Friday, June 14, 2013

Denée Documentary Chronicles Charlotte's Busking Movement

"The primary drive is just to perform."  ~Chris Hannibal, Magician

April Denée and March Blake Media have produced a heart-warming and compelling documentary about busking. Through a series of profiles of sketch artists, muralists, illusionists and musicians in North Carolina, the film frames busking as a community and cultural issue. Respectful of the uninitiated, Denée begins by defining busking and giving an inventory of all the performance types one finds on the streets of Charlotte—dispelling the myth that all buskers are musicians. The performers profiled discuss multiple perspectives on motivations to busk, the satisfaction they derive from it, as well as obstacles to overcome, such as city regulations and reactions from strangers. Whether you are a film aficionado, a curious Charlottean or a busker yourself, you have much to gain from this 43-minute movie.

The interviews in BUSK! reinforce my own impressions that onlookers may seem puzzled as to why anyone would take to the streets to share a particular talent. Spectators may assume money as the primary motivation, and perhaps this is why many cities including Charlotte equate busking with begging. Nevertheless, my own experience has taught me that money can be motivating as reinforcement that someone has noticed you. Even if they toss a coin in while passing you by, it's a subtle form of approval for street performance writ large, if not for your unique contribution. "Getting the first penny…" beams singer James Lee Walker II in the film, "That first fifty cents is awesome!"

Busking develops a performer's concentration, confidence and stage presence. Others find that having "consumers" present (if not participating) in the act of creation is essential. "It's very much about the art, whatever that is, existing in the social sphere," argues performance artist Anthony Schrag. "You can't really stage culture; it has to happen organically." 

Who Needs a Venue?

It's motivating to be out and about, creating in public instead of in isolation. "It's a good outside office when it's not raining and it's not too hot," says sketch artist Joe Williamson. True, the elements can be the primary foe of a dedicated busker. Finding the right spot at the right time of day can be tricky. Heavily used areas can be beneficial, but too much foot traffic can turn a focused painter or a crooning guitarist into a roadblock, which does not help with public acceptance. Areas near ATMs are frequently off limits for street performers. One community in British Columbia has banned buskers from setting up within two meters of any store entrance. 

Buskers are often classified in municipal code as panhandlers, or otherwise interrupting a normal flow of pedestrians. So foreign to our consciousness is creating in public that Anthony Schrag was asked by Charlotte police enforcement to dismantle his "Advice" stand on grounds of solicitation, even though it was he who was giving out nickels.

Collaborative painters Luke Armstrong and Molly Nicklin  perform outdoors in Omaha,
accompanied by Underwater Dream Machine
. Photo by Eileen Can.
Besides having the public right-of-way zoned for busking, the film addresses other hurdles that performers must surpass to be recognized as legitimate. Navigating a traditional hierarchy with agents, websites and contracts may seem outdated for new millennium artists (or simply not worth it), especially for performers who are not after a paycheck. "Busking just seems like a great way to cut through all of that," says singer-songwriter John Cloer, who performs on the streets of Charlotte with his partner Cate Cloer.

Buskapalooza and Other Festivals: Busking or Bureaucracy?

Culture fans love live performance when it's planned and they've paid admission or bought tickets, but how about when they're out for a stroll or running an errand? What is the nature of the artist-audience interaction when the performer is at eye level instead of high up on a stage, or the painting is being created before your eyes, and not yet framed? Busking reaches people when they are doing something else—not sitting down to hear music or see a show. It is also a more energizing creative space for performers. I started this blog to underscore how busking teaches us to learn by doing, the irony being that there is no guide and no training, no handbook except the street itself on a particular day. This spontaneity makes a performance live in more ways than one—for me, as well as for anyone listening. It is always something you couldn't fully anticipate the moment you stepped out the door, or unzipped your violin case, or sharpened your 6B pencil.

Given that most of the press I find about busking tends to come from Canada and the U.K., it is unsurprising that a number of U.S. communities like Charlotte are attempting to transition buskers to having the backing of the establishment. This comes in the form of competitions, busking "festivals" and licensing programs. Sometimes these competitions are actually try-outs to determine which performers will be issued licenses, i.e. permission. Artists who are used to performing on the street without asking an authoritative entity if they can may bemoan the introduction of these types of regulations. Last year in Washington, DC the issue became public and controversial in the music community.

