How Busking Made Me A Better DJ

Jimmy McKee
Read time: 5 mins
Last updated 9 November, 2017


Being a busker can teach you valuable lessons about playing to an audience as a DJ, too. Pic: Music Think Tank

A few years ago, I left university with a fairly useless music business degree and a small mountain of student debt. Having been forced to move back to my childhood home after four years of independence, and with no job or prospects, I decided to do what came naturally: I picked up my guitar and sang for strangers on the streets of Glasgow. Not long after, I started a little sideline as a bar and function DJ, spinning house tracks for bored office workers on a Friday evening and playing several variations on The Slosh for the blue rinse brigade at christenings and birthdays with my Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Switching between these two disciplines, I learned a lot about my style as a performer and as a DJ. Not only that, but I discovered a major crossover between how I performed on the streets and in the clubs. The lessons I learned as a busker could, I realised, be applied to DJing as well. So here are the main ones:

1.Start your journey with a full tank

Before I’d even considered hitting the street with my guitar, I spent over ten hours a week in my bedroom, armed with books, tapes and the internet, learning hundreds of songs that I thought the punters on the high street would like. Some of them I never played. Some I played once or twice. Others I played four or five times a day or more on a longer shift. Songs of every genre, style and era all painstakingly arranged for my acoustic guitar and me. My logic? The more songs I had in my arsenal, the more chance someone would like me enough to put coins in my case.

The same goes for the club. Sure, you could be the best resident house DJ in your town. But is that all you can offer? Does your current playlist fit well for a warmup slot, or can you only bust out the end of night floorfillers? Are you stuck in one genre? Only playing what’s hot on the Beatport Top 100? Or are you constantly trawling through SoundCloud looking for that next diamond in the rough?

A full arsenal of tracks gives you a lot more flexibility, and not only stops your sets from getting stale, but can get your foot in the door for gigs outside your regular genre. Give it a go and see what happens…

2. Who’s in the club works on a cycle

Busking in Glasgow, I noticed a certain cyclical pattern as to what songs would work based on the the day of the week. Old folk tended to prefer coming near my patch on Wednesday afternoons, so the old swing and country numbers went down pretty well. Thursday nights were popular with students out enjoying the cheap drinks and free entry club nights, so the last decade’s chart music was always a safe bet. Friday nights? Office workers getting a headstart on the weekend, so 80s and 90s singalongs often found me with a few £10 notes in my case.

If you land this DJ gig, you’re probably not going to get away with playing your hallowed Krautrock set.

The time of year played an important part in my song selection, too. December meant families with young kids, so Christmas songs were the order of the day. Summer meant young folk with pocket money, and I could always make a few quid with the odd pop punk song.

I’ve found it’s the same with the dancefloor, too. Different nights will bring a different crowd. Would you play a full set of 80s chart toppers to a student crowd? House bangers at a reggae night? Well, you might. But its important to know your audience and their expectations when you step into the venue. Sure, throw in a few surprises here and there, but a disjointed, ill-fitting playlist could totally kill the night.

3. Don’t peak too early

Busking’s a hard game. Long hours. Early mornings. Horrible conditions. Not to mention the possibility of quite a hostile audience (I could tell you some stories, but that’s a whole different article.) It’s all quite exhausting. It’s important to pace yourself, lest you lose energy during the busiest parts of the day, and subsequently lose out on all that passing coin.

Same goes for the clubs. A dancefloor that peaks too early won’t have the energy to keep it up for the full night. Warm yourself, and your audience up. Pick out some of those slower numbers to warm them up. A few obscure little gems here and there. Then, when the time is right, hit them with the big tracks you know will fill the dancefloor.

4. Why you gotta be so serious?

Lets face it, standing on street corners and playing songs to shoppers and commuters isn’t the ideal lifestyle we all dreamed of when we became musicians. Many of us dreamed of the glamour and perks that came with rock stardom – only to remember that even rock gods like us have bills to pay. Busking is a harsh occupation, but, to some of us, it’s not only a decent bread winner, but something we are ridiculously passionate about. Also, it beats getting a day job. But, just as with DJing, there comes a time when it’s just not fun any more. We dread setting up in the clubs as on the streets, seeing the same faces, playing the same songs, and it’s easy to feel as if you’re going nowhere. Inevitably, there comes a time when it just doesn’t seem like fun any more: And that’s a problem.

Busking can be a hard gig, but like DJing, you have to enjoy it – and be seen to be enjoying it. Otherwise, you need to take steps…

Keep this in mind with your own DJing career. If you feel your gigs are getting stale, if you feel you’re just not getting anywhere, and, most of all, if you stop having fun, find a way to change things up a bit. Try a new genre. A new venue. Throw some new elements into your sets. Hell, maybe you just need a change of scene and have to push for some more out of town shows. And, sometimes, maybe all you need is a little time away from the game to remember what it is you really loved about it in the first place. A few weeks or months off could save you from feeling you have to quit the scene permanently further down the line.



I’ve certainly found that busking and DJing have a lot in common. Ultimately, they’re both about entertainment. Its all about providing a decent distraction for people going about their daily lives, whether its by singing to them on the streets or giving them a beat to dance to in the clubs. There’s a hell of a lot of crossover between the two that helped me to up my game – and I hope my experiences have given you a nugget or two to think about, too.

Now, if only I could get away with DJing on the streets…

• Jimmy McKee is a musician and writer, often DJing and producing electronic music under the alias Future Super Villain. Hit him up on SoundCloud, Bandcamp and Facebook.

Have you got any stories about when you tried busking to help make ends meet? Maybe you’ve managed to get away with DJing in the street somewhere? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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