Feb 14, 2023


[Busking is] the activity of making money from audiences on the street. The two elements of busking are that the audience has the choice of how much, if anything, to pay, and that it involves some form of entertainment (it isn’t panhandling or vending).
– Unknown

Note: Some of the following comments include amounts of money in the imaginary unit called “C-shells.” These units are used to avoid any hint of illegal price fixing in the balloon industry.

References: In addition to the Guide, the following books provide information about twisting balloons for money:

  1. Balloon Biz, by Norm Barnhart
  2. Balloon Busking, by Bob Brown and John Morrissy
  3. Inflation Information, by Frank Thurston
  4. Making Inflation Work For You, by T. Myers
  5. Professional Portfolio for Balloon Artists by Bruce Kalver
  6. Insider’s Secrets to Working Restaurants by Mark Nilsen
  7. Out Of The Part Time Frying Pan And Into The Full-time Fire by Marvin Hardy

You’ll find reviews in the Books, Magazines, Videos, and Other Resources chapter.

What is Busking?

  • What is the definition of “busking” and where did it come from?In short, busking is a very old term, dating to 1857 according to Merriam-Webster, but I think older. Can someone find another reference? (The history of busking is one thing I’ve never looked into, but I know a number of people have written about it.) The term describes the activity of making money from audiences on the street. The two elements of busking are that the audience has the choice of how much, if anything, to pay, and that it involves some form of entertainment (it isn’t panhandling or vending).

    Busking is where you go out and work for no money, no contract, and no booking. Rather, you work a crowd for “tips” or “passing the hat”.

    Busking: to entertain on the street with the intent of receiving monies from the watching crowd. To entertain in exchange for tips.

    Balloon Busking: to entertain on the street using 260Q’s, 350Q’s, B-Bodies, Geo’s, Geo Blossoms, 6″ Hearts and more, with the intent of receiving monies from the watching crowd. To entertain with balloons and patter in exchange for tips.

  • When you are busking, you are not providing free balloons, you are providing free entertainment. Since you are providing entertainment, you have the choice of who you provide balloons to… can you be blamed for catering to those who are supporting you by dropping a dollar or two into the hat? After all, no matter how much you enjoy making folks smile, you have your expenses that must be met, if you are not making money you have to pack up and move along.
  • All these buskers are selling entertainment. They are being tipped for pure entertainment. As soon as a product comes into the equation the value of the tip as a vote for your entertainment is diluted. You no longer know what they are paying you for.
  • I started entertaining as a magician and my goal was to be able to make a living by doing shows on the street and passing the hat. I toured the states and watched buskers: magicians, jugglers, trunk shows, musicians/singers, slack rope walkers, animal shows, storytellers, fighters, mud wrestlers, sword swallowers, mimes, and actors playing characters. I put together a street show and worked it wherever I could for 3 years. I have a great deal of respect for anyone that can make it busking.I never got to be that great. My best single hat was 70 C-shells for a 15 minute street show. There are guys out there making hundreds. But I did gain a solid understanding of the art. One of the greatest things about busking is your tip is like a vote by the audience. They are telling you how much they enjoyed the entertainment. One of the hardest things about busking is getting a tip for a smile. You not only need a good show, you need to gather a crowd in the first place and you need a great tip pitch. These 3 things are nearly equal in determining how much you will make.

    Certainly there are all different types of busking and some of them don’t have to draw a crowd or pitch a tip (like a musician with his case open.) It depends on the situation and the abilities of the performer.

  • When I first started using balloons on the street I was doing a magic show. The crowd was sparse. I needed a way to get them to come to me and making balloons would draw a crowd. Then I’d do a magic show and pass the hat. I got very little in the hat but they all stayed around. They all wanted a balloon and were not going to give me a tip until I made them one. What did I expect, I had used balloons to get them to gather in the first place. The worst case I could imagine was the audience feeling like they had to wait through the magic show to get to pay me for a balloon. They laughed and had fun but they wanted the balloon before they would let go of their money. I needed the money, so I kept making balloons. This was kind of disappointing as I preferred doing the magic show and had put years of work into it.
  • If a Tip Pin is a crutch for a busker, what is giving out balloons? If you think people are giving you money just because they love you, try doing your show without handing out balloons and see what your tips look like. Maybe you can do just as well and cut expenses.
  • First of all, you must realize that street performing is one of the most difficult ways to make money. For every single dollar that you take home, you earn two or three. And that’s _before_ taxes. By that I mean that not everyone you entertain pays you for it. It’s the classic economic free-rider problem: Even though everyone benefits, no individual has an incentive to give you money. Interestingly, the “public” has the incentive to pay you, because if they don’t, then you will leave and they will go without entertainment. Every street performer has to fight the free-rider problem, otherwise we’d be hungry.
  • The street is a difficult place to work. You must create organization out of chaos, grab personal space out of a public way, communicate with strangers, and work long hard hours under pressure.
  • So if it’s that tough, why the street at all? Well, everyone has a different answer. But most of the performers who I talk to have similar reasons. Basically, it’s because they love it. If you can get through the obstacles, then it is a wonderful way to make money. It is a rush no like other to have groups of people applaud you and then rush forward with fistfuls of money. There is also no job in the world where you can have complete independence, be utterly creative and expressive in your work, and have an instant performance evaluation.
  • So, when we talk about busking with balloons we are much closer to the world of street performing than to the world of straight-up twisting. I do both. I began working as a balloon twister, and have spent all summer making the transition to busking. On paper, the difference is minimal, but in real life it is huge: A balloon twister makes one balloon model for each CUSTOMER, and gets paid for each TRANSACTION. A balloon busker makes one balloon model for each CROWD, and gets paid for each SHOW.
  • The bottom line is that a balloon twister can make money as fast as he can turn around a line. A good twister will adapt the complexity of the balloons to the crowd. If the lines are long, then each customer gets a simple balloon, and the twister gets a buck or two. If the lines are shorter, then the twister can make bigger hats or multi-balloon models and try to get a couple more dollars from each transaction.
  • A balloon busker has to balance the size of the crowd with the percentage that give money, and get them to dig deeper to give paper money instead of the loose change in their pocket. Trust me when I tell you that it’s much harder than just twisting. I was told by some of the top street performers that, “you’ll probably suck for a few years, and then it will all come together. I did.”
  • Statement: Single balloons handed out to every kid in a family will fill your tip jar fast really fast! Multiple balloon sculptures may please us, and even impress your customers, but the simple rule is, the more you make and give out, the more money you’ll make.Response: I have to disagree very strongly with the idea that “the more you make and give out, the more money you’ll make.”

    There’s a limit to how many things you can make in any given time period. In other words, there’s a cap on your profit. A good show with balloons and fancy stuff can attract many more people in the audience. If you aren’t going to give ballosn to everyone but expect everyone to toss in some money, you’ll do a lot better. When you can make 100 C-shells in your hat for each 30 minute show, why be happy with 50 C-shells in an hour of pumping out balloons? For those that are wondering, no, I don’t make 100 in every hat. Far from it. I don’t busk often enough. But other experienced buskers make several times more than that for their shows. And I rarely make less in a hat than I would doing a balloon figure a minute for an hour.

