Busking in Berkeley: Student musicians navigate side hustles

At 7 p.m., downtown Berkeley is bustling, scattered with the melodious sounds of smooth jazz. Every song has its own story, and every person playing has their own story as well.

  • Elliott Martens, Myles Blazer, Nicolas Hernandez, and Calder Underwood perform on the street.

    Julian Currier

  • Julian Currier

  • Julian Currier

  • Julian Currier

At 7 p.m., downtown Berkeley is bustling, scattered with the melodious sounds of smooth jazz. Every song has its own story, and every person playing has their own story as well. Through a maze of open instrument cases containing various coins and bills, the world of busking becomes prominent. Busking is the practice of playing music on the street for donations from the public. Some Berkeley High School students are heavily involved in this side hustle.   

“Generally it’s a really positive experience,” said Oliver Needham, a junior in Academic Choice, and a member of the BHS Jazz program. He’s been busking for about four years now and finds it a fun and somewhat reliable way to make money. “Somewhat” meaning Needham never knows for sure how much cash he’s going to walk out with after hours of busking. “You have bad days and you make 20, 30, but some days you make like 100 plus. It really depends on the type of day,” he said.

Needham has been a musician for the majority of his life. He’s been playing the cello for about 10 years and started practicing the drums seven years ago. In addition to these instruments, Needham has been singing since he was a young child. With all this experience in music, he has become quite successful in the busking field. Needham remembered a time when someone was so impressed with his performance, that they went so far as to give him a 100-dollar bill. But not only are people generous with their money for buskers, they may also be generous with items that are not quite currency. “One time someone dropped in a couple action figures, it was interesting,” Needham said. “I think it was like Thor’s hammer.”

Dabbling in a variety of genres seems to be a necessity in the world of busking, and changing up the category is no problem for Needham. He explained, “If I’m playing drums I usually play jazz standards, but if I’m singing I usually sing soul music, like Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and then some classic rock like the Beatles.”

It didn’t always come this easy. Performing in public takes years of practice and even more confidence. “The first couple times I busked I was really nervous,” Needham said, “but over time it gets easier.” Busking might start off scary, but it’ll most likely pay off in the end. “It’s fun, it’s a way to get better at playing music, and it gets you a little bit of cash too.”

Every Saturday night, a BHS Jazz combo plays at Barney’s, a local hamburger spot. “It’s been for the past six, seven months,” said Emiliano Sanchez, the manager of the Shattuck Avenue location. “All the people love it,” he said. This arrangement makes it so that Barney’s gets live jazz, and in return, the students in the combo split a check and the tips they make that evening. The restaurant also provides each of them with a free meal of their choice after they play. 

Restaurant busking has made such an impression in Berkeley that customers choose where to eat based upon its presence. Sanchez often gets calls asking whether or not the combo is going to play that evening. On Saturday nights, “(People) come in with their children and they like to see the band playing,” Sanchez said. “A lot of customers tell me that the band sounds like professionals, and they really enjoy how they play.” 

He also notices that when the combo is there, the room is populated with more of a younger crowd. “The older people don’t want to listen to too much noise,” Sanchez said. Since elderly people generally prefer calm or quiet evenings, they might opt out of going to Barney’s that night. But even when they do come, Sanchez said, “It’s very rare that they ever say, ‘I don’t like it.’” And as for the number of complaints? The answer is definite: none. According to Sanchez, the only feedback that customers give is positive. How could you dislike the sounds of serene, dulcet jazz? 

The combo starts playing around 6 p.m. and they finish at 8 p.m., “…and right away they just go up to the front and request whatever (food) they want,” Sanchez stated.    

With the combination of tips from customers and Barney’s generosity, this style of venue-based busking sounds like a chill and easy way to make the money one might need as a high school student. It’s truly a win-win-win situation, complete with the warm and friendly atmosphere at Barney’s. “I think we’ve become more like a family. We see each other every Saturday, and it’s really nice to have them here,” Sanchez said.

While busking is commonplace within the BHS jazz community, it’s also popular throughout Berkeley and the Bay Area. Whether you’re strolling through the farmers market, shopping on Fourth Street, or even just taking a walk down Shattuck Avenue, you’ll probably encounter a street musician. And it will be – quite literally – music to your ears.