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.