Denée's film is helping me articulate a spectrum of issues up for further discussion in the busking community. From performing without a license where there are no regulations, to managing buskers through simple and reasonable rules (such as no fire in Denver), to unreasonable rules (no sidewalk chalk in Charlotte comes to mind), to having a limited number of licenses available, to trying to "mainstream" performers through city-sponsored concerts. Competitions like New Zealand's Freeze Ya Bits Off contest or England's Busk for Bucks draw attention to buskers and could raise their profiles (if that's what they want), and summer street festivals in cities from Spokane to Philadelphia to Derry could be a happy medium. My question is, what happens to these performers when the festival is over? Does the public legitimize them, or could they be ticketed the very next day?

We have tolerance and institutionalized protection, for political demonstrations, even extreme ones, in the name of supporting or dismissing a particular piece of legislation, but for me to simply stand out on the street, belting out Loudon Wainwright III's The Swimming Song I need  a license in some places. BUSK! makes me want to go out and play even more, to protect this as a basic right in line with free speech. I also came away from the film truly impressed by Charlotte's cultural scene, and wanting to visit someday. Perhaps with my guitar in hand.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Omaha 2

Nineteen seems to be the magic number of songs you can get through in 75 minutes, and after that your fingertips will be shredded. Don’t let a half-full water bottle tempt you to go on. Save your fingers for the weekend.

Before you even get there, remember that traffic is being rerouted due to the College World Series. You won’t mind however, because a sports event adjacent to the Old Market will bring more people to your corner. Park south of the market to avoid the hullabaloo, and calm yourself as you’re walking to your spot. After all, you played this town only once, and someone else might be there.

Someone else is. Guitarist on southeast corner, blues harmonica on northwest corner. Northeast there is a shaded spot, but it’s right in front of a shop. Go inside and ask the proprietress at Red Square if you can play out front. You’re both entrepreneurs, after all.

Sing. Recover from your mediocre debut the other day. Start with Wilder Than Her because you are superstitious, and changing that tradition last time didn’t do you any favors. For maximum effect, Dylan and The 4 Non Blondes have to be covered early in the set before your voice starts giving out. After that it’ll feel great to share I Don’t Mind for the first time, especially when someone approaches with cash. Continue with originals and more cash will arrive. Rest up with two Loudon Wainwright tunes because Termites is next and you really rock it out, bringing more bills, and even some patrons who get what the rocks in your case are for—they cover their donations to protect them from blowing away. "Very nice," the mailman will say.

A couple stops and stares, so shift toward them without losing your concentration. The woman is speaking to you, and though she means well, you play four measures of D major in the middle of Don’t Wait Til Sunday until you can recover the lyrics. “My name is Eileen, too,” she says, noticing the cards in your case. Her mate gives you two thumbs up, and you decide that a twelve-dollar business card kit from Staples was worth it.

It’s Thursday, which by no means matches Friday in terms of dollar signs, but there’s enough to share the wealth with the harmonica player across the street. And a bit more for the flautist who just showed up, started with that ‘pure imagination’ song from Willy Wonka, and made your day.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Omaha 1

Busking is like riding a bike, but this bike has been in the shed for a year. And although you have ridden it around the driveway, you will find that this was not adequate preparation for the noon lunch-rush in the Old Market. The generosity of Omahans, however, will surprise you just as much as your faulty lyrical memory.

In a concert set list, the number three slot is critical—on albums, too. Unfortunately it is on your number three that you falter, transposing and even forgetting several pieces of Fear of Trains. (Fear of Trains, really?!) You didn’t pick a fixed spot to look at, you’ve never sung in this town before and hey, who is that possibly sketchy guy who has taken up residence on the corner? Either he is your number one fan or he is simply ogling.

Be kind. You’ll come to find out that he is Paul, he works around here, and he encourages you to play on a weekend as long as you are not directly in front of a business establishment. He will tell you your voice is “pretty enough” to make a killing here on a Saturday, and you will alternately focus on either of those words--pretty or enough--as you stumble through sixteen more songs before your fingers are raw and you run out of water.

Someone throws change and all of a sudden this is on. You sail through a few more songs and even catch yourself dancing during one. The spot you’d scoped out even before moving here is a gem—covered, with a backstop for your stuff, in a high-traffic area, and on a corner. Perfect, except it isn’t level, and at one point you kind of sway sideways right into a lady walking down Howard Street. Plant your feet and sing on. Play one of your originals because a mother and daughter team will like it and throw a buck.

