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Nothing has fuelled the transition towards a cashless society quite as effectively as the global pandemic. Covid resulted in a 35% drop in cash transactions during 2020 and it’s a trend that has held steady, with only one in six payments now involving cash.

For musicians, cashless payments now far outnumber those by cash and the card reader devices used for transactions have become a vital tool in musicians’ gig bags. Armed with a card reader, the musician can ensure they never miss out on a potential payment.

The real appeal of card readers is their flexibility. Using only a smartphone, a downloadable app and a relatively cheap card reader (between £20–50), users can take payments from anywhere there is a wifi network. For some devices, a mobile phone network alone will suffice.

Most card reader providers charge no monthly fee, but take a charge per transaction, which can vary from around 1.5–3%. Payment can be made via chip and pin or contactless, including Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung Pay.

Point-of-sale (POS) systems could help you manage your inventory

Transactions are just part of what card readers offer. Some devices’ point-of-sale (POS) systems can help you to manage your inventory, providing a strong visual interface and the ability to drill down for accounts data and stock checking. Some also offer advanced security features that claim to help protect you from cyber breaches and data theft.

Among the first musicians to spot the potential of card readers were buskers. Many are of course professional musicians who use their busking as much as a shop window for live bookings as they do for the money they earn on the street.

One big challenge for buskers has been finding a card reader that will enable people to pay while the busker is playing, rather than having to wait for a break between the songs to activate a transaction for the person who wants to make a donation.

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Drilling down into your inventory

One useful – but sometimes overlooked – function of some card readers on the market is the facility to drill down into your inventory to access account data and check availability of stock. This is all vital info to have at your fingertips when running your business while out on tour, and of course, anything that reduces admin is welcome.

“I really like the interface function,” says Emily Barker of the SumUp Air device. “I have each product assigned a price and picture – the cover art of the album, say – which makes it really quick and easy to use. It also means either me or my manager can easily access data for accounting and keep on top of stock levels.”

It’s a view echoed by her manager. “From a business management perspective, it means no more hassling the artist, tour manager or merch manager for reports,” he says. “I can log in to the account and see the sales as they come in. The reports I get are in csv format and have all the detail I need for VAT returns, royalty accounting, sales analytics, stock/inventory control etc. The SumUp app also allows the recording of cash sales alongside card sales, so all merch sales are in the same report – no need to keep a separate note of cash sales.”

Payments are about seizing the moment

Some buskers use printed-out QR codes or URL links for people to photograph on their phones and then access once they are back at the office or home. But as busker Peter Thomas says, it’s all about getting the donation from the passer-by at the moment they are inspired to give, rather than having to click on a QR code, fill out a registration and finally make a payment.

“It’s really about seizing that moment there and then,” says Thomas, a musician and actor, whose regular busking pitch is the bottom of the Northern Line escalators at King’s Cross. “Because by the time they’re back at their desk, they’ve kind of forgotten. That’s my experience.”

Thomas is one of the Transport for London busking reps who are currently looking into the various cashless payment options for buskers. The MU London Regional Office is also involved in these discussions.

There are numerous card readers out there, such as SumUp, Zettle, PayPal.Me, Square and Ko-fi. But there is one that appears to have found particular favour among buskers, simply because it enables them to receive donations while they are actually playing. This is the Zettle, formerly known as the iZettle and now owned by PayPal. Back in 2016, non-profit organisation Busk in London began working with the company to develop a device that would facilitate buskers’ needs. The device was launched in May 2018 at Waterloo Station alongside a performance by Passenger.

In many ways, it seems similar to other card readers, with one notable exception: a downloadable piece of software called the Repeat Payment feature. This requires the busker to set a fixed fee that they feel is appropriate. “I wanted to set it to the smallest amount,” says Thomas. “I wanted to set it to 50p, but you can’t. £1 is the minimum. Then I talked to other buskers, and they said, ‘no, no, no, definitely £2. People will give £2’.”

Use Zettle to receive fixed payments for contactless transactions

Once set to a figure, the busker can then activate the device to receive fixed payments for that amount every time someone makes a contactless transaction. Meanwhile, the busker is free to perform, secure in the knowledge that anyone who wants to make a donation can, without the busker having to stop performing to process it.

