LEXECON 1 – Invest in Plastics: Chicago’s Bucket Boys

Photo: LensImpressions.net

From an early age I was always interested in business, and was the only kid in my grade school who regularly read the “Business” Section of the local paper, and who considered it normal to read publications like “Business Week” and “Forbes” from cover to cover.  Growing up in a family of teachers, it’s no surprise that I’ve always been an avid student of many things.  Though I’ve studied business for most of my life in some form or another (including college and graduate work), it didn’t come naturally to me.  Passing the two decade mark since my first formal education as a B-School undergrad, it’s intriguing to learn valuable lessons in business practically every day, whether they come from high-minded academic sources or even from simple observations on the street.

Invest in Plastics – Chicago’s Bucket Boys

Spring announced its arrival this week in Chicago with unseasonably warm weather, but one of the most familiar signs to locals of the change of seasons is the clatter of complex beats tapped out on plastic utility buckets cutting through the urban noise and congestion of city traffic and pedestrian mobs.  After your ears adjust to the high-pitched rattle and you get over the impulse to ask whether these drumming youngsters should be in school or somewhere other than Chicago’s famous boulevards (maybe like here), you begin to appreciate that there’s more to your typical bucket drummer corps than raw rhythmic talent – these kids can be pretty savvy.   Don’t be fooled into lumping them in with the average panhandler (a topic for another day).  The “Bucket Boys”, as they are known to some Chicagoans, are smart, and they’re about business.  The once underground phenomenon has become so prevalent in some areas that many cities are trying to bring these performers out of the shadow economy with licenses and permits.

At the end of one of last year’s Taste of Chicago events, I walked out of Grant Park with thousands of others right back past the spot where one group of bucket drummers had been performing earlier near Michigan Avenue.  I could tell from before that they could play and knew how to work the crowd to earn a fair amount of tip money.  Their chants and songs were cheeky, yet effective, but they knew their performance cues as well as the most polished professional musicians.  As they were breaking down, I stopped in my tracks shocked at what I saw.  One kid, who I’d recognized earlier as a skilled drummer and a leader of sorts, had begun counting the day’s take and handing out shares.  He broke up the money for distribution.  I could see there was some hierarchy in effect, which meant the shares weren’t completely equal, but no one in his crew questioned their take or his authority.

What impressed me more was the fact that he when he couldn’t get them to lug away their buckets and sticks after finishing, he struck up a conversation with some other kids, and just a few moments later…he had sold all of their equipment to some complete strangers, who were determined to have their own try at earning a few dollars from the departing crowds.

As the new entrants to street entertainment began to take up their places for the evening set, the head of the original group laughed aloud as he counted his money.   I couldn’t tell if he had improvised it, or if that was part of his usual business model (“get in, get paid, get out”), but I’d never seen such a clean business operation and well-executed exit strategy as these.   I didn’t bother to hang around for amateur hour, I had already seen the pro at work.

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