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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 12:39 GMT
'My busking tips for Badly Drawn Boy'
Clare busks at Columbia Rd flower market, photo by Joe Mee
Clare makes at least 50 a day
Pop star Damon Gough - aka Badly Drawn Boy - made a paltry 4.90 from a day's busking in London. I can beat that, says professional busker Clare Mee, 39, who makes her living on the mean streets.

I live in London but I wouldn't dream of busking in this city - that was Badly Drawn Boy's first mistake, London is a terrible place to busk, absolutely dreadful.

There are just so many people asking for money on the streets - Big Issue sellers, beggars, buskers - so you tend to get moved on for being on someone's pitch, or by the police.

It's a fine line between busking and begging. You know what Badly Drawn Boy looks like - pretty scruffy - so he was probably blurring that line. I try to dress well and perform outside London, somewhere it's very obvious that I'm busking, not begging.

Badly Drawn Boy
Badly Drawn Boy was secretly filmed busking for a pop video
He made 1.60 in 90 minutes, and 4.90 over the day
He won a Mercury Prize in 2000, and did the soundtrack for Hugh Grant's About A Boy

His third mistake was to play his own new material - if a passer-by doesn't recognise what they're hearing, it's much less likely that they'll give you money.

I'm a professional musician and I'm told I sing very beautifully, but if I sing something that touches somebody because it was their dad's favourite song, or it reminds them of school, then they will respond.

By choice I sing unaccompanied traditional folk songs, but I've added others to my repertoire because people ask for them. They'll come up and say 'do you do any country?' so I now do three or four country songs; or 'do you do Amazing Grace?' so I now do that.

Freed from office shackles

The reason I decided to make busking my profession, to use it to earn money while looking for gigs and session singing and recording my own album, is that my other choice was office temping.

Clare busks at Columbia Rd flower market, photo by Joe Mee
Clare pays tax on her earnings
But secretarial work would have earned me about the same amount, and I'd be eight hours in an office; I'd not be myself with no time for rehearsing or learning new songs.

With busking, I'm never singing for more than three hours a day and I make at least 50. What really makes a difference is if I sell copies of my CD, Unquiet Brave. If, like on Tuesday, I sell five CDs, then I haven't just made 50, I've made a second 50.

I pay tax like any other self-employed person - my brother thinks I might be the only busker in the whole world that comes in and fills in her tax records. But for me it is to do with self-esteem - this is the way I earn my living and I don't object to paying tax.

The other very good reason for busking is that no-one is going to walk into an office where I'm temping and ask: 'you haven't got a great voice, have you?' They do on the street and the job offers I get are what make it worthwhile. I'm working on an album with someone who heard me busking in Cheltenham. I've also had several wedding bookings from busking.

Licensed to trill

When I first got into busking, I tried it now and then in London but the only place that was pleasant to do was Covent Garden.

Cellist Julian Lloyd Weber busking on a Tube platform
That busker may just be a pro
But the system there is ridiculous. I couldn't make myself heard, as singers aren't allowed to use amps which is only fine if you've got a big opera voice. I didn't enjoy it, and realised that I'd be far better off in a town centre in Canterbury or Hitchin.

I also tried the tunnel at South Kensington, between the Tube and the museums. It's a nice busking spot because of the acoustics but the competition is fierce! There's a little piece of paper on the wall where you sign up for a slot. I made 24.11 in my 30 minutes, but it's not worth going all the way across town if that is your day's takings.

So now I busk in small towns within an hour or so of London. My method of finding out whether a town has a law against busking is to go and try it - if they do, they'll come tell you pretty quick.

I haven't looked back since my first time busking three years ago. Quite early on, a woman started shouting 'you're wasting your time, you're wasting your time' - she looked so angry, I was quite put out. Then she said 'you should be on the telly' and I realised that she did like my singing after all.


