When walking around the centre of Melbourne, one continually comes across buskers. Some of them are so awful I am tempted to offer them money on the condition that they promise to stop playing until I am out of earshot.
On the other hand, that does seem a little mean, so I have not done it. But some of the performers (one hesitates to use the word musicians) are truly abominable.
Others, on the other hand, are excellent. A violinist who was playing solo in the underground tunnel at Flinders Street Station was a very fine player. Her tone was excellent, and intonation flawless. Her playing prompted thoughts about why she was reduced to making money this way when she was clearly at a very high level.
Much of peoples’ appreciation of music is influenced by context. Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel likes to tell a story about his own busking at Circular Quay on Sydney Harbour. At the time, he was playing high-profile concerts, making significant album sales and doing many television appearances; performances that were eliciting not inconsiderable adulation.
But when Emmanuel busked playing an identical repertoire – he made sure that he was disguised with a wig and beard so he could not be recognised – the passers-by almost completely ignored him. They had little interest in the music when it was put into another context. His total takings for one hour were $3.50.
In truth, busking is largely begging, and Emmanuel probably did not come across as a particularly sympathetic figure who was in need of charitable assistance.
Putting on a show
A harpist, singer and pianist that this writer knew explained to me that she would make a lot of money singing Irish songs and playing the harp early in the morning at Flinders Street Station.
The key, she said, was not the music (which would have been wonderfully musical), but the fact that she wore gloves with the fingers cut out so she looked the part. It also got across that it was very cold at that time in the morning, and the money flowed in.
Sometimes, she would make more busking and pretending to be an Irish waif than doing a high-profile solo gig playing jazz standards in a five-star hotel in the evening. In busking, it is the theatrics that matter.
Sadly, most musicians are in a not dissimilar position to most buskers – just hoping that someone will throw them some money. For example, there is a pub in Fitzroy where one of Australia’s best jazz singers performs. The playing is excellent and highly skilled. But none of the musicians is paid; instead, they rely on donations from the audience.
While it is perfectly understandable that the managers of the venue consider it too hard to give the musicians a wage – it is a small place and probably not very profitable – they nevertheless benefit commercially from having music at their venue. They probably do not see it as forcing musicians to, in effect, put their hands out like buskers. But that is essentially what they are doing. It is revealing of the widespread attitude.
Busking is something many musicians have done at some point in time. This writer once busked in Bourke Street Mall in an ensemble that consisted of drums and a four-piece horn section – we made $200, which was pretty good.
Pop singer Rod Stewart did some busking in Paris before he became world famous, and he still does occasional impromptu performances as a joke. There isn’t much difference between playing in the street and playing in a rough pub, after all.
But the sad fact is that busking is probably one of the better ways to make at least some money from playing music. Many venues are now adopting “pay to play” policies, where bands have to pay for the PA just to get some time in front of audiences. The venue owners rationalise this as an act of charity to help performers “get exposure”.
Of course, you have to get a permit to busk, at least to do so in the Melbourne CBD. Ensembles are banned; permits are available only to individuals. Buskers have to go through an audition process: goodness knows what the criteria for that are. They are provided with fact sheets on sound levels to “assist buskers to self-monitor”. And of course they pay a fee.
It seems even an activity as humbling as performing in the street, in the hope that someone will throw you some loose change, comes with conditions.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.