Keep singing. The dollars seem to come out of nowhere as soon as your fingers have warmed up. And then, rather inconveniently, just as you jump into Friend of the Devil, a field trip of 30 six-year-olds will parade by with good intentions and puzzled looks. While you’re up on Capo 7, try Termites because it turns out to be highly buskable. Who knew?

You can always slow it down to rest when you feel your energy is waning. Good Feeling plays so well you are heartened to find that a second wind is coming. More money comes, too. Cover those bills with coins because it’s windy, but stop staring into your case; you’ve already made three mistakes on Venus in Transit and it’s showing in your confidence.

The lunch crowd has cycled through 60 minutes, so it might be time to repeat the old stand-bys you started with. After all, people keep passing and throwing money, so don’t stop now even though your feet are aching and your throat is sore. Pull out one more Wilder Than Her and one more Love Goes Home to Paris in the Spring. “You never give me anything” in the chorus has a way of guilting people into paying for your last song.

There’s more than enough for a record, so head down to Homer’s or Imaginarium Back in the Day. After considering a Moody Blues album, you’ll end up going with the Jethro Tull one only because it has your name on the back. When you get home, you’ll find that most of the songs skip. It’s as disappointing as your Omaha busking debut. But it’s yours now.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Boulder 4

It’s the weekend. Dress up. People are walking the ped mall as something to do, not to get to a destination, so be presentable and sing out.

Find a good spot. The piano players are out--as are many buskers, so you might have to continue farther west toward the mountains, your as-yet-uncharted block in this town. There is a payphone there, which you hope is out of commission, and it will make a good backstop. Keep an extra eye on your stuff today--since you went for the dress instead of jeans, you have no pockets.

About the dress… It’s a nice touch since this is Sunday, and so many people are out that this is like a real show. But be mindful each time you stoop down for your water, or to protect your dollars from the wind.

And there will be wind. Although it batters your voice for the first few numbers, it provides a bit of relief from the 80-something heat. Stay in the shade. There is a bank of benches near that food cart, far enough away from the payphone that you’re not technically interrupting the cellphone users on the benches, but later your audience will assemble there.

They stand, the lean on trees, and one by one by one by one they come forward with dollar bills that stack up and flutter at your feet. Keep putting them back under the coins, but know that you might lose a few. You have still broken your record.

Many people sit and listen for multiple songs, and it’s worth way more than the bucks dropped by passers-by. At least four people will come and talk with you. Long-Forgotten Fairytale is going over well with families and young girls. They don’t know how brilliantly Stephin Merritt can craft a screed to an ex; they know only that you said ‘castle’ and ‘princess.’ One mom tells you that the small pink child to her right wanted to thank you herself but was too shy. But that girl is not too shy to stare and stare.

A photographer comes by on the second round of Wilder Than Her. You wish beyond wishing that you had more water or breath or finger power, but you will have to tell your audience that this is your last song. They don’t know that it was also your first, over eighty minutes ago. Keep singing, and when you are packing up, be careful with that enormous pile of cash. People are watching.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Denver 4

It’s getting hotter. Busking season is almost over, unless you get creative or start working the morning transit crunch. If you are already sweaty by the time you get to your spot, you are going to need a new spot by the summer solstice.

Use your cardinal directions. If you choose well you will be in the sun for only ten minutes, your case for only another ten.  The earth is turning in an eastward direction, so use this to your advantage.

Zack from Children International agrees to let you share his spot in front of Barnes & Noble, where you are both banking on some sort of stereotype about book store customers. You will both be wrong, although you fare better than Zack in the first five minutes. A quarter lands in your case during the first verse of Wilder Than Her. It always seems like people know that song, but you’re not conversing with the coin-givers, so you wouldn’t know. You know only to keep singing.

The free mall shuttle stops right in front of you every two and a half minutes. The doors stay open for approximately ten seconds, during which time you might catch someone’s eye or ear. People deboarding generally turn one direction or the other, but don’t be surprised if someone gets right off and comes forward with a dollar. It may be a child, and she will very carefully place the dollar—enormous in her hand—beneath the rock in your case. Luckily, you are at a break after the second verse of that Dylan song, so you can thank her.

