Busking Workshop Interview With Marcus Nicolas (AKA @marcusmillermusic)

A few weeks back at our official Coleman’s Music Re-naming Festival, Travis from our Melbourne (CBD) store sat down to chat with local busker Marcus Miller about his experiences busking and sharing some of that info with anyone whose considered busking as a hobby or a career.

You can find out more about Marcus’ upcoming appearances and gigs around town on his socials pages here:

Marcus Miller Instagram

Marcus Miller Facebook

Colemans Music – Thank you for joining us here at Coleman’s Music Melbourne as part of our renaming festival and welcome to our Busking Workshop. Why don’t we start with you telling us who you are, what you play and what you do?

Marcus Miller – Hello, my name is Marcus. I’m a singer, songwriter, busker – I play at weddings, gigs, and wherever.

CM – What instruments do you play?

MM – I play guitar and loop . . . Oh! And I sing.

CM – How long have you been busking for?

MM – About 4 to 5 years, I think. That sounds about right.

CM – It sounds like you’ve got a lot of experience behind you. Would you say that you’re still fresh or seasoned in the world of professional busking?

MM – I think I’m in the middle. Some of my friends have been busking for 10 or 15 years and that’s a long time.

CM – Well, what we’ve brought you here to talk about today is the whole journey of becoming a busker and to give advice to anyone who is thinking about starting to do it professionally. Everything from very early days to where you are now – where you’re making a living from busking. Let’s treat it as “I want to be a busker”. What are the first couple things you’d say I need to do?

MM – You need your permit from the council. That’s the first thing.

CM – Are there different kinds of permits? Or is there one that covers everywhere in Melbourne?

MM – There are usually 2 types of permits. There’s the premium permit which lets you play on Bourke Street. That’s where the OGs play . . .

CM – And that’s where the big money is?

MM – It depends on who’s playing and when, really. For Bourke Street (premium permit) you have to do an audition, but if you get the general permit you just play anywhere you want. Well, they give you a map of where to play and where not to play.

CM – In terms of where you busk; would you say there are any rules or etiquette about asking a shop if it is okay to play out the front, or do you just go for it?

MM – Usually, it’s just nice to ask if they’re cool with it, but you don’t have to.

CM – Great. So now that we’ve got our permit, let’s talk about a setlist. There are a few points I want to touch on, but basically how do you go about choosing a setlist and how long should you plan on it being?

MM – I mean, that really depends on you. For me, it’s just whatever is on the radio. I’m a crowd pleaser and if you want to make money from this you’ve got to sing what knows.

CM – That’s a good segue into my next question: Covers versus Originals. Would you mix a few original songs into your set or purely play covers?

MM – If you’re selling an album of original songs while you busk – I’m not doing it at the moment, but my good mate Glen is – obviously you’d want to play some originals to show everyone what’s on the CD. But you don’t want to play ALL originals in one set. No one will listen to you and you won’t make money.

CM – That sounds pretty fair. As much as busking is about playing music, we’re talking about how to do it professionally here, so money is going to be a big factor.

MM – Exactly. Here’s an example because I do play originals as well. I’m a singer/songwriter, right? So, let’s say in a whole set I’ll play 7-8 covers and then before I take a break, I’ll usually ask to play an original.

CM – You usually ask?

MM – Yeah! You can only stay in one spot for 2 hours, and if there’s a little bit of a crowd I usually ask before I play an original. I use the pity act as well, so you say “Every time I say I’m going to play an original – everyone walks away, so please don’t walk away”. If they like what you’ve played, they’ll usually stick around.

CM – So, the general idea is covers are going to be more profitable than originals, but it’s cool to sneak in one or two every now and then?

MM – Exactly!

Marcus performing live in Bourke Street, Melbourne.

CM – Let’s talk about a music store employees’ favourite topic; gear. What did your setup look like when you first started out? I imagine it’s pretty different from what you’re using today.

MM – My advice for setups is based on your confidence level. If you’re starting very confident and you know you want to do this professionally, I’d go straight for high-quality stuff. But I’ll start where I started. When I first started busking, I used the Roland Cube Street (amplifier) – the most basic, base model version in the range – and my guitar was the Yamaha APX-T2 mini (acoustic guitar). Just the really cheap stuff that did the job. And a week after I upgraded everything.

CM – Was that because that combo wasn’t working out as well as you hoped?

MM – At some point it was, because there wasn’t enough sound coming out of the amp so I was straining my voice a lot. After my first week of busking, I had enough to upgrade to the Roland Cube Street EX which is much better for busking in the city. I also upgraded my guitar to a Sigma TM-15E Mini.