  • It’s a lot easier to get into working lines for folks starting out. Fact is people want balloons, you don’t have to entertain them to twist for tips, but the experience that I’ve had (and others have mentioned) is that the more fun the people have, the more complex I can be with balloons (because they’re more willing to wait), and the more complex I can be with balloons, the higher the tips…
  • A lot of this kind of work depends on the number of people walking around. If there is not a crowd to work there’s not much to do. City or Community Fairs draw crowds. For working tips I prefer Arts and Crafts or Food Fairs to County or State Fairs.
  • Check with the Chamber of Commerce for upcoming fairs. Arts and Crafts fairs where they close off the street, have music and beer are usually good. If you are working for tips, you should either get paid as entertainment or be welcomed in for free because you are offering free entertainment. The worst that can happen is they say, No. That’s not so bad if you figure every No moves you closer to a Yes.
  • I recently picked up a copy of “Be a Street Magician” by David Groves. ($40 at amazon.com.) It’s the best book I’ve seen so far on busking. The focus of the book is on hard core street magic. In other words, Groves doesn’t really discuss the festival setting. But it’s a good overview. He also talks specifically about building a magic show for the street. That may not be directly relevant to most of the people on this list, but if you read it for his discussion of a street shows you’ll get something out of it.
  • Also, if you haven’t already seen it, take a look at http://www.fooledya.com/busking. It’s my (Larry Moss) thoughts o balloon busking.

What Are The Legal Issues?

  • If you make NO mention of a price and wear tip buttons, you are riding a thin line between sales, etc. I do that so that I won’t have to register with the police as a vendor nor do I have to get a sales license. I’m officially an entertainer; I’m not selling.
  • The problem you can run into is that almost all states require you to collect sales tax for sales, and they define sales as not freely giving your product away. Balloons are free, tips are welcome is the normal way most states allow. However there may be some kind of gray area, both in your state and within your municipality. If you can find out the limitations on how you talk about your need to receive money for the balloons, you can probably slip by without much of a problem. The NY Department of Taxation and Finance told me that as long as I only create an atmosphere where payment is expected/hoped for, but not demanded, I was safe.
  • When I busk, I always try to get permission first. There is always someone who can say yes or no. Find that person before they find you. If they find you, it is easier for them to dismiss you than deal with you. My approach is “I am offering free entertainment and sometimes people tip me.”
  • It is bad form to ‘perform’ any place people pay an entrance fee unless you’re sanctioned by the sponsoring business.
  • I was once told to stop working near an outdoor market because the vendors didn’t like it (I didn’t have a button). So I went into the market and joined the “Save the Whales” booth and twisted for them until their donation can was full. The next time I came to that market I was allowed to busk. There is always a way around.
  • Street performing is relatively new here and a lot of people don’t know how to respond to it yet. I do mainly paid gigs but on the odd occasion I like to go out and just busk in shopping areas etc. I find that it really keeps one sharp and is also great for trying out new material. If I do get approached by security, I get my audience on my side. This makes it very embarrassing for the cop/guard to remove me.
  • Audience support can be a powerful ally. I had the Salvation Army set up near me and then demand that I move on! I told them that I had to eat too. They didn’t care but my audience did, and told them to leave. They packed their instruments and moved down a block as they should have done in the first place.
  • According to the City Council, it is against the law to work for tips on the streets of Pensacola. They do not issue licenses, you just can’t do it period. You can work for a special event, but the city has to sponsor you. Most of these events cost a person over $200.00 in set up costs.
  • Busking is also illegal in Leavenworth, WA. I single handedly managed to get a new ordinance drafted and approved by the chamber of commerce. I still haven’t gotten it past the city’s lawyer, but I’m not finished with him yet.
  • If you are busking on public property, NOT selling the balloons, but accepting donations/tips, then you are protected by ‘freedom of speech’. In fact, from copies of court cases I have read, it appears it is illegal to insist on any kind of a permit to busk. Of particular interest to me is a supreme court ruling that being kicked out of an area because licensed vendors are complaining is a REAL big no-no. Most of the information about the legality of busking on public land comes a from single out of state court case that was filed on the behalf of a busker by the ACLU. While the outcome of that case is probably only valid for that state, the decision reached was based on several Supreme Court rulings on the subject.
  • Demanding tips before twisting would be vending, but twisting and accepting offered tips would not be vending. On the other hand, twisting, refusing tips and giving out free flyers with free balloons is legal (so far) and might bring enough attention to the stupidity of the ordinance to get it eventually changed.
  • When I want to twist at a new place I try to find out the rules if there are any. Talk to security. Talk to management. Talk to the other twisters. Don’t interrupt their work. Wait till they have no customers. Watch the guy and get a feeling for who he is. If you interact with him while he is working, leave a tip. Maybe you want to buy him a coffee after work. Maybe not. Once I know I’m not breaking any real rules, I look for a place that is not in the line of sight of another twister. I don’t want to be drawing away from him the people he has gotten to stop. This is nice but doesn’t always work, depending on the layout of the area. In any case, don’t set up right next to him. You may all be twisters but people can tell quality. I would not be too concerned about being associated by profession. The profession is honorable. Going to a new place takes guts. You’ll never know if you don’t try.
  • Malls (indoor and outdoor) are usually owned by a private company. At least in my experience. If privately owned, laws that govern performance on streets are irrelevant. Ask the management company of the mall if it’s public property, and if they allow this kind of activity.
  • As for busking at your local public outdoor mall, first check with the city clerk’s office about ordinances covering street performance, vending, even street preaching. Don’t let someone simply tell you “You can’t do that here.” Ask, politely, to see the local regulations covering your activity. If the city allows busking at all at that venue, you will likely need to obtain a privilege license, as you will be considered a business even though you aren’t selling anything. Some cities are forward thinking and look at street performance as a cultural plus. But in my experience, more view it as a nuisance.
  • This is true in some areas. Your local laws will determine if a permit is or isn’t needed. I agree whole-heartedly that you should find out about necessary permits before you get in trouble. (Some places have very strict laws about this and no amount of pleading ignorance will help.) You do need to be careful. If you are giving one balloon to one person and getting money in exchange, your local laws may describe what you do as vending. You have to make it real clear that if someone doesn’t want to pay, they don’t have to.
  • Milwaukee doesn’t allow street performers. We can’t stroll the mall where The Clown Hall of Fame is and do balloons for tips; all we can do are walk arounds. Does anyone know a successful way to change a local ordinance?
  • This same thing came up a few years ago in rec.juggling. One particularly helpful fellow, and probably a lawyer too, (Hang on! Isn’t that an oxymoron?), refered people to the 1978 case of Goldstein vs Nantucket. I looked up the case, and the basics are this:Goldstein was playing folk guitar on the above mention island, when a man in blue wearing a side arm, politely asked him to move on. Goldstein took the case to court on the basis of the first amendment. The ruling said that Goldstein was merely exercising his right to free speech, and that the powers at be had no right to ask him to move on, provided he follow certain reasonable restrictions. eg. busker’s license, not after 3am etc. It also refered to a case heard two years earlier, establishing freedom of commercial speech. Thus Goldstein was allowed to play and ask for money, but not pan-handle.

