Nick Broad Interview

by Paschale Straiton

Paschale is Chair of NASA-UK Steering Group and Artistic Director of Red Herring, ‘which creates playful and provocative outdoor performance in collaboration with creative producers Time Won’t Wait. The current touring show is That’s The Way To Do It! – a comedic take on the Punch and Judy’. Read more by Pascale on her blog here. Paschale on Twitter here. 

Paschale Straiton

 

I recently spoke to Nick Broad in Colombia about the wonderful international initiative that is The Busking Project.

P: So Nick, how long have you been living in Colombia for starters?

N: I’ve been living out here for a year and 2 months I think. I moved out here at the beginning of last year. No the end of the year before.

P: And how come?

N: For Love! My girlfriend and co-founder of the Busking Project is Colombian and she was moving out here and I thought that I’d give it a go. And it’s been really nice – cheap living, good weather, nice food.

P: Is there much good busking going on in Colombia at the moment?

N: Street performance here tends to be traffic lighters. So, you’ll see insanely talented jugglers, unicyclists, I’ve seen a German wheel, stilt walkers…actually just around the corner from my house there’s a tree where there are always silks wrapped around one on the branches on the tree. So, for an hour a day or half an hour a day someone will untie the silks and let them drop in front of the traffic lights and they’ll do a show – a 30-second show and then 30 seconds of hatting the cars and then wait for the lights to change again. But no there isn’t really a tradition of the large circle shows here in Colombia, that I know of.

P: So, how’s it going with the Busking Project at the moment?

N: So, we started with the idea of being a community, which transformed into finding ways of fixing various problems that street performers face, like legal issues: the criminalisation of busking and the privatisation of public spaces.

Nick Broad in Colombia.

And then, as a way of gaining more interest and being even more useful, we decided to find technological solutions to things like cashless payments and respond to the fact that everyone’s using social networks and asking, ‘How can we drive some of that traffic back into the street?’

So for 2015 and 2016, we were really looking at developing technology and creating a large growth company. We had dreams of 10,000s of daily users and making £100,000 worth of added money the busker economy.

And I think that by the end of last year, we were slightly jaded that we didn’t get the numbers that we were hoping for. But also, I think that we got a little lost in trying to please everybody. We were looking at how to please the buskers’ audiences – creating a product that someone who isn’t a street performer would come back to again and again. Whereas really I think that we should have been focusing this whole time on how to help street performers. I don’t know if you can see it, but at the top of our whiteboard behind me it says, ‘We’re here to help buskers succeed.’ So this is our new mantra and everything that we do from here is going to be measured against that. Instead of things focusing on how to make people find buskers or how to make people download the app, we’re asking ourselves instead, ‘Does this help street performers? Is this the most valuable use of our time to help street performers.’

So the app…we had some really good results with it last year during the festival season. I think we got something like 15,000 downloads of the app and I can’t remember exactly the number but we had several donations to street performers through the app. And basically, what we’ve proven is something that nobody had proven before – that people are actually willing to take the time to download an app to donate to street performers.

P: That’s a good result.

N: Exactly. So, we’re showing the people our ideas. Of course, it’s not the millions of pounds of life changing money, which we may end up earning. But at least it’s showing that people are interested.

P: That’s brilliant and so entrepreneurial as well.

J: Yeah. So, I never really thought of us as entrepreneurs. So almost everything that we’ve done, we’ve come to naturally. Nobody’s sat down with a piece of paper and thought, ‘Right how are we going to change the world?’ It was always like, ‘Oh look that’s a problem, let’s have a think about that. And maybe we can help here. Ok let’s look into whether or not cashless payments would work and if so which methods are going to be the most popular. And well if we have that, we might as well have a live busking map of the world because all phones are GPS enabled. And so wouldn’t it be cool if you could see who’s busking right now near you?’ Which also fixes another problem, which is that you don’t really want to have an app where people have to search through with people’s names. We would prefer an app where someone just turns the phone on and then they see a whole bunch of dots on a map near them and they can just click on a dot and that’s the busker that they can donate to.

We did a lot of gigs at the beginning of this year. We helped a lot of people getting engaged. We just did one engagement in Skinny Bridge in Amsterdam. And just before this interview, I started looking for street performers in Manhattan who’d like to help somebody do a little gig on the North banks of the reservoir in Central Park.

N: So you’re building as a sort of agency?

P: Yes, except that we don’t manage people. There’s no audition process or anything. Anybody can sign up. Anybody can upload videos. People search through the website and we get 1,000s of clicks on the ‘hire me’ buttons of our website. We have no way of tracking how many of them actually turn into successful gigs. But I’m sure that there are hundreds of gigs each year that street performers are getting.

Now some people can’t find exactly what they’re looking for and they get in contact with us. So Rolls Royce in Canada contacted us this morning and said we’re doing a party in June and we want stilt walkers and clowns and magicians. And so we’ll help them find talent for that.

