Spend a summer night in a city, and you’re bound to encounter a sleight-of-hand street magician or a dance troupe prompting passersby to gather around.
In the subways, singers and keyboardists’ sounds cut through the pedestrian bustle. Elsewhere, human statues blend in with the city’s stonework, making distracted onlookers do double-takes.
All these performances are funded in largely the same way — with a hat passed around or an instrument case propped open for easy collection of audience dollars. It’s one of the few professions still strictly reliant on cold hard cash, but people aren’t carrying it like they used to.
As cash use dries up, so does buskers’ livelihood — unless they can find a digital solution, of course. Nick Broad, co-founder of The Busking Project alongside Liliana Maz, recently spoke with PYMNTS about the company’s efforts to provide modern payment solutions for the busking lifestyle, including how digital uptake has the potential to bring more and larger tips.
“We found street performers in 40 cities in 30 countries on five continents,” Broad said. “We interviewed 300 [of them] in 10 languages, asking them what inspired them to become street performers and what issues they faced. Among the issues universal to all buskers everywhere [is] ... the fact that people are carrying less cash than they ever have been.”
Tailoring Tip Taking to Busker Life
Though point-of-sale (POS) systems work for retailers, neither the equipment nor the payment acceptance model really fits the needs of street performers. For one, some buskers perform their acts for a large crowd, often ending with many people all trying to pay them at the same time.
Setting out a bucket and allowing a crowd of 300 people to rush up and drop bills in is one thing, Broad said, but asking them to cue up in an orderly line and take turns swiping cards likely won’t fly. Not all audiences are comfortable handing over their bank cards to strangers on the street either. That means performers need passive ways to accept payments without breaking their acts.
“How is a human statue going to break character to get a card swipe machine out to take donations?” he asked.
For Broad and Maz, meeting consumers where their wallets are has meant enabling audiences to pay by credit card, PayPal and Apple Pay — all without interrupting the performer or requiring her to purchase acceptance devices. Buskers can put up a sign with a URL that directs fans to The Busking Project’s page, and passersby can then use it or the company’s mobile app to tip.
The app charges patrons on their registered cards or Apple Pay accounts, and both it and the website are powered by payments processor Stripe. This payment solution also takes aim at another issue — a lack of ubiquity, something that limits the utility of U.S.-only person-to-person (P2P) solutions like Venmo.
“There really isn’t a good solution out there that allows buskers to take in money from a wide variety of people in their current city,” Broad said.
The Busking Project is currently used by performers in 113 countries. It enables tipping from anywhere and in any currency, but the receiving bank account must be in euros, British pounds or Australian, Canadian or U.S. dollars. This solution also faces a barrier: A limited marketing budget means there hasn’t been widespread consumer adoption to fully solve buskers’ payment acceptance struggles.
Another solution Broad hopes to see someone offer requires a bit more hardware but would avoid asking audience members to type in card details or download an app. He believes many buskers would benefit from having an array of free-standing, contactless payment-supporting terminals, each configured to charge suggested tip amounts. Audience members could simply tap their phones at the terminals, creating a quick and easy way for the performer to accept mass payments. The range of preset tip options would also psychologically encourage consumers to select a mid-range amount.
Does Digital Drive More Generous Spending?
Digital is not only about ease of payments, but also about amount. Broad believes consumers are likely to spend more if they pay digitally, in part because mobile options disrupt cash-based tipping habits.
“People are used to paying more on Apple Pay,” he said. “If you have the choice of opening a wallet and taking out bills versus taking coins out, you might be tempted to take out coins, even if what you watch is worth [the same as] a cup of coffee or a movie ticket.”
When audiences see a performer with cash in his guitar case, they tend to assume the performer is doing fine and that their tips aren’t needed, Broad added. Tip collections are less visible with digital options, so audiences are more likely to donate based on what they think the performance is worth — not based on assumptions about performers’ overall incomes.
“People, for some reason, don’t feel like buskers deserve to be successful,” Broad said. “If you walked by and saw them with their case full of bills, you might be less inclined to donate to them ... My hope is that cashless payments will remove that. [If] they’re with their [payment] machine with a number on it and you tap as you go past, there’s no longer the clutter of cash clouding your opinion of the street performer.”
Digital payments systems also enable buskers to set a minimum tipping amount, along with other added features. For example, The Busking Project works to drive audience traffic by offering a live map of nearby performances and online music selling features.
Buskers for Hire
The organization also features a job board and a designated staff member to help would-be clients identify street performers to hire for festivals, weddings and other events. Payment is not handled through The Busking Project, which instead simply acts as a resource to find local talent and opens the potential for performers to land more gigs.
It also drives engagement within The Busking Project community, helps forge connections and gives a greater sense of legitimacy, according to Broad, as would-be hirers might be deterred by the stigma that buskers are less professional or trustworthy.
“We make all the introductions,” he said. “It’s like a dating service for events.”
The Busking Project has been live since 2015, with word-of-mouth and online discovery spreading awareness. As growth comes to both the emergence and adoption of new solutions — especially those that aim to help buskers operate in the digital realm just as smoothly as they do on the street — Broad hopes performers will be able to focus more on wowing crowds than worrying about ending up with empty hats.