    So, if you are living in the good ol’ USA, you have the right to twist balloons and ask for money on public property, within reasonable boundaries. If you are asked to move on, you may want to quote the above case, and this may scare off anyone asking you to move on. However, if they look like a cross between Arnold Schwartzeneger and Frankenstein, then it maybe best just to leave.

  • Milwaukee doesn’t allow street performers. We can’t stroll the mall where The Clown Hall of Fame is and do balloons for tips; all we can do are walk arounds. Does anyone know a successful way to change a local ordinance?
  • If you had the money I bet lawyers could make a good argument that it is your right to pursue happiness by twisting and handing out balloons on public property. If you had the money you probably would not care about the tips.
  • You might try working with the rules on the next level down. Private property – like the promotions department of a private mall or individual stores.
  • Sometimes you can get an OK to work tips on a store’s property. The store may even own the sidewalk covered by their awning. Ask the managers. You can attract business for a lot of different kinds of stores; shoe stores, dollar stores, stores looking to draw people to a promotion, I’ve talked to people who are welcome to work grocery stores and WalMarts, even restaurants. You might ask the Clown Hall of Fame about working inside their doorway. (Check all the local laws before doing this. When I lived in Myrtle Beach, SC costumed characters and entertainers visible from a public street were considered signs and were in violation of the sign laws. Molly the Mermaid, a cute little 17 year old high school student who put on a mermaid tail and sat in a wading pool on the front porch of a seafood restaurant greeting customers, was arrested for this violation. So was an older gentleman who put on a white cooks uniform and rang a dinner bell on the front lawn of another restaraunt. When one of our clowns or other entertainers was hired for a store grand opening or promotional we always warned them to stay out of the parking lot and off the sidewalks and stay inside the building even if the owner wanted them where they could be seen to draw in passersby. Just check all angles before you make a decison.)
  • Present a petition to the the city council members. They might decide to make certain changes if asked. Our city agreed to issue ten (I believe) street vendor permits. This meant that we got some street vendors but not so many that it was crowded with them. The best way to change a law is with lots of people wanting it changed…. and a lawyer never hurts.
  • I have, on occasion, been asked to leave when I was busking. If that happens, just politely excuse yourself. In most cases the cops won’t bust you immediately; they’ll first ask you to stop. So what’s the harm in trying?
  • Today I went to a city park to twist. A man came over and told me I had to stop. He said that working for tips was the same as selling balloons, and I couldn’t do it because it was a city park.
  • When confronted I have found it’s easier to not try to explain the difference between busking and vending; if they ask (or demand) that you stop or leave, I politely excuse myself. You’re right, there’s no arguing, even if you are right. Simply move to another park or location. Sometimes that’s just the best course of action. The only alternative is to attend a council meeting and make a case for yourself. It may lead to a permit system (maybe good, maybe bad). I personally like the “guerilla” approach, so I cringe at the thought of applying for a permit, but at least it shows you have the right to be there. Bob Brown discusses this at length in “Balloon Busking” (available from T)
  • I would have asked him where in the city codes this information could be found. I still would’ve quit and not alienated this person by asking them to bring me a police officer to tell me that what they say is correct. In Dallas, you are allowed to “practice” your area of entertaiment with a thought toward sharpening your skills. If any of the people in the crowd you gather in so doing wishes to give you a “gratuity”, it is legal to accept it.
  • I’d go downtown and look up the codes. When I went to the code enforcement office here, they were even nice enough to photo-copy the regulations for me. Come to think of it they even highlighted the section pertaining to my need. Funny what a lil’ yeller bird and a rose balloon will do for you.
  • I would assume that you don’t wish to be the test case. Although, when a fellow who does water color portraits for tips and one who does balloon tip work on a regular basis were confronted with this same regulation told the police officer that they were going to leave as he had requested, but only after he issued them a citation so that they could have their day in court. The judge threw it out qouting the thing about “practice and gratuity”. I must say, to their credit, the two fellows did stood up for the officer and explained to the judge how they had demanded their day in court. The judge has been scolding the officer about bringing him something he could sink his teeth into. They carry a photo-copy of the judges ruling with them all the time to show to any officer who hasn’t heard yet that busking in Dallas is not considered to be “generating income”.
  • Be nice and sweet and ready to show them the regulations, hopefully highlighted by the city staff. It would be in your favor to be able to say that the highlights were done for you by the staff of the city code office. I even wrote the ladies’ names and the office phone numbers down on the back of the paper so that scoffers could call for themselves. Although I haven’t busked for some time now this little bit of leg work has saved me some hassles with all sorts of folks. Store owners, police officers, meter maids, security guards, event organizers, and on and on. I was sweet and nice and all that, but I stayed. Most of them came and got a balloon from me before I left. Some even tipped… the classy ones, that is.
  • When I did a local festival a couple of months ago, I had to apply for a license with the city council. Here, a distinction is made between vendor and artist. If I were to ask a fixed amount for a balloon, I would be a vendor, and would need a special (more expensive) license. In my case, I did not ask for any money, but just put up a bucket indicating that tips were welcome, but not necessary. Thus I was a “Street Artist,” which sounds a helluva lot better. Tip-wise, this did not make a difference. On the contrary, I believe. I got some tips which were a lot larger than what i could possibly ask for a balloon creation, so in the end, it measured up more than evenly with the balloons I gave away for free.
  • You want to stay away from peddling as there is usually sales tax due. There may be other restrictions as to hours, locations, local business license etc. You want to be in the category of a mime, entertainer, musician, actor, juggler, etc. You do not SELL a product per se but provide entertainment. The ACT of twisting is really an act with gestures, patter, jokes, etc. You do not REQUIRE a payment but will accept one.
  • You want to stay away from the taxing authorities and the sales tax forms. You buy balloons but they are props – not goods for resale. You pay tax on them when you buy them from a local supplier (not for resale). They are not an inventory even though they do spoil if too old or left in the sun. You practice twisting things at home much as a musician or other entertainer practices. If it was solely for sale you would not consume your inventory. Even when they pop it adds to your act.
  • I often go to the local street mall and twist balloons for tips. At one point, I had a police officer stop by and ask me if I had a sales tax licence. (I had checked this out in advance and had my answers handy.) I told the officer that I was NOT, in fact, selling the balloons, rather I was giving them away. Because I wasn’t selling anything, and I had purchased the balloons locally, I had already paid the sales tax on the balloons. If anyone read my button that reads: “Tip$ greatly appreciated, Thank$!”, and decided to give me money, then that was their own decision. He thought about this for a moment. He realized that this was true (under local regulations!). He then asked me to try to keep my line from blocking access to local businesses and went on his way.
  • What I had learned from checking into local regulations was that if you are not SELLING balloons, i.e. charging a fixed price for each sculpture, then there is no need to get a licence to sell a product. And as long as you purchase the product locally, there is no law preventing you from GIVING AWAY that product, even if that product has been altered by your labor (even with this restriction, I usually NET, (after cost of balloons), about $10-$15/hour).
  • I STRONGLY suggest that new twisters check into this for their own municipalities, but I doubt that there will be much difference. As long as you are willing to GIVE your sculptures away, then the most that the law can do to you is ticket you for loitering. I have yet to meet the cop who will do so to someone who is generating smiles in the local community (just remember to keep your line in control, and don’t let it block local businesses!).
  • In California, the sales tax police (if they catch you) will tell you that balloons ARE TAXABLE if you receive payment BY CHARGING A SET PRICE or if the payment is BY WAY OF A TIP OR DONATION.
  • Balloons are not subject to sales tax if you are paid by the hour. Face painting, however, is not subject to sales tax at any time. How do I know this? I work a weekly street fair on Friday nights selling both face painting and balloon sculptures with set prices depending on complexity.
  • The sales tax cops visited me at the street fair one Friday night in June, 1998, the night before I would leave for Clown Camp. Even though I had a line of customers, I had to stop to complete all the paperwork to apply for a sales tax permit on the spot. They asked how long I had been at the street fair – since June 1997 – and I was billed for sales tax for balloons sold since June 1997. The paperwork required lots of information I did not have that night including my social security card. I explained that I was leaving early the next morning for a week of training and they allowed me to fax them the rest of the information when I returned. I paid the 1997 tax which included interest and penalties since the tax return was due on January 31, 1997 even though I did not receive the paperwork until June, 1997.
  • If I sell balloons at a specific location more than 1 time each year, I have to have a sub permit listing that location. In Los Angeles County, the sales tax is 8.25 percent. I can add it to the cost of the balloons and tell them (tax included) or I can not charge the customer. The sales tax cops only care that the tax is paid. It doesn’t matter to them that I already paid tax on the balloons I bought locally. So now I have a resale number and have to file a sales tax return and pay the tax. Please check with your state tax agency to get the right information.
  • My first question would be if services are taxable in California? In other words, if you take a car in to be fixed are taxes paid on both parts and labor or only on parts? In many states the answer is on parts only. If this is the case, and I think it might be, then you will have an argument that the entire charge for the balloon is not taxable. The reason I don’t think services are taxable in CA is why face painters don’t pay sales tax. Their product is mostly labor. You will need to establish that the balloon is sold for $.05 and the labor costs $.95. If your sign states that you might not be taxable on the entire fee. Another tact might be balloons are free. Take them if you like, but if you want it to look like something my labor costs $1.00. This is a little more drastic, but I think you get my drift here. Establish that you are performing a service and not selling a product. As always, contact a full service accounting firm to see if it is legal in your state.
  • “It doesn’t matter to them that I already paid tax on the balloons I bought locally. So now I have a resale number and have to file a sales tax return and pay the tax.”Again in most locations you can deduct the cost of taxes paid from taxes you collected before you pay in. A product cannot be taxed twice. So if you pay tax to your balloon supplier you can deduct that tax from the amount you pay in. You can also get an exemption from paying taxes on your purchase if the item is for resale and taxes will be paid at that time. The catch in both of these is to establish which balloons are being resold and which are used for personal consumption. (Used in your clowning or for practice.)
  • “Please check with your state tax agency to get the right information.”Absolutely do not do this! Check with your full service tax professional. I am not knocking services such as H & R Block or other tax season only preparers. I think a CPA offers so much more. Your main decision is the cost vs potential savings. The reason I say do not contact your state tax agency is for two reasons: First, you have just told them who you are and what you are doing. Very few allow you to do this anonymously. Second, they usually give you the text book answer and will not give you alternative treatments.

