I'm tremendously excited to provide busking insight for the city I call home. As the cultural heartbeat of northern California, San Francisco is home to a thriving music scene and thus quite receptive to buskers- if you know where to go. Take a wrong turn however and you could find yourself struggling to make a dime or worse yet, getting harassed by other street performers or police. Make sure you know the dos and dont's of the city by the bay.
CASTRO AND 19TH
The winner for me has to be This hot little corner in the Castro. Bars, nightclubs, and Restaurants decorate this vibrant neighborhood, known historically as the setting of the San Francisco Gay Rights movement and home to SF icon Harvey Milk. The overall friendly nature of this neighborhood, like many in San Francisco, means street performers are generally welcome to add to the already vibrant character of the district.
A coveted spot in front of the Bank of America Building on Castro and 19th street is the busiest and best corner in the neighborhood, where 6' by 6' plot of sidewalk sits at the center of dozens of bars and restaurants, meaning foot traffic is always abundant.
If you are in the area, try your best to make it over early. You have to be quick, as it goes quickly and once a street performer is on 19th and Castro there is little chance they will leave soon. Keep in mind that residences are right around the corner, so playing at a volume respectful to the neighbors is in everyone's best interest.
Come out to the Castro. It’s a great place to play music and experience San Francisco in all of its queer & trans beauty.
(BETWEEN FULTON AND JUDAH)
Natives to San Francisco may be surprised by this one because unlike the southern side of the California, San Francisco is not known for its sunny beaches. But on the few warm and sunny days, Beach goers come out in droves to stroll along the sidewalk along by the concrete barrier separating the street and sand. This spot can be pretty fun and profitable if the elements (see: Karl the Fog) go in your favor.
Unlike other spots in the city, there is lots of real-estate to play. You can count on several musicians along this street on a good day, but there is hardly ever a shortage of space outside of earshot of another musician.
If you make your way to Ocean Beach, plan to bring something louder than the ocean. (easy, right?) For example, If you plan to bring your nylon guitar, consider dragging that battery-operated amp and guitar pick-up with you as well. On the contrary, this spot is perfect for a noisier repertoire, such as bucket drums.
(9TH & IRVING)
What is there even to say about the Inner Sunset? 9th and Irving is home to a weekly farmers market, several coffee houses and bakeries, and no less than six Irish pubs. Outside of a boutique called Ambiance is the perfect place to catch the attention of passers-by. It's not the busiest spot on the city, but is perfect if you are still fine-turning your songs or just looking for a generally mellower vibe.
(OUTSIDE VESUVIO CAFE)
This part of North Beach may be better known for its many Strip Clubs banked along Broadway street like a row of dirty, crooked teeth. However, numerous street corners here make a fine busker's refuge. The best spot by far in North Beach is an alley outside Vesuvio Cafe, an historic bar adjacent from City Lights bookstore (if you're not sure where that is, just look for the hanging sculpture of illuminated flying books). The close walls provide great acoustics for guitar, violin, or just about anything used to make sweet, sweet music. As an added bonus, this very alley is a destination for lovers of San Francisco's Beat Generation and its authors, who like to pose next to the large mural, or aside golden commemorative plaques with quotes from Kerouac and Ginsberg.
In General, the foot traffic here is an odd mix of working stiffs from the financial district and backpackers from Europe. This isn't always the best people to play for, but North Beach's generally positive attributes in all other camps lands itself comfortably in the "do's" category.
The mission is a great place simply to be if you are a musician; the numerous venues and record stores could keep you busy all day alone. Plus, plenty of spots up and down Valencia and the mission between 15th and 22nd streets are great for solo musicians and groups alike. Because of the high noise pollution, make sure whatever you bring to perform can compete with the sound of passing traffic and meandering drunk people. Buskers here tend to be quite elaborate around here, performing as full bands with drum kits or with other innovative setups. The key to the mission is to be unique and fun. Not all spots have a great traffic flow all the time, so be willing also to move around a lot if you com here.
The mission is home to a proud, yet diminishing Latino population. San Francisco's booming tech economy has contributed to a sharp rise in evictions by landlords to make way for the wealthy. This has created tension in this neighborhood between transplants and natives. Be sensitive to this climate if you plan to come here. How this fact really translates to the aspirations of street music, I'm not sure.
It might not be a fair assessment, but most San Franciscans would characterize the Marina as a WASP neighborhood, full of Bros and the basic-minded. Street music here is not common, nor is it generally welcomed by law enforcement or the somewhat older-than-average resident. Every time I have played here, I have been asked to leave by police within an hour. This has not happened anywhere else in San Francisco. The average bar here caters sports lovers, Top 40 listeners, and people who love to binge drink. The average pedestrian here is significantly drunker and belligerent than anywhere else in the city; The Marina tends to attract this type of person. While I don't discourage buskers altogether from playing out here, I don't recommend they make a day around it either.
The Wharf's lack of character means there is little intrigue by tourists/visitors. In direct contrast to the local pride of the Castro district, Fisherman’s Wharf is spotted with bland gift shops and t-shirt huts. Don't get me wrong, there are street performers here, but they are very territorial and do not take kindly to new buskers. Additionally, no artists community or draw for music lovers translates to little to no interest for street music. Street music aside, why does anyone even go here at all? We may never know.
HAIGHT & ASHBURY
One would think the very spot where Hendrix and The Grateful dead made amazing music would bode well for musicians, but this neighborhood chose instead to honor the memory of the 60s with excessive drug use. There is a lot of LSD use on the streets here, and it makes for a reckless environment. It's not uncommon to see someone having a conversation with a tree, or having a manic episode on the steps of the McDonald's. The scene as a whole here is not conducive to street music. Also noteworthy is the chronic problem of aggressive panhandling by crust punks who might perceive buskers soliciting donations as cutting in on their territory, sometimes even reacting violently. I don't hate the Haight, but, well... you kids have fun with your drugs, mkay?
What to say about Union Square? It's a giant slab on concrete under construction since 1895, and is where every tourist goes to take a selfie with one of those giant hearts. Like all other spots in San Francisco, there is potential here to play, but it gets lost somewhere between the excessive noise of car traffic, ongoing construction and absent-minded tourists looking for the perfect filter before posting the 150th picture of themselves to Instagram.
Well, there you have it. Like all cities, try your best to stick out as a musician. Find your edge; its not enough to play pop songs on a guitar. Buskers here need the “head-turner.” If you head to the right neighborhood, people here will embrace weird or cool elements in music. If San Franciscans enjoy you, you will enjoy San Francisco.
For the City by the Bay: