’s post I was curious to know more about the busking scene in Boston, so I reached out to Cameron Brown, creator of the website Boston Busking, which profiles street performers in the city. One of the first things that sets Boston apart from places like San Francisco, Brown remarked, is the weather, and not only because people are less likely to dig out a tip in a blizzard. “It’s very seasonal here, since their instruments don’t allow [performing outside] when it’s below freezing,” Brown said.

Brown estimates he has interviewed and written about 15 Boston buskers, from harpist Alàis Lucette to singer-songwriter Alex Navarro. He’s learned that Faneuil Hall — which schedules registered buskers at different stations — is a coveted spot in the summertime, that Park Street station is the best place to play underground (though buskers have to keep the noise below a specified level, and bucket drummers are prohibited), and that artsy Cambridge is considered a better place to busk than Boston.

“I’ve been told by quite a few buskers that they enjoy Cambridge more because people are more open to talking and buying CDs,” Brown says.

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Brown was hesitant to divulge how much buskers have told him they make, though he allowed that he’s heard one Faneuil Hall bucket drummer say he takes home around $500 per session. He did report, though, that the middle of the day — which was dead in the San Francisco experiment — is actually one of the preferred times for Boston buskers, because the slower pace and thinner crowds make the musicians more visible. “A lot of buskers don’t like busking during rush hour because everyone who’s traveling from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Downtown Crossing is trying to get home to their family,” he says.

Overall, you might imagine that cold, Puritan Boston is poor soil for the exuberance of busking, but Brown says that, comparatively speaking, the city is pretty welcoming. To prove the point, he notes the experience of one West Cambridge native, who grew up dreaming of busking in Harvard Square and then went off to college in Cincinnati. “He tried busking there,” Brown says, “and it was considered panhandling.”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

Ilana Katz performs in the Downtown Crossing station.
Ilana Katz performs in the Downtown Crossing station.(Courtesy)