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Beyond the realm of cash: street performers and donations in the online world

The exchange for money between street performers and audiences is a changing landscape. Using unique data from an online platform The Busking Project we investigate what type of street performers, who engage with the platform, are more likely to receive donations and which characteristics generate higher dollar amounts of donations.

Street performers, or buskers, have  performed in public for centuries. Many now move around locations and can generate a viable career by doing so or street performance can extend into the creation of new commercial ventures such as Cirque du Soleil that was formed from street performers in Quebec. Street performers contribute positively to the vitality of the streetscape, their interaction with the environment around them contributes to the experience of their audience and they can contribute to economic value. An integral part of a street performance is the exchange of money where the audience donates to the performer. Street performers need to draw an audience, engage them, and obtain donations. This is often through the incorporation of the “hat line” where the performers ask their audience for donations. However, the exchange for money between a street performer and an audience is a changing landscape. As we move towards a cashless society this exchange means that the industry is ripe for disruption.

Who earns more money on these platforms is intriguing and goes to the core of the exchange relationship between the artists and the fans. Circus performers are better at working the “hat line” for bigger tips, though musicians more likely to receive a donation in the first place. Popularity also matters, the more likes on a page results in more donations. Building a community is core to developing an artist’s fan base, we find evidence those who leave an email to stay connected to the artists leave more money. And yes, COVID-19 dramatically shifted behaviour and online donations increased.

Normally this information is quite secret among the busking community. But with the permission from The Busking Project, who have developed a platform community that engages with street performers to build a profile to connect the performers with their fans online, we are able to uncover this information through the digital payments’ platform. The platform seeks donations for the artists via a payment app that allows for audiences to link up their credit or debit cards to send remote donations to street performers. We use data from this online platform on 3,757 buskers in 121 countries over the period November 2015 to August 2020. The site provides online profiles, fan support (likes” on a profile), album sales, gigs, and donations for each artist. We analyse the online tips buskers receive exploring key issues such as geographic location, artist type and methods of payment. Specifically, we consider what type of street performers, who engage with the busking platform, are more likely to receive a donation and which characteristics generate higher dollar amounts of donations.

For each performer we have information on what is the major genre of their act, when and where they signed up to the platform and details concerning their online profile on the platform. Profile characteristics include biography length, number of media (images and videos) present on the profile, the number of URLs listed and the fans on the platform. Additionally, for performers who receive donations we also know the date, the amount, and the currency of the donation. We convert all donations into real U.S. dollars using the appropriate exchange rate on the date of the donation. Finally, for each donation, we know the payment method (Card/PayPal or payment app) and whether the donor was anonymous or known (e.g., by leaving an email address). In total 2,555 donations, ranging from 65 cents to over $550, were made over the period. Seventy two percent of these were made by card or PayPal and nearly half were anonymous. The table below summarises our data on donations through the platform.

Characteristics of the data

Source: Tables 2 and 3 in Journal of Cultural Economics paper.

Circus performers and magicians have higher probabilities of receiving donations than other artists and those located in the UK or USA/Canada having higher donation probabilities. Popularity through fans (“likes” on their profile) or gigs requested of the performer both increase the probability of a donation. Of the other aspects of the profile, social media connectivity (more URLs listed) and the use of media do not influence the donation probability but listing of albums and increased information in the biography both increase the donation probability.

Turning to our findings on donation amount, we find a genre impact – musicians receive smaller donations that other performers – but no location effects. Performers with more fans receive higher donations and a longer biography on the performer’s profile increases donations. The other parts of the online profile do not have any impact on the donation amount. The payment method and whether the donor is anonymous have significant impacts on amount donated. Relative to a known donor using a payment app, a donation from a known donor making a card/PayPal donation is higher, from an anonymous donor using a payment app lower and from an anonymous donor using a card/PayPal it is higher.

Interestingly, we find some evidence of an impact of COVID-19. Performers who joined the platform after the World Health Organisation pandemic announcement have a significantly higher probability of receiving donations. However, there is no difference in donation amount between performers joining the platform pre or post the announcement. In new research we are investigating the impact of the first wave of COVID-19 on both performer and donor activity on the platform.

The dying nature of cash transactions has implications beyond just the busking community. Our findings are important as creative and cultural industries move towards more entrepreneurship for artists to survive. Street performers are often neglected from funding models but are a vital part of the creative ecosystem as a means of market testing and creation. Cash has dominated the exchanges between artists and fans for centuries, but the rise of digital exchange has wider implications as this is to some extent the last bastion of the cash domain. The platform model is a direct means for fans and artists to interact and build a community of like-minded people appreciating the artist which ultimately can help to sustain an artist’s career.

This article is based on:

Meg Elkins and Tim R.L. Fry “Beyond the realm of cash: street performers and donations in the online world” in Journal of Cultural Economics. Published online: June 2021.


We would like to thank The Busking Project and Nick Broad for supplying the data and note that responsibility for the information and views set out here lies entirely with the authors.

About the image:

“Masked Rag Doll busker – Bourke St Mall” by avlxyz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


This article is republished here, with thanks, from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence.

Meg Elkins is a Senior Lecturer in The School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University.

Tim R.L. Fry is an Honorary Professor in The School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University, Melbourne

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