    I have nothing but the upmost respect for Heart Throb and in no way am I indicting that this was not looked into at the time the state first started this. I am only letting everyone know there are legal alternatives to these situations. We are an unknown commodity to most taxing agencies. Use this to your fullest advantage. You educate them as to what it is you do.

    While we are on sale tax discussions, again, in most states you are subject to a “use” tax on items purchased out of state that are not taxed that are consumed in state. In otherwords, the balloons I buy in Texas for use in Wisconsin are not taxed by Texas. They are, however, subject to taxes in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, you pay these taxes on your personal income tax return. I do include this on my taxes, I am an extremely honest guy and some day I will make a profit in this business!

  • In San Diego, CA there is a distinct difference between an entertainer and a vendor. In Balboa Park, and in various other parks in the city, you must interview for a permit and then sign up for a space to perform in. Tarot card readers, jugglers, clowns, twisters, musicians, face painters, caricaturists… we are all considered performers. We work for #donations# and the city agency that issues you the permit, gives you a sign that says “Donations accepted.”To receive my business license, I registered as an “entertainer.” They were quite distinct that I WAS NOT a vendor… If I were considered to be a vendor, I would have had to register with the police, as well.

    It is strongly suggested that a performer who accepts tips make a balloon whether or not they receive payment. I have seen other twisters, and artists working for “donations” or tips and they insist on receiving a tip… THAT is selling.

    As soon as you insist on receiving money in exchange for an item: it is a sale. When it is in exchange for an all around event, it is a booking and still in the entertainer category.

    Though it is tempting to say “NO TIP NO BALLOON” I do not. I WILL limit a child on number of balloons he/she can receive… but then again, I will limit children whose parents tip too. (I don’t want to get stuck making armloads of goodies for each and every person.)

    I guess my best suggestion is that people should just talk with the police in their cities to see who qualifies as a vendor and exactly what the city statutes entail regarding their status.

    To the IRS, to the state, and to the city of San Diego, I am an entertainer. I have told you about the guidelines that cover us in San Diego, now it is up to you to check with your local city offices and local law authorities for registering business permits.

  • If you are pan handling, asking for money for nothing, then I doubt you will have any trouble getting picked up and removed from the street.If you go out making balloons and telling people they cost X amount per balloon, then you are vending and need a license.

    If you have an entertaining performance, are on public property, and are not demanding money per critter… then you (theoretically) are exercising your rights to free speech the same as any politician who can get up on a soap box, speak his mind, and accept donations.

    No, I am not a lawyer, so this is not legal advice.. however; the ACLU does have lawyers and have successfully presented this case in at least one US district court. They also used excerpts from the US Supreme court which directly addressed the rights of street performers.

    I have been told that the Harbor Area in Baltimore HAS been successfully sued for the same reasons. (they require you to try out with them and have a permit) They were told that since the area in question is NOT privately owned that they could not do this. They lost the particular case, but I’ve also been told that they tend to ignore it and take the chance that no one else will issue a challenge.

