9 Famous Music Acts That Started Out As Buskers
Before they were famous, artists like Ed Sheeran, Tracy Chapman, Beck, and The Roots were street performers.
Every great artist had to start somewhere. Some played small clubs and cafes and others took their music to the streets, sidewalks, and subways where heavy foot traffic gave them an instant audience. Street performers – or buskers, as they are commonly known – often set up in popular public spaces and perform for whatever money passersby are willing to drop in their tip jars.
There are buskers who become local legends, and there are buskers who ultimately become international sensations. It’s hard to remember a time when an artist like Ed Sheeran wasn’t a household name. Famously though, Sheeran was a street performer before he made it big.
The list featured below covers a variety of popular artists who honed their skills as street performers before experiencing critical acclaim and commercial success.
Since Sheeran has a new album out on May 5, let’s start with him. Sheeran moved to London in 2008 when he was just 16 years old to pursue his music career. When he arrived, he began playing in small clubs and busking on the streets of London. He also tried out for a show called Britannia High, but didn’t end up joining the cast. His voice impressed the judges, but his dance moves failed to win them over. After getting asked to join a few tours, Sheeran released an acclaimed EP in 2010 and began to attract widespread attention through his Youtube videos. From there, he continued to build his fanbase with a series of independent EPs. In 2011, he appeared on the BBC music show Later… with Jools Holland and performed the lead single for his debut album + (“Plus”). Just six weeks later, the song became a hit and Sheeran was on his way to becoming one of the world’s best-selling artists.
David Gilmour grew closer to future Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett while both attended the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology. In 1965, Gilmour, Barrett, and a few friends busked around Spain and France. In 1967, Gilmour was robbed in Paris while touring with the band Bullitt and decided to return to London to acquire new equipment. After his return, he was invited to watch the early incarnation of Pink Floyd record “See Emily Play.” Gilmour realized that Barrett was having trouble recognizing him and learned that he was experiencing some serious mental health issues. Gilmour was then asked to join Pink Floyd and cover for Barrett’s “eccentricities,” which allowed him to become an integral part of one of rock and roll’s most influential bands.
Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut dropped in April 1988, and two weeks after its release, the album had already sold a million copies. Although the album was an instant success, it took years of hard work for Chapman to achieve that level of recognition as an artist. Just a few years earlier, Chapman was known to busk in Harvard Square and on MBTA train platforms in Cambridge, Massachusetts while attending Tufts University. By the time of her major-stage debut, Chapman’s set was so impressive that a classmate contacted his music publisher father and helped her sign a record deal with Elektra Records.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Beck was exposed to a diverse array of influences, such as Latin music, hip-hop, punk, new wave, folk, and blues. He obtained his first guitar when he was 16 and became a street performer, often playing Leadbelly covers in Lafayette Park. He also gained a reputation for performing Mississippi John Hurt covers on public buses and changing the lyrics on the spot as fellow travelers would yell in response. At age 22, Beck found his big break with the release of the single “Loser” in March 1993. Its surprising amount of radio airplay inspired a major label bidding war, but Geffen Records ended up signing Beck.
While attending the University of Texas at Austin, Janis Joplin gained a reputation as a free spirit who would walk around campus barefoot with an autoharp in hand. She also busked around Austin before deciding to quit college and hitchhike to San Francisco. Once there, she recorded some blues standards, battled with drugs and alcohol, and ultimately returned to Texas for a fresh start. In 1966, she learned that her unique voice had caught the attention of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and she returned to San Francisco to pursue her music career. Unfortunately, Joplin wasn’t able to maintain a drug-free lifestyle and passed away in October 1970. With four memorable albums in her four-year career, Joplin left behind a legacy that will live on.
The Roots began their musical journey back in 1987 with high school classmates Questlove and Black Thought busking on various street corners in Philadelphia. Questlove would play bucket drums while Black Thought rapped over his rhythms. They performed their first proper gig as Radio Activity at a school talent show in 1989. After multiple name changes and a few new members, the band landed on the name The Roots and relocated to London to try and reach a wider audience. They independently released their debut album in 1993 and began to develop a cult following as they toured throughout Europe. In 1994, the band signed with DGC/Geffen and became one of hip-hop’s most celebrated groups.
Before their debut album went platinum without a single hit on the Billboard 200, Violent Femmes were a busking band playing the street corners of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On one occasion in 1981, they were performing on a corner in front of a venue where The Pretenders were playing later that night. Pretenders’ guitarist James Honeyman-Scott discovered them before the show and singer Chrissie Hynde invited the band to play a brief acoustic set after the opening band. The concert wasn’t a “big break” in the traditional sense, but it gave the band confidence to play more venue gigs, tour, and build a following. In 1983, Violent Femmes would release their self-titled debut and secure a place as one of the decade’s most vital alternative acts.
In another instance of being in the right place at the right time, Damo Suzuki was discovered busking outside a cafe in Munich in May 1970. Two members of Can just happened to be sitting outside this cafe and they were impressed by Suzuki’s busking, despite the fact that he only knew a few guitar chords and improvised most of his lyrics. Can’s original singer had left the band in late 1969 and moved back to America after a psychiatrist told him that getting away from Can’s chaotic music would be good for his mental health. Suzuki was asked to join Can as their new vocalist and he performed with the band that very evening. Appearing on Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days, Suzuki contributed to what would become the most influential releases of Can’s career.
After his punk band split up in 1980 and a brief stint as a British Army recruit in 1981, Billy Bragg decided to bleach his hair, start busking, and play gigs under the name Spy vs Spy. With just an acoustic guitar, Bragg created a political folk punk sound that he got in front of a music industry executive by pretending to be a repairman at the Charisma Records building. Shortly after, he bribed DJ John Peel with mushroom biryani and his music was played on BBC radio. Even though this led to touring with Echo & The Bunnymen in 1984, Bragg continued to busk. With a portable PA system known as his “Portastack,” Bragg was able to busk in between shows and the powerful image of him wearing it while performing helped define this era of his career.
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