The Life of A Street Performer

It is impossible to experience Seattle without a visit to Pike Place Market. Encompassing a total of nine acres, the market, one of the country’s oldest farmer’s markets, allows you to experience it all. From the famous “Public Market” red glowing sign, the market takes you through winding alleys to an assortment of different shops, a plethora of incredible restaurants, a fish throwing show, flowers, stands filled with fruits, vegetables and crafts, and finally, to a wall covered in gum.


I spent my summer busking in the heart of the market. “Busker” is an English word used to describe a street performer. There are 13 different locations around the market that are designated for performers. A painted musical note marks the spot where the performer is allowed to entertain tourists or shoppers. The spots work on a “first come first serve” basis. If the spot is open, it’s yours to perform at! However, if someone is already performing, they have an hour to play until they must give up their spot to the next person in line. All performers are required to purchase a permit, which expires April 14 of every year and costs $30 dollars.

You will find a wide variety of performers within the market. The man who hauls a piano and performs across the street from Beecher’s is a regular. There are magicians, talking birds, singers, accordion players, and even a hoola-hooping-guitar-playing-rubix-cube-solving-harmonica-playing man. And for many who perform in Pike Place Market, street performing is their main source of income.


Now it is easy to look down on begging or street performing as one’s main source of income, but some annual reports may have many heads turning. One article suggested that a reasonable estimate for how much can be made begging/panhandling is $15 dollars per hour. This equates to $30,000 dollars per year, which, according to the same article, was more than some graduate students from an engineering department made.


Buskers or street performers on the other hand, were said to make somewhere between $30 and $45 dollars per hour. I can testify to this accusation seeing that throughout my experiences busking over the summer, I made an average of $60 dollars per hour.

Aside from being the main source of income for a variety of different people, street performing also produces a positive externality to society.

By definition, positive externalities are all the benefits that accrue to a third party who is not involved in an economic activity. Street performers who make music or entertain in the public for tips provide a positive externality for anyone who enjoys the performances as they walk by on their way somewhere else.

For those who don’t have any money or time to spare, the enjoyment and pleasure they obtain from either listening or watching a street performer perform is free. Many people obtain this externality without tipping the performer, but judging by the various annual reports, it seems like many street performers and panhandlers are doing just fine.

However, the government does not subsidize this externality. In many cases, the incentive for street performers to keep performing is the money and experience they acquire.


Works Cited:


3 thoughts on “The Life of A Street Performer

  1. What governments choose to subsidize (or tax), is very telling of that government’s and society’s value system. Even though public art, especially engaging, performative public art, offers the incredibly positive externality of inciting creativity and inspiration in passersby, that art or its effect are not prized enough to be subsidized. In a country that is cutting back on art, music, and theater programs in many public schools, I worry about the future of young children’s creative spheres. Though art may seem minor in comparison to the military or food production, art is something that fosters individuality and self expression. That is something that all governments should subsidize.


  2. This is very interesting. When you wrote about externalities toward the end of your post, you pointed out that people benefit from street performers even when they don’t pay for the entertainment. In a sense, one could consider the street performing a public good, because it is not rival or excludable (arguably, but I mean with certain parameters), and people who don’t pay are basically Free Riders. In this sort of situation, however, I don’t think that’s necessarily a very bad thing. And for all we know, people who walk by without paying could still tell friends and family about the street performers and provide publicity, which could lead to more money for the performers.


  3. I have never thought of the topic of street performers in this way. I actually didn’t think that street performing was something people did as a profession. It’s very interesting to see how different people make their money. Street performing is evidently key to Pike’s Place, but how much money are street performers making in say Salt Lake City versus New York City. You could even look at Las Vegas and compare all of these incomes. I personally believe that street perfumers income would drastically vary depending on the city (and state) you are in. I think that more often than not the city must have a well known downtown that people want to go to, thus making the downtown area a popular public good.


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