When the whole world's a stage
Some are good, some are bad, some are insufferable: you know it’s summertime when the buskers take over the streets. But what separates the talented from the talentless and how does a busker earn €7,000 in one day?
‘GIVE US a wave.” Silence. “GIVE US A WAVE.” A young boy shouts enthusiastically at a statue-still man painted head-to-toe in bronze and standing on a palm-tree seat sculpture at the edge of Temple Bar in Dublin until his mother gives him a coin to put in the bucket. The man jumps to life, before high-fiving the boy.
“Now, you weren’t expecting that,” his mother says, as the boy recovers from a brief, exciting shock. It’s twilight, and the buskers are out.
A bare-chested dreadlocked man attempting to limbo underneath a blazing stick, an elderly harpist, two men in full native American garb playing panpipes to a backing CD, teenage boys mangling Damien Rice songs on a duo of barely tuned guitars, an artist rolling out a canvas of a remarkably detailed stained glass painting, a bored looking man constructing the likeness of a dog out of sand, a deft spray-painter making surrealist space-scapes with moons and pyramids, a lone opera singer, a trad group, a tightly honed raucous band, a drumming circle, a tuneless accordion-player, a classical trio. Summertime is when the buskers take over our streets, becoming moveable street furniture that annoy, amuse, distract and pleasure in equal measure.
So what makes a good busker, and what makes a rubbish one? Roger Quail is the label manager of Model Citizen and Rubyworks, founded by Niall Muckian who was promoting the primarily singer-songwriter night The Ruby Sessions in the early 2000s. The weekly gigs in Doyle’s pub in Dublin saw several former buskers such as Glen Hansard and Paddy Casey take the stage.
“A good busker is someone who can hold an audience and make them forget where they are, even if it’s only for five minutes,” Quail says. Rubyworks know all about good buskers.
Their biggest signing is Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriella, who honed their guitar-dueling craft on Grafton Street before hitting the big time. “It’s a very good grounding for any live performer,” Quail says of busking.
“Learning how to work a crowd, working ideas out in public, getting better as artists. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory has a ring of truth about it when you look at people like Rod Gab, who played on the streets for a couple years when they first came to Europe.”
WALKING DUBLIN’S STREETS day and night or talking to those plying their trade on paths and pedestrianised streets is quite an eye opener. The talent is varied; from a man who thinks people will actually give him money if he stands on a box dressed in a neon green body sock (people actually do), to mesmerising guitar players that should probably be session musicians (if they aren’t already).
Whether a giant leprechaun goofing around or an old man optimistically playing the spoons, the spectrum of talent – or lack thereof – appears infinite.
When you begin to survey buskers over and over, categories emerge; genuine talent – be it in playing keepie uppies or an amazing rhythm-keeper on a box and upturned paint buckets – guarantees cash.
Something for the kids will guilt parents out of money, that goes for balloon animal-makers and the aforementioned statues that populate streets all over the world. Artists good enough to sustain attention by doing something extraordinary will gain nods of appreciation. And there’s always room for good old-fashioned decent musicianship.
Buskers tend to divide people; either passersby are full of praise, or treat them with barely concealed disdain. Shops complain about them making noise in front of their doors, but others benefit from crowds gathering around.
Rory Harkin, of Rory’s Fishing Tackle in Temple Bar, says it’s hard to tolerate buskers for more than a few minutes.
“It’s too noisy. We’re trying to do business and you can’t hear yourself or if the telephone rings. The amplifiers are far too high. Otherwise, I’ve no problem. It’s alright for 10 minutes, but it does your head in after a while . . . they’d blast you out of it.”
It’s a debate that Galway, a city known for its competitive busking scene and noisy street life, is currently in the midst of. There have been attempts in the past to regulate and control the quality of buskers in the city, but nothing has come to pass – until now.
More than 10 years ago, a former TD and mayor of Galway, John Mulholland, suggested introducing a licence scheme whereby buskers would have to go before a panel to justify why they should be allowed play on the street, but it never got off the ground.
“I noticed that there was an influx of buskers that didn’t reach up to a certain standard. They were so poor, you’d almost give them something to go away,” Mulholland says now. “People who don’t make the standard, shouldn’t make the stage.”