    Our county executive last year was kicked out of a neighborhood festival for passing out balloons with his name on it while talking to voters. I believe he was a former US District Court judge, he argued that this was a direct violation of his Freedom of Speech Rights and that he was aware of several court rulings that upheld his claim. His initial reaction was to sue the festival organizers, but he realized that this would not be a very good political move.

    A good starting place for legal information is the ACLU home page at http://www.aclu.org/index.html. The case is listed as: United States District Court District of Massachusetts Civil Action No. 79-1455-Z, Robert Goldstein vs. Town of Nantucket, et al., District Judge D.J. Zobel.

Busking, with a special focus on balloon entertainment

by Larry Moss

(This article is an excerpt from the CD-ROM Attack of the 50 Foot Demon”.)


Busking, or street entertaining, is a centuries-old approach to entertaining audiences. Despite the ever changing world, it is still popular in many cultures, and is a common introduction into the world of professional performing. Due to its commonality, the difficulty of being a successful busker is often overlooked by the would-be entertainer. Only hard work and a careful understanding of what this form of entertainment is all about will make for a fun and successful experience.

I was one of those people that saw the beginnings of a performance career on the street. Year after year, I’ve looked back at the experiences I’ve had, and always missed being back in Central Park, NY. As I travel and lecture to different groups about performing with balloons, I’m often asked about balloon busking. I answer those questions to the best of my ability but, in all honesty, I’ve felt weird doing so: it had been years since I had done any serious busking. I recently returned to the street as a performance venue after a nine year hiatus. I knew it was time for me to do something about that, and the opportunity presented itself this last summer with an invitation to perform at the Halifax Buskers Festival. With all of my experience as an entertainer, I was reminded of just how different busking can be from the more formal settings I’ve found myself in over the last few years.

Every street performer has some of the same issues to deal with, but also some of their own. The variables are personality, type of performance, and the target audience. Some sections of this article are certainly meant to apply to busking in general. Others focus on the particular form of entertainment that I specialize in; balloon art. If you have an interest in busking, regardless of your specialty, I hope the information I provide is useful. I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost authority on the street. Far from it. My approach to balloon busking is different enough from others I’ve seen that I want to share my experiences.

Larry Moss, 1998

What is balloon busking?

Let’s start by looking at some basic definitions that anyone working on the street needs to be aware of.

  • Vending – Selling merchandise for profit.
  • Panhandling – Asking for money or other handouts while giving nothing in return.
  • Busking – 1. The halfway point between vending and panhandling. 2. Providing entertainment on the street for the (hopeful) receipt of money from strangers that stop to watch your show.

If you try to draw a line between the three activities above, you might start to see the problem that buskers frequently encounter. Governmental agencies are familiar with vending and panhandling, and often mistakenly lump busking into one of those categories. After all, you’re receiving money from passersby. They’re either buying goods, or giving because they’re generous. Buskers don’t see it that way at all.

A busker generally works hard for the money he makes. He isn’t looking for handouts from kind and generous souls in the same manner as a panhandler. He is, in fact, selling something. The something, however, isn’t so cut and dry. A busker sells entertainment. I like to think of it as selling smiles and memories. There’s no tangible exchange of goods. In many municipalities, anyone collecting money on the street is required to have a permit and collect sales tax, but most of those places only offer vendor permits. Those taking money without a permit are automatically in the same class as panhandlers or tax evaders. A busker trying to get around this by applying for a vending permit runs into the issue of trying to collect sales tax on non-tangible items. You can see how we can talk in circles over the issue. As a result, buskers are forced to work in places where invitations have been extended or to be constantly looking over their shoulders for the cops.

The balloon busker, the person entertaining crowds through the use of balloons, has an even harder time distinguishing himself from the street vendor if he finds himself only getting tips from those that get balloons. Almost anyone will tell you that sounds like the balloon artist is selling his work. It’s just a matter of semantics, but you try to explain it to the cop whose job it is to hold you to the letter of the law.

If the legal issue isn’t enough, consider this last point. Even the most talented performers can find themselves earning almost nothing on the street. Remember, busking is all about earning a living from people that have enjoyed your show. If you think it’s hard to convince the cops that what you’re doing is a legitimate way to make money, try convincing people on the street to part with the cash they have on hand.

If you’re new to busking, I’ve likely confused you by my opening remarks. I talked about how appealing the street is for me, while still describing the street scene as being an incredibly difficult place to work. The fact is, while difficult, it can be the most rewarding form of work. The very thing that scares most people is the thing that I like most. The only people that stay to watch your show are those that genuinely enjoy what they’re seeing. Those first few minutes are rather trying. That’s when you have to convince them to stay and play along. But once they’re watching, you know you’ve won them over. When that show ends, and you have a crowd around you applauding and giving money, it’s not because they’re being polite. It’s because they want to do it. Every time my street show ends and I can look into the smiling faces of my crowd, I know I’ve done something right. If I look and see that there is no crowd, I know that I need to improve, but I don’t have to answer to a disappointed audience that paid admission to watch.

It’s not easy, but if you stick it out and develop a show that works on the street, you’ve got something to be proud of. You’ll know that your income has been earned. Most importantly, after all of the hours put into developing that show and learning how to work with your crowds, your performance and audience interaction skills will be greatly enhanced for your work in other venues.

Constructing a show for the street

Musicians, magicians, jugglers, and others all develop and rehearse their acts before walking out on stage. Balloon art should be no different. Quite often I encounter people that say, “I can make 20 balloon figures. Now, how do I make money doing it?” My answer is always the same. “Turn it into a show.” There is nothing wrong with making creations out of balloons and giving them out or selling them. That’s how most professional twisters get started. In fact, many of the really good twisters out there make far more elaborate creations than the best balloon entertainers. I have a lot of respect for those people. Maybe you’re happy just impressing people with your intricate creations. If entertainment is your goal, step back and ask yourself how entertaining it is to watch those creations being made. Some people will be fascinated by the changing shape of the balloons until they reach their final form, but will an audience stay to watch? Will an audience even be able to see the object being created, or will the smallest details be lost on the people 20 feet away?

Balloon entertainment can take on several forms. The most common one that I see is the artist standing with a line in front of him. Each person in line knows that if they wait long enough, they’ll walk away with a balloon. Some twisters allow the people in line to choose a creation to take with them. Others make what they feel like making as each new person steps forward. Some make things with only one balloon. Others use many. The details of how this is done is just a matter of style, and frankly not what this article is about. When it comes down to it, whether you place a price tag on the sculpture or allow them to give you what they wish, you’re selling your artwork. You’re becoming a balloon factory. Even the most creative artists realize that speed becomes an issue. You can only make money if you can handle the line fast enough.

