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Making Millions As The Village Idiot


But don't quit your day job just yet.


Whether playing electric guitar while rollerblading down Venice Beach, strumming a zither in bright-blue face paint as a member of the famous Blue Man Group, or crooning ballads in the freezing New York cold wearing nothing but tighty-whities, spurs and a cowboy hat bearing the legend "Naked Cowboy," professional buskers make a living doing what they love best - exchanging their dignity for your spare change.

San Francisco's granola-eating hippie performance artists of the 1960s settled for payment in the form of pot, peace and love, but some of these modern-day troubadours are a multi-million dollar industry.

After hitting rock bottom and posing for Playgirl in 1998 (not necessarily at the same time), Robert John Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy, took his cheeks to the streets of Time Square and began his illustrious career as the self-described "Most Celebrated Entertainer of All Time."

He quickly parlayed his kitschy singing-and-strumming shtick into music-video and commercial cameos, including a Chevrolet (GM) ad which appeared during the 2007 Super Bowl. Merchandise, available via Burck's personal website, soon followed, including Naked Cowboy underwear ($15), a hand-painted guitar ($800) and original comics ($300).

With great power, however, comes great responsibility: Burck recently launched a trademark-infringement lawsuit against Mars Incorporated - to the tune of $6 million. Apparently, Burck's physique isn't the only thing about him that's high-visibility - his assets are as well.

In the suit, Burck alleges that a billboard depicting a blue M&M shaking its moneymaker in his signature garb of hat, boots, and briefs is a clear violation of his copyright - especially since his underwear is "the most brilliant thing that's ever been created from a marketing perspective."

But the Naked Cowboy isn't the only such marketing wizard: Phil Stanton, Chris Wink, and Matt Goldman, better known as Blue Man Group, somehow turned a mute experimental rock act and buckets of cobalt-blue grease paint into a multimedia industry worth approximately $100 million per year.

Following a popular series of Intel ads (INTC), the group started garnering attention outside the tiny world of experimental theater and began selling tickets in the tens of thousands. They were subsequently picked up by Virgin; their first release, 1999's Audio, was nominated for a Grammy.

According to a 2003 article in Fortune, the three founding members now manage more than 500 employees and put on more than 38 shows a week at Las Vegas's Venetian Hotel. Given the fact that tickets range from $43 to $88, Blue Man makes roughly $1.4 million in weekly revenue from performances alone.

Their open-mouthed, stunned-looking blue faces also began appearing on the cups, napkins, overhead bins, service carts, uniforms and even airplanes of Allegiant Travel (ALGT) this March, in a deeply weird licensing deal which netted Blue Man an undisclosed sum.

Like their naked compatriot, Blue Man Group has also had their share of legal troubles: the AFL-CIO added the company to their boycott list, saying that it may be "'cutting edge' as an entertainment concept, but it is a throwback to the dark ages in labor relations."

Blue Man's ability to sidestep labor unions -- as they did in their 2005 move from the Luxor Hotel, where they had a union contract, to the Venetian, where they do not -- has indeed been extremely creative. Withholding profits from stagehands kept the group embroiled in suits, countersuits and appeals until June 10 of this year, when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against them in their dispute with the National Labor Relations Board. The Court held that the group's refusal to bargain constituted an unfair labor practice.

Other former buskers aren't nearly as shrewd about the business end of art. Guy Laliberte and Daniel Gauthier, of Cirque du Soleil, leapt without a net when they decided to take their show from the streets of Montreal to Los Angeles - despite the fact that they only had enough money to make a one-way trip. Had the show not been a huge critical and financial success (which it was), Laliberte and company wouldn't have been able to get their performers and equipment back to Montreal.

Twenty years later, Guy Laliberte is one of Canada's richest men, with a net worth of $1.1 billion. The circus itself, now with multiple permanent locations, including one in Las Vegas, has exploded in size, from 73 to 3,500 employees. Annual revenue is estimated to be in excess of $600 million.

But don't quit your day job and take to the streets with a harmonica just yet. Being a professional busker isn't a guaranteed path to fame, wealth, and that permanent leopard-print penthouse in Vegas: take Larry Wright, for example.

Even though the well-known New York street drummer pioneered a unique playing style, and has appeared in a number of films and music videos, his bravura subway performances are routinely cut short by the cops.

But all of us underground can rest easier knowing that somewhere, high above, the Naked Cowboy is cruising by in a limo.

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