It's possible that former Portlander David Parks is the most successful busker in the world.
First, he went viral when video of his group, the beat-heavy brass-and-drums trio Too Many Zooz, performing in a New York City subway station exploded on YouTube. Then he went on tour, ending up onstage and in the studio last year with Beyoncé, backing up the Queen of Pop on Lemonade and at the Country Music Awards.
None of it was planned. Parks started out pounding shopping carts as a member of Satyricon regulars Hitting Birth in the early '90s, while also "playing newspapers" alongside a guitarist outside Pioneer Courthouse Square. He moved to New York and formed Too Many Zooz with baritone saxophonist Leo Pellegrino and trumpeter Matt Doe. In 2014, Parks' only goal, like most street performers, was to make a few extra bucks. Somehow, he has turned it into a legit career.
How did he do it? If you ask him, a lot of it was serendipity. But if you're an upstart musician looking to launch yourself from a street corner, he's got a few tips.
DON'T WORRY ABOUT GETTING PAID.
"Never think about the money. Focus on the performance and what you're doing, because that's the most important part—to appear to be having fun. And it's hard to appear to be having fun if you're worried about whether someone is going to give you money. In a nightclub, people are paying because they like you. They come there because they want to hear music. On the street, it's all subjective."
TREAT IT LIKE A LEGITIMATE PERFORMANCE.
"Have a set time you're going to start and stop. It's a performance. You're not just busking. You have to have some characterization to what you're doing and block out everything, as if you were on a stage. Most performers aren't going onstage thinking, 'Each song has to pay me a certain amount.' It gets too hammy that way. It's about putting your art out there for people to either like or dislike, and then trying to figure out which parts people like the most and stop doing whatever that thing is they don't like."
PICK YOUR LOCATION BASED ON YOUR ABILITY.
"With any business—and it is a business—location is everything. In New York, we play Union Square. It's the perfect collision. It's a hub for street performers, so the cops aren't going to bother you too much. And everyone in the world is coming through there. We're probably playing for 150,000 people an hour. But if you're not to that level where you can hold the attention of a high-traffic area, I'd work on your game in other places. Because you're also developing a reputation."
DON'T BE URBAN WALLPAPER.
"Busking is kind of like where graffiti is now. There's people who do graffiti, and now there's 'graphic arts people.' The street-performing thing is cooler when the acts are original, where they have a look and all that type of thing. If it's just 100 guys playing guitar and doing Bob Dylan songs, that's cool, but we really think it should be used as a springboard for new artists and new type of art, and performers who wouldn't necessarily fit into the mainstream of things. And it all depends on where you're at. Our act probably wouldn't have worked so much in Colorado when we started. New York kind of contextualized it."
"It's not for everyone. It can be really discouraging, because you are faced with people and their opinions. If you're looking for a reflection of how good your art is, it might not be the thing for you. It can be really heartbreaking. There have been many times we've gone down and not made any money. For me, and the people I play with, we're committed artists, period. So for us, that's just a bad day, and we go back out."
Too Many Zooz plays Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., with Massacooramaan, on Saturday, May 20. 9 pm. $15 advance, $18 day of show. 21+.