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I Humiliated Myself by Busking in London with the Most Annoying Instruments I Could Find

Beatboxing at schoolchildren in Trafalgar Square is the single most excruciating thing I've ever done.
March 26, 2015, 8:30pm

All photos and videos by Ben Smith

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

A couple of years ago my brother ended up living rent-free at someone's place in New Orleans with a bunch of gutter punks. As is often the case when you spend extended periods of time staying at someone's home without helping out whatsoever, it wasn't long before the owner of the house made it clear they wanted some kind of remuneration.

Unable to get a proper job as an Australian traveling through the States, my brother thought he'd busk. Problem was, my brother's not very good at playing any instruments. This is an issue in New Orleans, where the majority of people inexplicably seem to be retired session musicians for legitimate R&B icons, or at least know what a guitar played right is supposed to sound like.


So, my brother decided, the best way to get past his ineptitude was to play instruments not many people had heard much of. Theremins, washboards, Aeolian wind harps. And it worked: scraping together the weirdest, cheapest stuff he could find at a local pawn shop, he managed to double his daily earnings to $20.

I wanted to see whether the same tactic would be as effective in London, where you can't get on the subway without seeing some journeyman virtuoso play that really technical DragonForce song from Guitar Hero and be completely ignored by literally everyone walking past.

My musical experience extends to the 18 months I spent playing bass in a band that was continuously looking for my replacement, so I guessed I'd have an uphill battle. However, I picked two areas that I knew would be full of tourists, i.e. people who can't necessarily differentiate between the various silvers, meaning I might actually have a chance of achieving the optimistic target I'd set myself: the national minimum wage, $9.60 an hour.

Instrument: Accordion
Time spent: 20 minutes
Number of depositors: Three
Money earned: $4.75

First up was the accordion, which I chose following some advice from my brother. "It's got that romantic connection, so dudes on a date trying to impress girls are more likely to throw you some coin," he helpfully pointed out. "And it pumps loud, so you can be heard over the traffic."


I picked one up immediately on Gumtree for $45. I don't know why it was going so cheap and didn't ask, but I'm going to presume the previous owner finally sobered up to the realization that wandering around pubs and squeezing out Lady Gaga covers to drunk office workers probably isn't the decision if you want to continue paying to live in London.

Given that I'd never played this instrument before there were a few audible teething problems, but I held strong, cranking my way through some of my own tuneless compositions while pedestrians kept a wide berth around me. Luckily, it didn't take me too long to find three major notes, and to be honest that's pretty much all you need. I didn't bother with the fiddly piano key section too much, because every time I did it sounded like someone screaming into a well.

Blending my three-chord-progression with some bum notes and the odd bit of silence, the money started coming in a lot faster than I'd expected. The first contribution: a sympathy dollar from a man in a North Face jacket. Then a Polish guy in a leather jacket and gloves asked for a photo with me and handed over $1.75.

The thought of my face being posted on Facebook next to the caption "Me with an authentic London busker!" still makes me guilt-sweat, for I am not authentic, from London, or a busker.

After about ten minutes the interest and money slowed. As I was about to pack up an older lady approached me and asked if I was going to keep playing. I said no. She smiled and dropped a quarter in my suitcase.

Instrument: Thumb piano
Time spent: 15 minutes
Number of depositors: Zero
Money earned: $0.00

This one was by far the most unusual instrument in my arsenal: a thumb piano—a mini piano you play with your thumbs—with a pick-up and a delay. Following the law of obscurity-to-earnings, I figured playing this in public would be like printing money. It wasn't. Instead, it felt like I was live-soundtracking a yoga class that nobody wanted to be at. That people actively avoided being at by walking on the road instead of the stretch of pavement in front of me.


It was easy to play, though, and I felt like I was really starting to come into my own in terms of stage presence. Because the thing is, I play the thumb piano for the love, not the money. I play the thumb piano to inspire, to transcend creed and race and culture and connect on a sonic level with strangers who want nothing to do with me or my thumb piano.


Instrument: Cow bell
Time spent: 15 minutes
Depositors: Four
Money earned: $4.84

If you've ever heard any hard rock released in the decade between 1965 and 1975, you'll know how vital cowbells were. However, they've slightly fallen by the wayside since, which is a shame, because as you can see in the video above people fucking loved it. Even the man who spends all day, every day dressed in a Yoda costume pretending to levitate for pocket change broke character to enjoy what I had to offer.

It's also a surprisingly easy instrument to play. You just hit a piece of metal with a piece of wood. And people go crazy for it. In fact, these people demonstrated their joy by handing over my biggest pay-packet yet: $4.84.

Instrument: Beat box
Time spent: 15 minutes
Depositors: Three
Money earned: $3.27

I really didn't want to do this one. Unlike the other instruments, where I could play and pretend to be somewhere else, this required a high level of commitment that I 100 percent did not have. I also have no idea how to beatbox, and no real intention of ever learning how to beatbox, so I just had to wing it.


After some initial stage-fright I let go and actually kind of got into it. I felt like that actor who played Eminem in 8 Mile; I was losing myself in the music, I only had one shot and I used it to repeatedly go, "Bah-bahka, bah-bahka, bah-bahka, bah."

It's hard to beatbox when you're also trying not to laugh, but I managed to keep it together long enough to earn $3.27. I also drew my biggest audience of the day: a group of school kids who stood staring at me and my monotonous, entry-level beat boxing for a couple of absurd minutes before finally figuring out that I wasn't making the wah sound with my mouth.

Overall, I managed to earn $12.87 in just over an hour. It's not a huge amount, but it is considerably more than minimum wage, and only slightly below the London living wage. So if you're thinking of moving to the capital to live a life that isn't quite as comfortable as you'd like it to be, heed my advice: buy a cowbell and spend an entire day embarrassing yourself in public.

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