For an idea of how to improve this situation, let’s look at other forms of non-balloon entertainment. When I first started on the street, I took two skills with me. They were magic and juggling. I used juggling clubs, my larger props, to draw a crowd. Then, once I had the crowd, I did card tricks on a small table in front of me. Only a dozen or so people could see me at a time. As I practiced, my story-telling skills improved, and two or three dozen people could enjoy the show. The prop itself was less important than the show built around the prop. A 15 minute magic show with a deck of cards could entertain three dozen people. In fact, a good, strong street act might play to several hundred people and last 20-40 minutes. The fastest balloon twisters in the world can’t make interesting figures for 200 people in 40 minutes and still be able to feel their fingertips.

I looked at this long ago and began to wonder what it would take to turn balloon twisting into something that would entertain crowds that large. I came up with two different approaches that work for me. I’ve seen only a few other twisters do either of these. Both of them forego the line completely and resorts to the tried and true approach of treating the people on the street as an audience. They want to be entertained beyond all else. Even the ones that want to go home with something want to be entertained along the way. Have you ever noticed how bored people look waiting in line to buy something? Don’t make them wait for the balloon sculpture or the value they place on it will be like anything else they buy. You want the value to be in the entertainment they’ve experienced.

I will outline the two basic forms of balloon entertainment that I most often find myself doing. I’d also like to make it clear that these are far from the only things that I feel will work. What’s more, I make no promises that what works for me will serve as a recipe for success on the street when done by others. It’s taken several years for my ideas to evolve into something that works for me. I invite anyone with balloon twisting skills to give them a shot, but I urge you to find your own style, using my methods as something to get your imaginations going. It’s not that I detest copycats. In fact, if you think my ideas are so cool that you want to use them, you’ll flatter me. It’s just that I don’t believe anyone can be successful as an entertainer unless their own persona finds its way into the show. Creating a show, with balloon art or otherwise, isn’t easy. It will take a lot of experimentation, practice, and frustration to find what works for you.

The interactive balloon art demonstration

The interactive balloon demo is my favorite method of showing off. It’s all about standing in front of the crowds and having them cheer at my inventiveness and ability to think quickly under pressure. The reality is that most of what I do in front of the audience is well-rehearsed material that I’ve been using for years. I really do ask the audience for suggestions, and I really do listen. But when it comes down to it, it’s my choice of what to make.

As I go through my introduction, I already have balloons in my hands and start to create. By the time my intro is finished, I have something to hold up for them to see. The stage is truly set for what I intend to do. I then inform them that I’m up for suggestions and more than willing to make the things they request.

“All of you should tell me at once what you want to see. You all have to speak at the same time so that no one person’s request stands out above the others. I’ll hear them all and make a decision. If I like what you suggest, I’ll make it. If not, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you.”

That gets a laugh. I’ve told them in a funny way that I’ll make what I want. But I leave it open for them to suggest something really cool that I hadn’t thought of. If their suggestions are good enough, I’ll take a stab at making what they ask for. Sometimes I already know how to make it. Sometimes I really am winging it. In either case, I try to make it fun. when a really outrageous suggestion comes my way that I actually know how to make, I’ll build it up even more.

“A pelican eating a fish? You can’t be serious. Where did you come up with that one? Oh, never mind. I’ll try, but if I can pull it off, I want a round of applause unlike any you’ve ever given to a street performer. “

As I work, making pieces of the pelican and showing it off in odd positions so that no one can see what’s coming, I remind them that I need recognition for my efforts. When I finally complete the sculpture, I hold it up, take a bow, and milk it for all it’s worth.

The important thing is to keep talking. Keep your crowd interested in what you’re doing and saying. When I was working on my education degree, I remember being told that people will remember things best and will be most attentive when you appeal to multiple senses. The same is true in a performance situation. Don’t just count on the visual aspect of your artwork to keep up the enjoyment level of the audience. Tell jokes, interact with the crowd, maybe even ask the audience to pass the sculpture around for many people to get their hands on. I was flattered at a recent event I did when a blind woman stayed around after my show to tell me that she listened to the whole thing and found it much more enjoyable than some of the other acts. This wasn’t someone that could even see what it was that I created.

I run into some difficulties doing this when there are people that want their own balloon sculptures to take with them. Picking the people to give things to can be a challenge. I usually give them to the people that I expect will cause trouble if they’re ignored. The reason is not that I wish to give in to demands, but because I want the whole experience to remain as enjoyable as possible. If those that are going to interrupt me walk away quickly, I can go on with the fun and tell jokes. Other times I give things to the people that asked for something so unusual that I had to make it. The audience quickly sees the value in participating and they get even more involved.

Since my top priorities in choosing the figures I make are entertaining the largest number of people and making them laugh, I don’t necessarily do things that are hard. I do things that are highly visible. Quite often I make things that are actually incredibly simple but get the largest laughs and give me an opportunity to bring volunteers on stage with me. Other times, I’ll end up making full body costumes and getting the people on stage to become actors in stories that I tell. I don’t place greater or lesser value on anything I make. I just make it and get it out into the crowd so that my artwork can do its own walking and advertising for me.

The makings of a formal show

What I’ve already described can easily be turned into a more formal show. In fact, if done right it’s the more formal show that’s likely to make you more money on the street. We’ve already established that not everyone can walk away with a creation if you’re busy showing off how awesome your skills are. So, admitting that you can’t give balloons to everyone, why not hold back on giving balloons to anyone and focus more on creating an elaborate stage set.

I compare myself in some ways to a stand-up comedian. I’m in front of, or sometimes in the center of, the crowd. I introduce myself and inform them of what they’ll witness over the next 40 minutes or so. In fact, I lay out in the beginning what this is about and how long I’ll go on before I take a break. It is a show, and they need to know that. If they think you’ll twist forever, or that you’ll be making things for everyone, you’ll never get them to watch the show patiently. They’ll just be waiting for handouts. Before I walk out, I have a planned set containing the material I intend to use during the 40 minute period, much like any comedian, musician, or other entertainer would do. I like to improvise, so I rarely stick entirely to my plan, but it gives me something to fall back on.

The whole show is a story. It doesn’t have to start with “once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after”. But it has to flow from beginning to end. There need to be connecting pieces that hold it all together and give it a reason to be presented in the way that it is. In any performance venue, but even more so on the street, make people aware of who you are. Introduce yourself. Just because you’re standing on the street and not charging admission doesn’t mean you’re less important than a big name celebrity. Know where you plan to go. If your goal is to end with 10 people on stage wearing costumes made entirely out of balloons, figure out how to get there. The show may be about showing off your skills, but you’ll be more likely to hold an audience if there’s a theme connecting those ten costumes. It could be a walk through history, or it could be the ten main characters in a play. Take a step back from the balloon artwork, and think more about the performance art.

In connection with creating your story, make sure you develop a character that can properly deliver that story. If you stand up there in a very straight fashion describing things as you make them, you’re putting the focus back on the props, taking away from yourself as a performer. When you’re on stage, you’re an actor. You may be playing the part of yourself, but you are still playing a part. Simply demonstrating a skill will make the skill, in my case balloon twisting, more important than the show.