P: Do you then put out an ad on the Busking Project website?

N: Depending on what the client wants. Sometimes it’s an ad out on our Facebook page. For larger things, they tend to want them to be curated and so we’ll individually select people. A guy who messaged us this morning for his engagement wants a husky voiced male guitarist. So I know a couple already in New York and we’ll just go through our database and hand him a selection.

So there’s another client who wants to do a tour of 34 cities in the US and they wanted us to put together a list of 5 street performers in each city for them. So last week we made a list of 165 street performers around the USA and the budget for that’s pretty good. It’s between $500 and $1000 per performer. So if you take an average of $750, multiply that by 165 and that’s a ton of money that they’re going to be paying. I’ll just quickly use my calculator. My God, that’s over £123,000 that they might be spending on street performers!

We decide whether or not to take a commission, depending on the client. So if it’s someone’s birthday party or an engagement, we’re not going to charge them for the service. But if it’s a large company and they have a huge budget, we’ll add something on the top. It takes time, so we charge for our time.

Another thing that we’re looking towards is the music thing. There are a lot of street performers who sell CDs. I still buy CDs and

I actually had to buy an external CD player to plug into my computer. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a hi-fi anymore, so the only way I have of playing the CDs I buy is put them into my external CD drive. And then, of course, you transfer the music onto your music library and then you transfer that onto your phone and then you can walk around and listen to it. It’s a really laborious process. The next decade is definitely not going to be the decade of the CD! So buskers need to work out a way to get their MP3s onto people’s phones. So that’s something we’ve done through people’s profiles. And we’re just about to at the end of this month, do a massive launch of upgrades to our website with much sexier, sleeker profiles

P: Do you do all the tech for that yourself?

N: No not me. I have a wonderful team of very intelligent people. In fact, my co-founder is the real brains behind all of this. She’s a designer, developer, user experience strategist. She did a business degree. I’m an ex-professional pool player!

So basically the way that it works is that you upload your music onto the website. And when you’re performing and people come up to you on the street, you say, ‘Hey you can buy and download my album here.’ You set a minimum price and you get your personalised, short URL. It might be busk.co/nick or something. So people take their phones out and they go to the URL. They click ‘Buy Album’ and they can download that music straight onto their phone.

I-phone actually makes it terribly difficult to do. So you get an email link from which you can download the MP3 and transfer that into your music library and then sync that with your phone because Apple is Apple. But for the majority of phones – all the Android phones that are out there, it’s just a straight simple download and you immediately get the music.

P: And they get the money directly into their bank account?

N: Exactly. One of the reasons why I’d like to change the company that we are at the moment into a CIC (and if any of your readers have any advice that they would like to give about this we’d be very grateful), is because as a grantable organisation we can actually remove the commission that we take on these things. So at the moment there are traffic and posting costs for everybody’s music on our website and so we take between 2 and 8% depending on how much you sell your album for, which is a few pennies for us, but it covers the cost of hosting our artists’ content. We would love to have that kind of thing covered by grants so that we effectively take none of the money out of the busker’s hat. That would be the dream.

P: Long live the dream!

N: I would like to add that that we’re very interested in collaborating with outdoor arts producers on the app. We have a few different people that are interested in it. We’re talking to someone in New York and we’re talking to a couple of different councils.

Our app – using the technology of geo-located performances that happen in a defined space, can be used by all outdoor arts producers. And what we’re trying to do is to get enough outdoor arts producers to pay to get their own app, so that we can distribute the costs amongst them all and therefore any festival would be able to have an app for, $1,000 or $2,000 which is a large initial investment but not when you consider what it can do.

So for example, you could have an app at your outdoor arts festivals, which shows your food trucks, your clothing stalls or whatever you have on the site. You can show local businesses, like cafes and restaurants, who could then pay you to be featured on the app, so you could make some of the money back that way. It would show you who the performers are, what the stages are, the schedule on the stages. You can click on performer’s names or their icons to find out whether or not you want to go and see their shows. You can then donate to the performer. You could donate to the festival through the app. You could be selling the PDF download of your festival programme through the app.

Anyone who has produced an outdoor arts festival knows that their volunteers or their street team are answering questions all the time like, ‘Where is Dan performing right now?’ Or ‘When’s the next time that Bob is performing?’ ‘What stage am I standing next to,’ or ‘Where’s the info tent?’ – all of those kinds of questions. And if everyone had this app on their phone, they could have this information at their fingertips.

And the benefits of course to the performers are that people know who they are and are given an extra way of becoming a fan or donating to them. So the app is great. And hopefully, if we get enough outdoor arts producers interested in it, we can spread the money around for the basic development of the app for one festival and because it’s all based on the same technology we can push it out to all festivals.

That’s another thing that we’re trying to get done this year. So, if any of you out there reading this run a festival and are interested in getting your hands on an amazing app, then let me know and you can contact me at nick@busk.co.

P: Thanks very much Nick and good luck with everything!

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