CM – And how long did you use that for?

MM – It was a good 6 months before I upgraded to a proper PA system because I saw these other buskers using them and they sounded so good. I want all of my gear to sound really good.

CM – How do you go about powering a PA system on the streets? I don’t imagine there are any power points you can plug into.

MM – I have a portable mini battery that you use to power big RC cars. It’s called a “Lipo Battery”, and you just buy them online and use an adapter to power your stuff. With my current setup, one of those lasts me about an hour and I usually carry 4 of them with me.

CM – And much like any guitarist, the collection of guitars has grown as well, right?

MM – Hahaha, yeah. You can never have too many.

CM – What would you say is your must-have piece of equipment for busking? If I were about to start as a complete beginner to all of this, what is the first thing you’d tell me to get?

MM – You need a good guitar (if you’re a guitarist)! I highly recommend Mini Matons. I’m using the Diesel (EMD-6) Mini Maton and its hands-down the best busking guitar I’ve ever used. It’s super light so you can move it around everywhere, and it sounds really good.

CM – Circling back to location for a minute – you mentioned before that the council gives you a map of where you can and can’t play. In addition to that, are there certain things you look out for when picking a spot?

MM – Just keep an eye out for people who you think may become a problem. I don’t want to sound disrespectful but if you see a homeless person with a bunch of alcohol around them, it’s usually best to avoid that area.

CM – I’ve actually seen what that can be like for you. It was only the other week when there was a guy who smelt like a brewery constantly trying to interrupt you while you were playing and was shouting out over the top of you. I’m still amazed you managed to keep your cool with that going on.

MM – Yeah. I mean, you can’t always avoid it in the city, but you can lessen the chances of it happening.

CM – How would you normally deal with someone like that?

MM – Well first you want to brush up on your Kung Fu skills . . . I’m joking. No, usually you just call the authorities for that. Don’t engage with it yourself. You can try talking to them, but if they won’t move along nicely the police have to get involved.

CM – What about for the nicer folks in the audience? Do you leave pauses in between songs for a little bit of banter, or just focus on playing?

MM – It really depends on you. I feel like sometimes you need to throw in a joke here and there just to keep the mood light and keep people entertained. Sometimes I don’t talk at all, but usually I just say a couple lines in between songs.

CM – What about the rules amongst buskers? Are there rules regarding how close you can/ should play to another busker, or any rules you have amongst yourselves?

MM – Just don’t play so close to other buskers that you mess with their sound. I usually wouldn’t play within 2 blocks of another busker depending on how loud you are. With my volume and setup, you definitely wouldn’t want to play on the next block to me. Or if you wanted to play in a similar space with someone, you should organise alternating times with them. You play for half an hour, and then they do, and so on. Everyone’s happy that way.

CM – Are there any secret or unspoken rules with busking? Like, are you shunned if you play the same song as someone else or anything like that?

MM – I do that anyway – I just play it better (hahaha). No, there isn’t anything like that. The only big rule is that you can’t stay in the same place for more than 2 hours. But if no one is there to fill the spot next, I don’t see what wrong with continuing to play there. If it’s a good spot and no one else is waiting, why move?

CM – That sounds fair enough. What would you say are the biggest difficulties you’ve found with busking?

MM – The weather without a doubt. If it’s raining and you have to be out in it, it gets cold and it can damage your equipment. Also being alone can be difficult. I’m usually out for 4 hours at a time, so if you’ve got to pee or anything you can’t just leave your stuff anywhere. You can ask someone to look after it for you, but I’m too worried about my stuff getting stolen. That reminds me – watch out for thieves. It’s happened to me a few times where people just run up while you’re singing and just steal your money. Make sure you get like a bucket or something that they can’t steal from.

CM – What do you use?

MM – I use my guitar case, but I make sure to wear Nikes or Adidas just in case.

CM – To end on a happy note, what do you think are the biggest perks of busking?

MM – If you’re a professional musician like me, who plays at gigs, weddings and whatever, I treat it as a paid practice session. I sing and practice new songs in the street and I get paid to do it. So, I play half a song and see a penny and I think “Sweet!”.

CM – So as much as busking is a way to make a living, you also use it to benefit your other musical endeavours?

MM – Yeah! If you get stage fright, it’s a great way to get over that. Think about it; no one really cares about a busker like they would if you’re on a stage. People aren’t going to stop and stare at you unless they really like what you’re playing. It helps with performing in front of people because you don’t have all eyes on you. I think that’s the biggest part of it, it’s experience and exposure.

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