The Economics of Busking

Equilibration in a competitive or monopolistically competitive market is slow.  It takes time for new businesses to perceive excess profits and to enter the market. But not always.

Like many major European venues, the Plaza Mayor in Madrid has many buskers operating.  One busker had a particularly clever shtick:  Dressed up like an infant in a stroller, he would squeal and squawk, especially whenever someone put money his jar.  Many kids, and even this adult, did exactly that.  In the 5 minutes I watched at least 10 people gave him something. BUT:  Near the end of that time, other buskers, who had been observing him, moved their routines closer to his. His flow of customers diminished, with some going to the other, now nearby buskers.  He still was attracting more money than the others, but his excess profits had been reduced by the new competition. 

Caleb B

Busking? Huh, we call them bums where I'm from.


Bums are the people just sitting there with signs and cups.

Buskers are performing for money.


What, the devil, are "excess profits?"


Armchair Economist

It's an economics term. Normal profits are profits required for businesspeople to take the risk of going into business. Excess profits are profits above that level.


Nope. Look it up. In keeping with Hamermesh's quality of article, isn't an economics term. Perhaps a legal term.

Good luck next time.


No bums here:

Just people with day jobs who love to play music, meet new people, and make some extra money while they're at it!

Ian M

Is nobody else disturbed by the adult in the stroller? Did he soil himself for tips too?


It's an interesting problem, and they have another one — if they look too flash, people won't trust them, and that sense of "locality" will be lost. If they look too scrappy, their hats are reduced (people start giving coppers instead of silver). Part of the beauty of busking is that it gives people experiences where they wouldn't necessarily expect it, bringing them out of their bubbles, and into a playful space.

Caleb, they don't call Eddie Izzard, Bob Dylan, Justin Bieber, B.B. King or Benjamin Franklin "bums". However, in some places buskers aren't treated well, which ensures that only the least talented, most desperate performers remain, and all the good ones leave to play where they're liked.

In other words you're only hurting yourself with that kind of comment (my street-performer related site)


I have busked many times in my youth - and this "insight" is uninformed over the nature of the busking economy. First off, buskers are their own union - and hence work together to work the crowd. Certainly some get more, but thems the breaks. I used to get a lot less than the old alcoholic sax player, but i loved him and together we fleeced the crowd and had them begging for more. Essentially we'd tag team. And when sax was thirsty, he'd stop and my mellow drumming would fill the shopping mall. Second, busking is about pride and gratification - and maybe being discovered! Fourth, you can make money. I was dismal as a busker, but made over £100 daily. Sax made £300-500. Spent it all on lavish suits and cans of Kestrl. Lastly, its all about the demand on the day. The need to pitch perfectly to the crowd is essential. Sometimes tourists, often shoppers, and on Wednesday afternoons it was female students from the university ....
What you saw was informed by some of the above. Maybe the buskers were moving closer so the baby could have his diaper changed. Or smoke/deal/ chat-up/ drink/ sleep.
If Freakonomics busked, how and what would it perform??





I just Googled "busking psychology" and this page came up. I'm a living statue. In my hometown of 90,000 people in the midwest, I made around $200 on a good 5 or 6 hour day, paint and supplies cost around $10 each round... costumes are kind of steep because the paint doesn't show very well on some materials, I'd say the most expensive one I made was a cowboy costume, because of the boots, which were $60, and the denim was tough to paint, it took about 4 cans of paint, hat shirt and toy gun cost around $15, altogether 6 cans of paint cost around $40 or $50, total cost was about $120.
We'll assume 2 hours for makeup/cleanup, that's an 8 hour day with $190 in return once you've earned back your costume investment. It's great, and I love it very much. Oh, and it's super fun!