If you've never performed on the street before, you're lucky. It takes bravery, patience, and luck to have good busking experiences. Tracy was expecting the best, but he got something else instead.
NOTE: Kids, don't try this at home.
Tracy was nervous when he started setting up. He had acquired the proper permits, he mastered his hour and half long set-list, and he made sure to get plenty of rest the night before. There were fresh strings on his guitar, and fresh batteries in his amplifier. His girlfriend had bought him a new microphone stand, and his parents had paid for a new XLR cable. He considered these conditions prime to have a good first busking experience, but he knew that it would be hard work. He was prepared for hecklers, and he knew to ignore them. Tracy had always wanted to street perform, and now that he was good enough, this was a dream come true. He plugged his microphone into the amplifier and took his guitar from its case.
“You new here? I don’t recognize you.” Tracy saw a man in his mid-twenties holding a piece of poster board. On his side was a large leather pouch with a metal locking mechanism. He extended his hand as he introduced himself. “My name’s Stan. I’m a regular here on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Hello, I’m Tracy. This is my first day busking, actually. Do you have any tips?” Stan smiled as he shook Tracy’s hand. He remembered his first time, and a sense of nostalgia pumped through his veins. Stan tried to find the best piece of advice, and after a couple of moments of deep thought he shared his insight.
“Give the people what they want.”
Stan walked the appropriate distance performers gave each other, and raised his sign for Third Street Promenade to read. Tracy took a pick from his wallet, and began his set.
“Hey guys, my name is Tracy Jones, and I’ll be playing for the next hour and a half. Any donations are greatly appreciated, and can be dropped in the case to my left. Thanks, and enjoy the music.” The first song on his set-list was Girl by Beck. It was one of his favorites to play, and he knew it was one of his stronger songs. He took a deep breath as he began to arpeggiate the introduction.
“YOU SMELL LIKE MY DEAD UNCLE BATHED IN PIG SHIT.”
“You’re welcome. Have a nice day.”
The conversation a couple yards away distracted him, but Tracy snapped out of it in time to strike the first chord. He began to play the progression, singing into the microphone.
“I saw her, yea I saw her
With her black tongue tied round the roses
A fist pounding on a vending machine
Toy diamond ring stuck on her finger”
“Your parents consider you to be the worst mistake of their entire lives. If given the choice to raise you again they’d probably invest in either Plan B or a coat hanger.”
“No problem! Do you have the time?”
Tracy dropped his pick on the ground. What the hell is going on? No one prepared me for this shit. He was halfway through the first song, so he strummed his guitar with his right index finger. Grab the pick when the song is over and just ignore it. You’re almost done. Tracy flashed a fake smile. It was something he practiced in the mirror, and it was something he didn’t plan on using half way through his first song. That smile was a sign that he was becoming uncomfortable performing. That smile was him trying his best to keep his composure. Solider on, his grandfather would say. Solider on and quit being a wussy.
“And I know I'm gonna steal her life
She doesn't even know what's wrong
And I know I'm gonna make her die
Take her where her soul belongs
And I know I'm gonna steal her life
Nothing that I wouldn't try”
“Damn, you’re ugly! Your mother must have been a pug and your dad must’ve been Steve Buscemi! I was a day manager at a strip club in Reno, and you still might be the ugliest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen. I bet the farthest you’ve gone with a gal was coming out of your own mother and the luckiest you’ve ever gotten was getting herpes from a toilet seat. With the face, hair, teeth, and body combo you got going on you’ll probably kill yourself when you turn thirty-five.”
“No problem, kiddo. You got change for a ten?”
He lost his composure; the voice crack that came from Tracy’s vocals made him flashback to the sixth grade. He struggled to get back on key. His hands were trembling, his face unable to fake smile. The song finished, and he immediately grabbed the mic-stand. His voice cracked again, sending him into a spiral of embarrassment.
“Hey guys, I’m going to take a quick break. Don’t go anywhere.”
Tracy looked around, trying to find the cause of his breakdown. Nothing was out of place: There were people drinking coffee at Starbucks, there were couples wandering holding hands, and there were angst-ridden fourteen year olds chain-smoking as they marched forward. A woman walked up to Stan holding a dollar bill and began to shout.
“I bet you do this because you dropped out of high school. No one wants to hire you because you’re a loser working corners for a quick buck. I hope your heroine tonight is the sweetest you’ve ever had, asshole.”
“You’re welcome. You should wear a jacket next time. It’s chilly out.”
The woman proceeded to give Stan the dollar bill, and he put the bill in his leather pouch. Tracy’s jaw dropped the furthest it’s ever dropped and he proceeded to run toward the man with the sign.
“Hey man! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Stan turned around and looked surprised. He lowered his sign and locked his pouch.
“Sorry ‘bout that. I should’ve warned you about this spot. I’ve been coming here for about two years now, and I guess everyone else knows to set up camp elsewhere. My apologies.”
Stan’s face looked sincere, which made Tracy even more confused. He was missing the big piece of the puzzle. Everything about his first busking experience seemed uncanny and surreal, and it was all Stan’s fault. Tracy looked at the sign held at Stan’s hip and began to read the bold, italicized text.
Throw your best insult at me. Each insult $1.
Try to beat last record.
The Guitarist's eyes began to bulge; his mind couldn’t process what he had just read. Tracy took a step back and tried to understand what was going on. “People insult you, and you make money off it? How? Why?”
Stan smiled and placed his hand on Tracy’s shoulder. “Remember what I said? ‘Give the people what they want.’ That’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years. And so far it’s given me pretty good profit.”
“There’s no way you’re making good money off this.”
“It’s enough money each month to pay for my power bill, internet bill, phone bill, and a steak dinner.”
“But that’s not fair! I’m playing music for them! I give them something to listen to! I give them art!”
“True, but I give them something they want more. Everyone has a shitty boss, shitty co-worker, shitty friend, or shitty neighbor. I give them an outlet without consequence; I give them something they’d pay therapists $150 a session for. I’m much cheaper, and I don’t take it personally.”
“Are you telling me that the world loves screaming hate more than listening to songs about love?”
“Is that really so hard to believe? It seems more people are getting divorced than people are getting married; there’s a billion porn videos you can watch on your iPhone; kids are committing suicide over twitter-feeds; and above all I’ll make $85 an afternoon while you’ll probably make less than $20. Love is an old fashioned word that stopped being relevant when Justin Bieber was in pampers. It’s as dead as Carlin, and unlike Christ, it ain’t coming back.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“And that’s fine. I’ll still make more money than you today.”
Tracy looked at the sign one last time and walked back to his camp. He unplugged his amplifier and put his guitar away. The profits he made were 45 cents and a lifestyles condom. Everything was packed, and Tracy began his long walk home.