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.


  1. Definitely go out and play more! :-) My son was one of the jugglers in this wonderful documentary. April did an amazing job capturing busking in Charlotte and in organizing the fun time that was Buskapalooza!

  2. I notice you haven't updated your blog in quite some time, but I hope you still monitor this account.

    I've been looking for bloggers who specifically write about busking to have a look at a recent video I made about buskers:

    We don't have many buskers in my home town (I live in the South. It's not all that appreciated around here), but two kids have been playing downtown almost every day for the past several months. They explained why busking is so important. Even though they've been getting real gigs, they keep busking and have no plans to stop.

    Love to hear your thoughts!