An example of a routine I’ve used with balloons is a story of the evolution of magic and dragons. As I tell the story, I create a dragon costume for one audience member, and create armor for another. The knight and dragon face each other on stage in a battle to the death. I set this up by twisting the costumes and fitting them to my volunteers, all while talking about an imagined history of magic. I have the audience laughing by telling jokes about the characters and talking to my assistants. I then introduce the characters as mortal enemies, and lead them, step-by-step through a slow motion fight sequence. In the end, one of them comes out the winner. The balloons themselves are incidental to the story, but an important part of the overall picture I’ve created.

Some people may choose to tell one 40 minute story like the dragon versus knight scernario I describe, but more likely, you’ll want to do a few different things during that time to keep the pace up and keep your audience interested in what’s coming next. If that’s the case, consider a running theme, or connecting material between segments. Using the above story, the theme may be as generic as fairy tales, or as specific as dragons. Perhaps the same idea could fit a good versus evil theme. The connecting material could be a running gag or a few jokes that relate to what you’re doing. A running gag I use involves making celebrity figures out of balloons. I claim to be making famous people, but always create something silly that gets a laugh.

Educating the crowd

One of the largest challenges I’ve faced in my approach to balloon busking is that I’ve ignored the tradition of the balloon artist on the street handing out balloons. Let’s look at it from the audience perspective. For years, most people have only witnessed balloon artists pumping out balloons as fast as possible. They have been conditioned to expect just that. By exhibiting a different style, you’re up against their pre-conceived notions of your job as an entertainer. This means that the first thing you need to do is educate your audience about what you offer.

One such approach is a simple and direct description as you begin:

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Larry. What I’m going to do for you today is demonstrate an unusual artform that I refer to as airigami. That is, the ancient art of folding air in specially prepared latex containers. You’ll note that the things I do with balloons are far different from what you’ll see elsewhere. While others make simple dogs and cats and giraffes and monkeys and hand them out as a toy to take home, I view the balloon as my paint brush and create artwork that will be remembered and treasured.

Because of the unusual approach that I take to my artwork, each creation requires more time to make than those simple dogs and cats. For that reason, I wish to entertain, amaze, and dazzle all of you with my sculpture, but I can’t guarantee that every one of you will carry away something I’ve made. Instead I ask everyone of you to walk away with the memory of what you’ve witnessed. If you aren’t one of those that gets to take away one of my creations, I’m sure you’ll still smile at each unusual balloon figure you see in other people’s hands throughout the day as you realize that my artwork is brightening up the festival grounds.

It’s possible that not everyone will like this speech. Some people will still insist that they need to get something. I just look at it and point out to myself that I can’t please everyone. When I look back at trying to make 200 figures in 40 minutes, I realize that even if a few people are disappointed, I’m way ahead of where I’d be if I were trying to make figures for everyone. If you decide to try my approach, stand your ground. Don’t let it bother you when people insist they need a balloon to go home. It’s your show. You decide what you’re going to do.

Clothing for the busker

When performing, you need to be comfortable, but you also need to stand out. Some of the street performers I’ve seen have said that it doesn’t matter to them what they look like on the street since it is the street. These are people that just want to be like the people around them. I disagree with that thinking. It doesn’t matter where you’re performing. You are the performer. Dress like one. That doesn’t mean a magician should wear top hat and tails on the street. (It’s debatable how many magicians should wear top hat and tails on stage anyway.) You should wear something appropriate for the street, but you most definitely should not blend in. Most importantly, if you don’t want to be treated like a beggar, don’t play the starving artist role by looking poor. Spend money on a good costume. People pay for what they see. They remember you more for each thing you do. How you dress is part of it.

How to be heard

Basically, my recommendation is to have a portable amplifier of some sort. If you can’t be heard by many people at once, not many people will stay to watch the show. Having your own sound system also adds a bit of professionalism to your look. “Yes, this is a real job, and I take it so seriously that I carry my own equipment.”

Gathering a crowd

How you present yourself to an audience, and in fact, how you gather that audience will have a huge impact on your success. Large, colorful props are the best way to draw attention. The more space you can fill, the more heads will turn. Balloons are an ideal attraction. With little effort, you can have large numbers of people looking your way. Unfortunately, a lot of balloon twisters find themselves immediately surrounded. People will steadily push themselves forward to get as close as possible. The logic being that the closer they are to you, the better their odds of getting a souvenir.

When gathering a crowd, make sure there’s a line between yourself and the audience. Any line, real or imagined, is fine, so long as you get to position the crowd at the distance away from you that you want. There’s nothing wrong with asking people to back up, or even physically nudging them back in a gentle and polite fashion. Some buskers place a rope on the ground in a circle about their working area, instructing their crowds to stay behind it. I sometimes chose some short children and place them in the front row, informing everyone that they are the front row and that they need to stay where they are in order to see. I’ll also point out that when looking for volunteers, I never choose anyone that walks onto my “stage”. At the threat of not receiving a balloon, it’s incredible how quickly people will step away.

Some performers work best with large crowds in the hundreds. Others work best with only a few people around. The size of the crowd you wish to perform for is up to you. If you want to build an audience of several hundred, it will take time to get them all together. You need to start entertaining and building curiosity from the moment you step out on your pitch. Once the formal show has started, the entertainment needs to go on as long as there is any audience at all, or they’ll walk away. Once you’ve spent all that time doing the build your show has to be powerful enough to entertain everyone and make them want to pay.

Other performers prefer to do shorter shows with smaller crowd builds. You can gather a crowd of 50 people much faster than you can build a crowd of 200 and you can fit more shows into the same period of time. I happen to like the smaller crowds of 30-50 at a time since it makes it possible for me to get a little more personal with the crowd. I start up faster, I get the show going more quickly, and I get a larger percentage of my crowd to toss money in my hat when there are fewer around.

Getting paid for your work

If you’ve done everything right, you’re left with the final and most difficult part of all. You need to get money from the audience to pay for your work. Most performers will tell you that they do their jobs because they enjoy them. That is by far the best reason to do any job. However, don’t forget that it is a job and you need to be rewarded for your efforts. Don’t be ashamed of asking for money. As I indicated earlier, a busker isn’t a panhandler. Making people smile is a noble profession. You aren’t likely to get rich doing it, but if you put a lot of time and energy into it, you deserve at least a few good meals.

No matter how entertaining you are, you aren’t going to make money if you ask for it, or pass the hat, badly. I’ve been told how gentle some audiences are compared to others. That may be true, but they still have to be reminded in a very direct manner to pay. Few will do it without being told to give. No one wants to part with their money unless they have a good reason to do so. Your job, the business part of all of this, is to give them a good reason to pay you.

I always deliver the hat line at a convenient point after starting the final bit but before it’s over. In my magic show, it may be after I’m already in a straight jacket. In my balloon show I’ve set up a challenging test to prove my skills. Stopping to deliver an amusing hat line only helps to build suspense. They don’t want to leave as long as they know something bigger than they’ve seen so far is already on the way and I have time to get my message out.