Send us your comments:

So THAT is what "busking" is. I'd come across the word but never bothered to look it up. Over here, we call buskers by the names "street musicians", "sidewalk musicians", or "subway musicians". Unfortunately, in many US cities, the practice is considered to be essentially equivalent to vagrancy or is automatically deemed "disturbing the peace", although some cities do accept and license it.
Bryan Maloney, USA

There's an important lesson in all this... If you want strangers to give you money, try being an attractive, polite, well-dressed young lady rather than a scruffy man in a silly hat.
Simon D Grayson, UK

Busking scares me so I haven't done it in years. But I'm a big fan of street entertainment and have had the pleasure of seeing Clare Mee in Chichester late last year and believe me she IS the 'Unquiet Brave'.
Micky Froy, UK

I spent 17 years busking mostly on the Tube. I've chased pickpockets from stations, stopped fights and halted escalators when someone has missed their footing and come tumbling down. A friend, Bongo Mike, led people from the carnage of the Kings Cross fire like the Pied Piper because of his intimate knowledge of the station. I've been fined 2,000 times, marched out in handcuffs just for playing music. But music is good for the ghostly canyons below our streets.
David Benn, ex-Musical Clown of Piccadilly Circus

In Helsinki, busking is quite popular and accepted. Most of my "colleagues" are talented Russian accordion players. So being much more modest in skill, I've gone for steel guitar strumming and singing ballads in my native Spanish. Earnings are EUR 6 to 14 an hour.
Isko Kuha, Finland

Even in relatively poor nations such as Estonia, I've found that if I don't put my heart into my work, then the proceeds aren't as good. I once juggled 3 balls and an orange for one punter, who promptly gave me the orange, took my photo and dropped a note in my cup. Damon Gough isn't renowned for his smile. A dreary attitude will get a dreary response.
Chris Lacy-Hulbert, UK

Salisbury seems to encourage people to busk and showcase their talents. In one case, I liked a band so much I hired them for my 40th birthday - for less than the cost of a week's groceries. I'm not a Musicians' Union member, but I do like their slogan: Keep Music Live. Busking has an important part to play in that, and it is sad that so many local authorities ban it rather than support it.
David Hughes, UK

If you're quite good and willing to make fun of yourself, people see the humour and the money comes rolling in. So I wear a multi-coloured clown's costume, a stetson hat, and huge pointy shoes.
Iain Everett, Staines, UK

There's this guy who used to sit on the corner of Waterstone's bookshop in Cardiff playing Flamenco guitar. Whenever I went past as a student, his effortless playing sent chills down my spine, yet his battered guitar case was always virtually empty. It's a travesty that such talented individuals make their living by busking when the charts are full of talentless popstars paid a fortune to produce bland, emotionless twosh.
Ronnie Jones, England

I went busking in Bath some years back. Although the money good, I was very vulnerable carrying instruments to worth 2000. I had one guy who'd take money out of the hat - he just smiled at me, and helped himself. The worst time was when a drunk vagrant picked up my instruments and attempted to play. It soon became apparent that even in the midst of a busy town, you are totally on your own if things go wrong.
Glenn Wardle, UK

I witnessed a good friend be arrested in Venice, California for juggling without a permit!
Jennifer Youngs, US

The best busker I have ever seen is a chap who pitches in Market Street in Manchester. He goes by the name of "the Hoochie Coochie MANcunian" and tears the shopping area apart with his fiery blues guitar and energetic vocal style.
Adrian, England

Busking got me through university - sometimes my friends and I (we played pop classics like Pachabel's Canon and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) made 60 or 70 in three hours each in places like Chichester and Kingston. A lot of our earnings did get spent in the pub though, and we met a lot of very strange people like "Dancing Lady" in Chichester who always gave us a fiver and did a little dance to our music.
Nichola, UK

As a teenager I and my friend went busking in a few small towns, as part of a holiday in Wales for example. The best part was the old ladies taking sympathy and giving money, the worst when people left their children watching while they went shopping, so we didn't feel we could move on.
Flash Wilson, UK

I've busked in the museums tunnel and what amazed me was the threatening behaviour of the other buskers if you "took their slot"! Leicester Square was by far my best pitch (even better than Covent Garden's official busking area) because the tourists and the Chinese community in particular are very generous and have a real appreciation of music.
David Farmbrough, England

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Clare Mee
"I started out at Columbia Road Flower Market"



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