Busking in bad weather
How I feel on a rainy day

Let’s talk about the weather.

Talking about the weather is the kind of conversation most people fall back on when they don’t know what else to talk about. It’s a safe topic, not generally controversial, and completely superficial.

Unless, of course, you’re a busker.

Even if it’s dry, and warm, and I’m dressed well and feeling good, a blast of wind could have me chasing after my cards. Just last weekend, I had to deal with the breeze by getting a volunteer to be a paperweight. It made for some fun jokes, but it certainly wasn’t ideal.

Indeed, if you’re a busker, the weather is on your list of top five favorite topics. Jeremy the Magician from Britain (get used to him – I’ll quote him lots) explained to me once, “You could lose money to the weather. A rainy Saturday could be a fairly expensive proposition for a street performer.”

But the weather isn’t just a black and white thing that can’t be tackled. In the summer, when “you’re in the shadow and you got some wind,” it is “maybe ten degrees cooler than if you’re in the sun.” And in the dead of Chicago’s winter, pedestrians will flood the streets if the temperature is all of a sudden above freezing.

Even on February 15th of 2014, when it was 19˚F at the corner of Michigan and Ontario – but sunny – a living statue known as the Original Chicago 10 Man (get used to him too) had a good day: “You know how long I have been waiting for a day like this? Doesn’t even have to be warm. Has to be people and not a blizzard.”

Busking in snow
Not ideal conditions for street performing

Conversely, if it’s a chilly 50˚F in the Spring, the streets turn into a ghost town.

Comfort of audience members is, of course, key. People are less likely to stop, stay, and watch if they’re spending their time thinking about the heat or the cold. At the same time, lighting matters. A Boston busker noted, “You don’t stand out as much if you’re in the shade…. I would prefer me in the sun and my audience in the shade.”


What if it rains tomorrow?

But since the weather itself ultimately can’t be controlled, what matters most is what street performers do on those days when the weather can be accommodated.

One Chicago breakdancer made clear how important that is with a statement that I at first assumed to be a metaphor: “What if it rains tomorrow? Or, you know, God forbid, a tragedy or something, and you can’t make it! Then what? You’re gonna wish that you stayed out those extra couple hours no matter what you do when you go home.”

It wasn’t just a figure of speech. Despite the freedom of life on the streets, despite the ability to choose where you work, when you work, and for how long you work, there is a specific kind of constraint that comes with that kind of independence.

Take this text message I got from Jeremy one day – whose commute to his pitch on the Mag Mile includes an hour-long train ride and trip in a water taxi: “Brought my rig just in case but it doesn’t look like this rain is going to let up any time soon.”

I’ve watched a drummer pack up his gear at the first drizzle, out of concern that the tools of his trade would be damaged. I’ve hung out with other buskers under an overhang, staring ruefully up at the sky as we waited for the clouds to let up. The weather can be accommodated – unless it rains. Nothing can disperse a crowd more completely than a moderate shower.

That’s when it becomes clear that the metaphor isn’t just a metaphor. Professional street performers don’t just work when the weather is nice.


They work when they can, because they can’t always work.

Busking Chicago
Michigan Ave on a much nicer day

I have been dubbed a “Weekend Warrior” by a street performer friend because I only really perform on weekends when it’s nice out. A mentor of mine once sent me a virtual glare through Facebook for complaining about performing in the heat. Other buskers I have spoken with work hard to contrast themselves with fair-weather performers like me.

One busker spoke of a few other performers he knew: “They’ll only go out to get money when they need it. You know? They need some money, they’ll go out and make it. That’s quite different from somebody who’s going out steady like it’s a job. Regardless of whether they need it or not… That’s a different mentality…. Those people, they’re trying to get in and get out, you know… they’re not trying to build anything.

What’s being built? There’s the obvious answer – a life for themselves. In hat lines and in the way professional buskers speak about their work, the money earned gets put towards “paying the rent,” “raising kids,” or “buying a house.” Professional buskers think long-term because busking is their career and their livelihood.

Significantly, though, while street performers work because they aim to make money, they’re also aiming to do a little more. As one busker reflected, “I like to think I bring a bit of character to the city.”

Therein lies the value of what street performers do – and why it matters so much that buskers are performing day in and day out. Their work creates a distinctive city “vibe.” Because of street performers and the work they do, one tourist took to the Interwebs and – on Yelp – aptly labeled Chicago’s Magnificent Mile the “heart of the city.”