But when a filmmaker comes and drops his card in your case, and is trying to explain what he does, you are full throttle in the chorus of Middle of the Night. You feel lucky that on its first time out busking this song has already garnered some change, a few glances, and Big Jon Ian’s card, but you’ve forgotten the lyrics. Keep playing, the words will come soon.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Boulder 3

Do not be afraid to stand right in the middle of the ped mall, a few steps from the Beans & Co. food cart. It is overcast, and many of Boulder's buskers are not out today. This could also mean fewer pedestrians, but give it some time. Within the hour you will have a sweaty upper lip, a pile of dollars in your case, and a guitar that's losing its tune in the afternoon sun. The clouds in Colorado do not last long.

Notice the kids again. They are drawn to you, even if they sometimes have a perplexed look. One will approach with a dollar and then shyly run back behind his grandmother's knee. She is coaxing him closer and closer to the case. Even after he drops the buck and runs, she sends him back—motioning to put the bill under the rock so it will not blow away. And although he cannot be more than five, you belt the chorus of Teenagers Kick Our Butts, because one day he might remember it.

Do not underestimate how lucrative an original song can be. "Robert Pirsig" is like a beacon, and by the time you close your eyes and sing the words "motorcycle maintenance" to the heavens, three different potbellied white men have approached with money, their pony tails blowing in the wind. One of them drops a wad and you know there are at least two folded bills. Keep singing.

You sing your originals differently, better perhaps, and you are puzzled and thrilled when a family drops a dollar in during General Things. There is no better encouragement for your songwriting. Don't overdo it, but know that when you say "Liz Phair," at least one person will look back behind himself (even if he doesn't toss in any cash).

Men give more than women, and the women who do give are all much older or have babies in their arms. No one who looks like you will give money. Young women in packs pass by, maybe even shouting "Hippy!" but they need their dollars for other things. Businessmen in pairs will walk past, but it is only the solo, maudlin entrepreneur, not late for a meeting yet, who lifts the rock in your case to add his 100 cents. People, after all, have places to go, things to do.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Boulder 2

Although you have come to predict certain aspects of the busk, it will be different each time—like  weather. And by the way, weather is everything.

You need to wear sunscreen. Even if it is cold. Even if you are going to stand in the shade. The sun is unrelenting here. Respect it.

You will think you are too late for the lunch hour, but think again. Some of these people are just leaving their offices at 12:45 for a business lunch. And although they are not as generous as tourist families, they hear you, so sing out.

Kids will stop, or they will try to wrench their parents’ arms in your direction. It happened to Joshua Bell, and it will happen to you. The kids seem to hear the music differently, and they are not yet jaded. They may think you are a freak, but they do not think you are a beggar. All they know is, you are making music outside. Two of them will convince their parents to give them a few coins that are ultimately destined for your case. They approach during Fear of Trains and you hope the timing is just right so they do not have to hear you say “KKK.” They don’t, but they and their parents linger and then try to dance. It may be the first time they have heard a Stephin Merritt song. They do not know that his songs are not for dancing.

A young man calling himself Calem will come forward and tell you he is about to start on the piano a block away, and that he is afraid he will drown you out. It is nice of him to warn you, and you engage in polite conversation, leaning heavily on what you assume to be a shared busker code or context. He is a fantastic player, and you do end up moving around the tree to stand near Hip Consignment, but Calem still has a lot of set-up to do by the time your voice is waning. (Among other things, he has to go retrieve his piano bench from an adjacent business where he stores it.)

Sheila from the consignment shop invites you to play right in front of her store. You will serenade her with an original song because she is a businesswoman and she understands the notion that You Are What You Repeat. She compliments your voice, which is enough to refresh it for another thirty minutes.

A group of young guys are eating on the steps nearby and they want to know your story. You say just enough but are leery of them. They request an Eagles song. (You will consider learning one for just such an occasion, but note that that would be very unDude.) You give them Dylan instead, and passers-by will drop a few more dollars in your case. The guys, also, will give the change from their Qdoba lunch, and you’re in business. This will give you the courage to play another original, and several more dollars will end up at your feet as you rock your way through General Things.

By this time your bag will be in the sun, so think about putting less jelly on your sandwich next time. On second thought, skip the jelly. Peanut butter has protein.