SingSaver interviews ex-busker and actor Gavin Teo to find out what it takes to become a busker in Singapore, the costs involved and if the hustle is really worth it.
You may have heard that busking can actually be a pretty profitable hustle. And for those lucky performers, it might even be their only opportunity for fame. Sure, you may not be making as much as Jay Chou or JJ Lin as a busker in Singapore, but if you find yourself performing on a popular stretch in town, chances are the money you make isn’t going to be chump change.
Just ask ex-busker and actor Gavin Teo, 28, who admittedly confessed that he managed to “recover” over S$1,200 worth of singing equipment just “after a few busking sessions”.
Interested in becoming a busker in Singapore yourself? Here’s all you need to know about The Real Cost of Busking in Singapore, Gavin’s experience and what it takes to become the next busking sensation.
First, you’ll need a license
If you don’t already know, busking without a license is illegal in Singapore. You can’t just lug your mic and guitar to a random location and start singing — you’ll most likely get stopped by the police before you draw big crowds like a certain busker at The Cathay.
Who is eligible to apply for a busking license in Singapore?
All Singaporeans and Permanent Residents are eligible to apply for a Busking Card, according to the National Arts Council (NAC). However, if you are an international student on a Student Pass, you will first need to obtain a letter of recommendation from your school.
If you’re a foreigner residing in Singapore, you are also eligible to apply if you have a valid Employment Pass and obtain written consent from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) after passing an audition.
You may be a busker at any age, but those below 17 years old will be required to present a consent letter signed by either your parent or guardian.
Registering for a busking license in Singapore is free
And it’s a really simple process.
Gavin, who first applied for his busking license in 2017, said, “you just have to fill up your particulars and wait for the acknowledgement. It’s quite straightforward.”
You may download your busking application form here (solo applicants) or here (group) before submitting it via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
However, you have to attend a workshop and pass an audition first
Before you can start singing on the streets, you’ll need to pass an audition first.
The reason? “Buskers in Singapore are required to attend an audition to ensure consistency in the quality of busking activities”, wrote NAC on its website.
Gavin recommended aspiring buskers to book an audition slot as soon as they register because it can be a rather long wait.
“I remember looking through NAC’s website in July 2017 and the slots for both the pre-audition workshop and the audition itself were fully booked until April 2018. I had no choice but to apply for that date,” Gavin recalled.
Gavin’s pre-audition workshop experience
“There were a lot of people gathering during the workshop and there was a conductor who taught us everything about the audition and the rules of street busking,” said Gavin. “They also invited an existing busker down who shared about his experiences and things to look out for.”
The actual audition experience
The actor shared that buskers were encouraged to “choose songs in a variety of genres that showcase [their] own creativity and unique style”.
In Gavin’s case, he chose a mix of upbeat and slow ballads in both Mandarin and English.
He noted that the use of backup tracks wasn’t allowed, so everyone auditioning to be a vocalist had to be able to play an instrument while singing.
To save money, Gavin decided to head to the audition with his equipment via public transport.
“I took a train to the location that day as I wanted to get a feel of how it would be like carrying all my equipment to an actual busking session,” Gavin shared. “In my opinion, private hire cars are just not financially sustainable, especially if you’re not earning a lot.”
Cost: S$4~ per two-way MRT trip
Now, this is the part where it gets expensive — your busking equipment.
How much you spend on your props and equipment ultimately depends on what you want to perform. Acts can range from dancing, magic tricks, singing, living statues and more — all of which require at least some capital to get started.
Here’s what Gavin invested in for his busking act:
- Sennheiser E935 (microphone): S$269
- Roland Cube Street EX (amplifier): S$679
- XLR cable: S$20
- Instrument cable: S$15
- 16x Eneloop Pro rechargeable AA batteries with charger: S$100
- Microphone stand: S$20
- Music stand: S$20
- Suitcase: S$80
- Signboard: S$2 from Daiso
Total damage: S$1200~
Collection of Endorsement Card after passing auditions
Acts who passed the audition will obtain a Busking Card (Letter of Endorsement), which will allow them to busk at designated sites within a validity period.
It took Gavin about a month after the audition to get the green light from NAC, and he was so excited that he remembered taking a cab down to get his card.
When he got there, there was one more surprise — Gavin found out that he had been allowed to busk at one of the most popular spots in Singapore.
“I was even more delighted when I saw the busking spots reflected on my card!” he exclaimed, explaining that prime busking spots in areas such as Orchard, Dhoby Ghaut, Paya Lebar and Marina Bay Sands face “stronger competition”.
“Whether you get [prime locations] or not depends on how well you perform during your auditions,” he beamed. “I was super happy to get the locations I wanted. In the end, I was allowed to busk in front of Mandarin Gallery and 313 Somerset.”
Cost: S$15~ worth of Grab fare (mainly because he was really excited and couldn’t wait to collect his Endorsement Card)
TL;DR Gavin’s timeline from application to collection of endorsement card
- July 2017: Submit application
- April 2018: Pre-audition workshop and audition
- May 2019: Collection of busking card
Eager to start busking, Gavin immediately headed down to Mandarin Gallery the following day after obtaining his card.
Despite being fairly well-known, Gavin insisted on using public transport as his main mode of commute to his busking sessions.
“Since I wasn’t willing to splurge on cab fares, I would always make it a point to take the train down to my busking spots. It was manageable because I was able to pack everything into a single suitcase,” he said.
On average, Gavin performed two to three times a week, with each set lasting around three to four hours. While he declined to reveal the exact amount he earned busking, he hinted that the profits were “pretty decent”.
“I managed to recover the amount spent on equipment after a few busking sessions, and even earned enough to upgrade them. I was able to add a Boss RC-30 looper pedal, which cost over S$400, to my setup, mainly because I was inspired by Ed Sheeran,” he laughed.
Cost: S$4~ per two-way MRT trip
Bad weather, loud streets noises, spot-stealers and other difficulties that buskers face
Unsurprisingly, Gavin experienced his fair share of ups and downs while street busking.
“Bad weather, occasional engine noises from bikes and cars speeding along Orchard Road, loud music from tissue sellers, aunties on wheelchairs singing for donations, and my designated spots getting taken up by other buskers were some of the difficulties I faced,” Gavin confessed.
However, he admitted that this is a “tricky situation” as there is no way to verify if the other busker has a license unless you request to check their busking card.
“I’m not a very confrontational person, so I usually just give in and walk further down to set up at a not-so-ideal spot,” he sighed.
On one occasion, Gavin even had to pause his set mid-performance in front of a huge crowd simply because a hotel guest nearby complained about the “loud noise” from his singing.
Gavin on why he eventually gave up busking
“I stopped busking when COVID-19 happened. Soon after, I decided that it was time to move on,” Gavin explained.
While he has encountered numerous street performers making busking a full-time career, Gavin personally thinks that it’s “not feasible [for him] in the long run”.
“Things are very unpredictable when it comes to busking, like the weather, COVID-19 and spots getting snatched by other buskers,” he revealed. “Busking is also physically draining. I feel that people may end up doing it for the money more than for passion. I have considerably reflected upon that aspect, which is why I decided to pursue acting instead. The pandemic simply presented an opportunity to do so.”
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