Will Varley's guide to busking

ACOUSTIC EXPO 2013: Folk singer-songwriter and Dylan fan Will Varley learned to play music so that he could provide a back-drop to the poetry and stories that he was writing. As well as songwriting, Varley also boasts author, film maker, festival organiser and label co-runner on his vast CV.

Having performed everything from festival campsite gigs to sold out theatres, Varley tells us: "For me the ultimate thing is the feeling that we're all together and I'm kind of facilitating an experience for the whole room or tent. That's what I love the most."

For those of you who are getting ready to venture out onto the streets with a covers set or your own material, Varley shares his tips for rocking the busking scene...

Know your song well before you start singing it

"This is a pretty obvious one, and true of playing music in general. If you're going to rock up in the high street next to Poundland there's not much point in being there unless you've got some songs to sing and you've gone over them a few times. It's always the tighter outfits that people stop and listen to the most."

CDs = more money

"All buskers know that the real money comes from people stopping and buying a CD. It doesn't have to be professionally produced thing, just a few labels printed out on your mum's printer and a some CDRs will do (preferably with some of your recordings burned onto them), but you'll quickly see the coppers make little difference compared to the fivers or tenners you get from people buying a shiny record."

Don't be afraid to make a scene

"People will be more drawn to stop and watch if there is an element of theatre in what you are doing. The scruffy looking guy with a guitar will always be eclipsed by the mime artist dressed as a clown playing the musical saw. If you are a big crazy energetic band then most likely you've already got this nailed but if you're out on your own or as a duo, then perhaps have a little think about what you can add to your act to make people stop and give you a chance."

Amplify yourself

"Even if you are playing on your own, plugging into a busking amp will help you cut through the crazed shoppers and screaming kids of the high street. You will always look more professional and find it easier to draw a crowd if you are plugged in. A decent battery powered busking amp will cost you about two hundred quid, but you will make it back before you know it."

Covers versus your own material

"In general, you will make more money from playing covers than your own material, especially if you're a solo act. Most people on the high street are drawn to familiar tunes almost as much as they're drawn to overpriced clothes and products made by Jamie Oliver. You've got to decide if you're doing it to make some cash or if you want to sing your own songs, probably make a bit less, but work on your performance and get your own stuff out there."

Find out the local rules

"All countries, towns and cities can have slightly different rules about where you should and shouldn't busk and whether you're supposed to have permission. You can usually find this information on the internet, and some areas like Cambridge and Bath have dedicated websites. It's probably advisable to find out the local rules if you're travelling around a lot, although the general rule of thumb is just to do it. It's important not to worry too much about getting into trouble or being moved on, playing music is not illegal." 

Respect other buskers

"You will find that most buskers look out for each other, and there is often a great sense of community between the street performers on a busy summers day. There can at times though be fierce competition for particular 'spots'. The general rule is if someone is already there then wait till they've finished or find somewhere else. Never set up within earshot of another busker, it does neither of you any favours."

Work in packs

"Building up a crowd can sometimes be difficult and once you have one it's better to keep them there than to have to keep starting from scratch. If you find the right spot, you can take shifts with other bands or solo artists and keep the audience growing, taking turns and introducing each other as you go. This has worked very well for me in the past, and you will find that there is a sort of accumulative effect as people are more likely to stop if there is already a crowd there."


"Unless you're One Direction, if you are travelling around playing gigs and busking then you'll be looking for the most cost effective options. I don't drive, so I always book my train tickets about a month in advance to get the best price. You will often find the cheapest accommodation in advance too, although in the larger cities you can usually find a hostel up until very late notice. Couchsurfing.org and Airbnb.co.uk have revolutionised the cheap accommodation market and are great options if you're touring on a shoestring. Travel light, be prepared to walk, and always carry a lightbulb."

Reverse busking

"After years of being forced to sing covers if I wanted to make any money from busking, I've recently invented a thing called Reverse Busking. It involves approaching groups of three or four people and offering THEM money to listen to your songs, £1 for three songs or something similar. It gives you a chance to actually start from the beginning and play a few songs all the way through as if you were at a gig. In all the times i've tried it so far, no-one's taken the pound at the end and i've been able to sell lots of CD's! Give it a try…"

Will Varley's new album, As The Crow Flies, is out now on Smugglers Records.