“That piece of software keeps the Zettle awake, but it also means you can set the Repeat Payment function,” says Kate Jones, programme director of Busk In London.

“All the audience member or punter needs to do is to tap their card or any other payment and that’s it. So it’s similar to putting your hand in your pocket, pulling out a couple of pound coins and chucking them in the case.”

Singer-songwriter Charlotte Campbell, who regularly busks on London’s South Bank, uses the Zettle and says it gets “far more traffic” than her QR code.

“I genuinely feel it is the most innovative, in terms of card readers out there. If you’re a musician and you then stop playing in order to take a card payment, that can really interrupt your performance. It’s not quite as magical!” She also acknowledges that setting a fixed fee in advance is not as natural as people paying what they feel. “Yeah, I think it’s a shame…and there’s a part of me that feels that is lost,” she says.

Card readers are also beneficial for merchandise sales

Of course, it’s not just busking musicians who benefit from card readers. They are also an essential tool for touring musicians who are selling merchandise. British blues-rock guitarist and songwriter Jack J Hutchinson says there was a “growing desire” for card payments pre-pandemic, but that this shot up when he resumed touring in October 2021.

“When we finally got back on the road, people had reservations about handling cash, so there was a clear switch to card payments,” he says. Now it’s more like 90/10 weighted towards card transactions. We see a lot of people using their smartphones to make contactless payments as well now,” he says.

Jack J Hutchinson performing on stage
British blues-rock guitarist and songwriter Jack J Hutchinson says there was a “growing desire” for card payments pre-pandemic, but that this shot up when he resumed touring. Photo: Morag Farley

Hutchinson uses a PayPal reader, which he has used on over 200 shows. He pays a 1.5% flat fee per transaction. “It’s paired with my iPhone and the PayPal app, which has a really nice interface and is easy to use. All the items are individually listed on the screen with a small thumbnail. So it features my album covers, T-shirt designs, keyrings etc.”

He advises any musicians using a card reader for the first time to try it out in advance. “Make sure that you do a few trial runs, particularly if you’re handling the transactions yourself. The first show I tried to use the card reader at, I had a few issues synching between the reader and my phone, and before I knew it there was a massive queue of people waiting to buy stuff while I was faffing around. I think we lost a few sales that day!”

Check what card reader works for you

Australian singer-songwriter, musician and composer Emily Barker has also experienced a significant increase in cashless payments post-pandemic. 80% of her merch transactions are now by card, compared to 30% in early 2019, when she began using her own card reader.

“Obviously, I didn’t want to miss out on any sales, so I got myself a SumUp card reader. I went for SumUp because I could use it in the UK and was about to go on tour in America. It also works there. Recently, I had to get a different one for Australia. I went with Square for that territory, having asked fellow musicians what they favour.”

SumUp charges 1.69% per transaction and one-off prices for the physical device start at £29. Barker says using card devices in remote locations or basement gigs can be a challenge, as there is often no wifi or 3G. She uses the SumUp Air version of the device, which connects via Bluetooth to an app on a phone or tablet that connects to the internet.

The reader can only connect to one phone or tablet at a time, but as long as someone downloads the app and has the account login, they can use the reader. “For example, we had a friend help out with merch sales at the recent Union Chapel show,” says Barker’s manager. “They downloaded the app, logged in to Emily’s account and then connected to the reader.”

Barker advises any artists who tour internationally to check what card readers work best in each territory. “I hope one day that one card reader can work in all territories rather than having to have different ones in each,” she says. “It would also be good if you could charge in local currency, but currently you need to work out the equivalent and charge accordingly – which usually involves an explanation to the customer.”

Card reader ease of use is paramount

There’s no doubt that most musicians on the live circuit now need a card reader to process payments. There are many reputable card readers out there; the key is to do your research, check out reviews and speak to other artists to decide which card reader best suits your needs and budget. It’s an evolving market and increasingly competitive, so look for offers and take full advantage of them.

As with any tech, ease of use is paramount. The last thing you need is to spend hours troubleshooting to try and resolve arduous setup or incompatibility issues. Take time to find the card reader that works best for you and your business, so that you can get on with the main job at hand.

Photo ofNeil Crossley
Thanks to

Neil Crossley

A journalist and editor who has written for The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Financial Times. Neil also fronts the band Furlined.

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