A real important note about timing that I learned recently is that when it’s over, the hat, or other container for their money has to be presented immediately. Any more banter after the big finale just gives people an excuse to walk away without paying. I was really disappointed with my hats, given the size of my crowds. Then when it was suggested to me (by Jeff Collins, a busker from Nova Scotia) that I take my hat off faster, I went from 10% of my crowd paying to nearly all. Not everyone gave a lot, and my crowds weren’t always very big, but just about everyone that stayed for my whole show started coming up to me with something, even if just a smile and a thank you. That means a lot. If you haven’t tried it, you really don’t know how great a feeling it is to have everyone wanting to come up and say “hi.”

My favorite hat line from years ago that used to do wonders for me went something like this:

“Some people ask why anyone in their right mind would perform feats like this in front of all of you. I can’t answer that question. I can only tell you why I do it. I do it for your entertainment and amusement only. That means that for me to be satisfied, I have to know that you have in fact been entertained and amused. Since I don’t have comment cards with me we’re going to use a simple rating system.

“Most of you have small pieces of paper in your pockets with numbers pre-printed on them. What I’d like is for you to place one of those pieces of paper in my hat at the end of the show with a number that represents how much you’ve enjoyed the time we’ve spent together. The higher the number, the more you’ve liked what you’ve seen. If you like what you’ve seen, you might want to give a rating of 10. If, after standing and watching for 40 minutes, you feel you’ve wasted your time, place only a 1 in the hat.”

That didn’t work at all in Canada (changing 1 for 5). Silly me, since I used to have a great response to that (including additional comments written onto bills for me to read later) I was convinced I could make it work. Finally, the same Canadian busker suggested to me that it sounded just a bit too pushy for my personality since I’m suggesting now that only paper money is acceptable to me. (There is no paper money smaller than $5 in Canada.)

For a while, I was going with the simpler:

“In the traditional busker fashion, I do need to remind you all that this is how I make my living. I’m not being paid to be here by anyone other than those of you that have stayed and watched my whole show. Therefore, I encourage all of you that have been watching for a while to come forward with something to place in my hat. No amount of money is too large or too small. Even a smile and a thank you is appreciated, but please don’t walk away until you’ve given me something.”

I think one of the things that works with that pitch is that I haven’t said, “I get paid by those of you that liked the show”. I say, “I get paid by those of you that watched the show.” I let them know what’s expected and not that it’s their choice. Of course it is their choice and I’m not being pushy, but I let them know what I want from them. Sometimes I’d even remind them of what they had seen if something early in the show got an especially good response. That seemed to remind them of how much fun they had and for how long. Note that very few people will walk forward to say thanks without putting something in the hat. I got coins, bills, candy, business cards with notes on them, and even random phone numbers.

The last day of the Halifax festival this summer, when everyone was being just a bit goofy in their own way, I delivered the above pitch and then while holding the hat out continued:

Since I am a US citizen I will need to change all of this Canadian money. Unfortunately, it’s a Sunday, the banks here are closed, and the banks at home won’t take Candian coins from me. You can simplify my problem of changing money by providing only paper in the hat.

Since the first pitch, I was told, was too pushy, I didn’t expect this to work. But it did. It was just that point in the festival that I felt like playing. I’m glad I did. I got almost all paper money that last day.

In almost every situation I’ve been in I’ve noticed that people pay buskers when they see others giving money to buskers. However, they don’t want to walk forward in front of a crowd while a show is going on to drop something in the hat. You have to tell them that now is the time you’re supposed to pay. For that reason, you need to pass the hat at the end. You can’t simply leave the hat in a convenient place during the show hoping people will walk by and drop money in. Although, “pass” is a funny word. The hat never leaves your hands. It’s your hat. They should want to give money to you. They should want to come up and say “hi.” Part of the experience of paying a busker is meeting him face to face. It’s kind of like the reason many people collect autographs. It’s not about a piece of paper. It’s about having a reason to meet the star. And yes, you are a star to them. You have to think of yourself that way. You have to set yourself apart — while in your performance character. You also have to make sure to thank each person for their tip as they come up.

Additionally, you don’t want to leave your spot because someone in the back is waving a large bill. Others have already started working their way up to you. You don’t want to offend someone that’s just gotten to where you were. Stand your ground. They know where you are. You don’t know where the big tippers are.

The last point I can think of right now on passing the hat is that you should keep your amplifier on while you thank people for their money. The show isn’t over until the last person has dropped money in the hat.

Now, the one situation where I do have a hat or bucket or other thing out for money is when I do the form of show I referred to earlier where I’m making things to audience challenges and getting a lot of balloons out into the crowd. The show in this case is the balloon twisting and random banter out of my mouth. If I’m not in the middle of a more formal show, I don’t know how many people will stay for the hour I’m on stage and how many will walk away. Anyone in the crowd should be able to tip for each unusual creation they see. In that case, since the bucket is out, after I finish each thing, I pause and chat for a moment so that they can drop something in. If I turn out a lot of sculptures in a shorter time, I make less money than if I make really awesome creations and give them a chance to tip for each thing. Also, make sure that the hat isn’t on the ground. It should be at a height where everyone can see it at all times.

I’m often questioned by other balloon artists when I mention that I prefer to make large sculptures for everyone to enjoy rather than small things that each person can walk away with. It’s the children that most often ask for their own creations to take home. Being a balloon artist, I’m regularly called a childrens’ entertainer. Some people will say that I need to focus on the kids. I do a lot of childrens’ entertainment, and I really enjoy it. Unfortunately, busking for children is not at all condusive to making money. Kids don’t have money. It’s their parents that need to pay. Don’t be surprised when you make the same amount of money from a family of five that you make from a single person that’s standing in the back of the crowd, not even interested in getting a balloon. Families with kids don’t have, proportionately for the size of the family, as much disposable income. That’s not to suggest I ignore the kids. In almost all cases, it’s the kids that get the creations I make. I just can’t concern myself with each one getting something to carry. I ask families to share and focus on the entertainment for everyone in the crowd.

Just because you’ve passed the hat and given your best heartfelt request for funding doesn’t mean you’ve done everyting you can to make a few bucks. I’m convinced that the reason so many people ask for balloons to take home is that they like walking away with souvenirs. Without belittling your artwork and turning your balloon animals into a commodity you can still make money off of sales. Many musicians sell recordings of their work. There’s no reason a balloon artist can’t do a similar thing. I happen to have a book of my own that I sell, but any book or kit on beginning balloon art that you can offer for your audience is an opportunity to make a little more money and still provide them with the souvenir they desire. I have a line that I deliver for the person that insists that they need something to carry home, even if it’s just a dog. “If you like the sculptures I’ve made here in front of you, you’ll appreciate your own artwork even more. With the instructions in this book, you can go home and make some of your own figures.”

SKB 2/11/96
SKB 9/15/96
SKB 9/25/96
LM 12/?/96
LM 1/29/97
MB 4/4/97
SKB 6/16/97
WNL 11/11/97
MB 7/11/99
MB 7/20/99
MB 5/26/00