One of my very first entrepreneurial outings took place when I was just 16 years old. By accident, a musical friend and I discovered we could make money from strangers by sitting on the public sidewalk, just outside a 7-11 on the coast highway in north county San Diego with our instruments, and playing for tips. Between us, we had an acoustic guitar and a violin, and we knew a few simple arrangements of popular classic rock songs that the tourists who visited San Diego for the beach every summer seemed to really enjoy. I think we probably made $40 between us the first time we went out to play on a Saturday afternoon. That was all the validation we needed to go back out there every weekend and play again.
Over time, we optimized our approach because we paid close attention to what prompted people to leave tips more often, and in higher amounts. We pooled the money we were making to reinvest it into our fledgling operation in the form of a battery powered 50-watt amplifier, microphones, and cables so we could extend our reach and attract a larger audience. We cleaned up our appearance so that we would come across more as ambitious overachievers than as desperate beggars. We wanted people to feel good about giving us a dollar or twenty as they passed by and were impressed by what they heard.
It didn’t take long to notice there were reliable patterns in the behavior of our ever-changing audience of pedestrian listeners. Certain blocks of time produced far more money than others, as did certain days of the week, and times of year. Street fairs and other outdoor events were always a major cash grab for us. People would often stop in the middle of their day’s activities to form a small crowd in front of us, and listen for several tunes in a row before thanking us and leaving a tip.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time a complete stranger dropped a $100 bill in my guitar case as he walked by. We immediately stopped playing to ask him if he realized he just gave us so much money, and he responded with a weary smile saying that he had been going through a really rough time, and seeing the two of us out there being so young, but having so much talent and good taste in music was the best thing that had happened to him all week. Wheels began turning in my head, which continue spinning over ten years later because of innocent conversations like that one.
There was initially some concern about the noise disturbance we were potentially creating for local businesses on the busy avenue where we camped out and jammed. On the contrary, we soon found ourselves invited by the owners of cafes and shops to park ourselves right out in front because our performance served to bring in more business for them and entertain their customers. This was my first exposure to the idea of mutually beneficial business partnerships, and it eventually morphed into being asked to play at parties, and even a wedding.
Audience feedback helped us adapt to the demands of our market. We learned that they liked seeing a duo so young, which had clearly put a lot of work into learning our craft, and coming up with innovative renditions of classic songs, which appealed to the nostalgia of our more mature fans. I would arrange the chordal structure of whatever we were playing into a detailed voicing and driving strum pattern, while my partner improvised on the original melody of the song with unconventional rock fiddle stylings. We had a signature sound unlike anything our audience had heard before, and it was because we were able to take something old and proven, but change it just enough to make it appear new.
That unique combination of old musical tastes, creative modern stylings, and a youthful endearing personality brought us to the point where we could count on making $200 to $300 per hour on a busy day – not bad for being two self-employed high school students practicing their passion on weekends. Unsurprisingly though, this scheme ceased to be nearly as effective the moment we got old enough to grow facial hair and look like real adults out there begging for money. The only thing that changed was the perceived personality and the accompanying emotions behind our “brand”.
It’s cute and endearing when it’s teenagers panhandling for your hard earned cash. When it’s adults, you just wonder why they haven’t gone out and gotten real jobs like the productive members of society they ought to be by now. Our product didn’t actually change. We still played the same songs with the same level of proficiency. But factors beyond our control changed the cultural perception of our narrative. Our personality profiles had evolved into something new, and we had to change our entire business model as a result.
To this day, whenever I see musicians playing for money on street corners, I still mentally dissect what they are doing well, and how they could change their performance and personality to make more money for the same effort based on my own years of experimentation in the field.
If you liked this post, I’d appreciate it if you commented or shared it with someone else who might learn something valuable. If you want to learn more about me, check out some of the lessons from my book, or like Brand Identity Breakthrough on Facebook. You can even join the Brand Identity Breakthrough Facebook group, and connect with other entrepreneurs learning the essential skills of better communication in business.
Gregory V. Diehl
Author, Educator, and Coach