He adds that potential buskers could do with a dose of healthy criticism if they’re not up to standard, “Somebody must tell them that this is the wrong thing they’re doing – same as Simon Cowell might tell people something is no good. Standing outside a shop all day being unharmonious and grinding on the ear, it’s very difficult for people in the shop to listen to that all day. It’s unsocial behaviour, making life tough for people working there.”
Galway now has a Street Performance Bylaw that prohibits music on the street after 11pm during the summer months and after 10pm in the winter. A debate has also been held – and will be returned to in the autumn – about the possible banning of amplification. Retailers in the Shop Street and William Street areas have lobbied the council seeking to ban louder than average buskers, saying it disturbs staff in the shops.
The debate on the issue, which will resume under a Strategic Policy Committee, could see Galway’s streets become a whole lot quieter, and perhaps even the introduction of decibel-monitoring devices.
Galway could become Ireland’s first urban centre to restrict its buskers by both quality and volume, not that the two are mutually exclusive. Other towns and cities will be looking to Galway to see if controls could work elsewhere.
REMARKABLY, FOR a country known for its lively streetlife, there are no real laws governing what, where, or how buskers operate. Moving buskers on is pretty much at the discretion of individual gardaí taking their cue from the Public Order Act of 1994, which gives them the right to stop a busker from performing if a disorderly or disruptive crowd forms. Some busking can be seen by gardaí as borderline begging, such as those who interrupt Thursday-night pints outside a bar with a particularly invasive and repetitive rendition of Happy Birthdayon a trombone.
There are no busking permits in Ireland, nor do we have specific locations or times when people can entertain passersby on the streets.
“If there was a licence, we’d go for a licence. We have a product that’s good for tourists and that’s our side of things,” says Sean Murray from busking group Perpetual Mobile as they set up for another busy night in Temple Bar. “We play some gypsy stuff, some traditional stuff, some reggae, mostly chilled, clean music,” Murray says. On a good night, he and the other three musicians in the group might make €70 each.
But there are risks, “We usually stop when people start getting rowdy and wait for them to clear and probably start again,” Murray says.
Perpetual Mobile are a new generation of tightly honed on–street groups capable of pulling bigger crowds than live bands inside the surrounding pubs can. A good busker, Murray says, is open, versatile and does their homework. A bad busker? “False illusions. Seventeen-year-old kids coming out with their acoustic guitars singing whatever crap comes to mind.”
Trends in busking have changed over the years. Street performance has become celebrated and appreciated, especially since the Street Performance World Championships are now held here. One-man bands have more or less disappeared, replaced with the modern mimes of businessmen frozen in time apparently in the middle of rushing up a street. Fire-eaters are now employed to stand outside clubs luring punters in, instead of making money on the street.
SUCH IS IRELAND’S bustling busker scene that some people even temporarily move here to get a slice of the action. Kamila and Magda from Katowice in Poland will stay here for three weeks, playing their viola duets every morning on Henry Street in Dublin and every evening on Grafton Street, before returning to their studies in a music academy back home. “We started at 8am and we’ll play until 10pm,” Magda explains, midweek on Grafton Street.
They were here two years ago, “and it was better, definitely” in terms of earnings. These days, they can make anything from €40 to €100 each. They play a mixture of classical music and the occasional pop curveball, concentrating mainly on Bach and Mozart. While they like being their own bosses and choosing when to play, there are downfalls – “the weather” exclaims Kamilla.
Quail mentions a busking act that made €7,000 in one day a few Sundays ago on Grafton Street. “While I’d never dismiss someone for having the nerve to actually get out and play uninvited in public, I think the bad ones are self-deluded, can’t sing or play very well, and suffer form the misguided idea that banging away on an out-of-tune acoustic guitar will somehow transform them into a young Bob Dylan.And they are always playing too loud.”
So this appears to be the key to busking success: turn the talent up, and the volume down.
Good busker, bad busker
Be original.Our streets do not need another weak-voiced kid with a guitar.
If you can’t be original, be good. Tight musicianship and liveliness are musts.
Appeal to tourists. Traditional music or dressing up as a giant leprechaun mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s where the money is.
Appeal to children.There’s a reason that grown men make animals out of balloons or dogs out of sand, and why statues only jump when you give them cash. They rake it in.
Be funny. The street is a stage, a crowd will gather at even the most benign banter.
Do your thing. Don’t copy other acts. If you think that playing crazy electric guitar riffs with tonnes of reverb sounds cool, do it, don’t feel as though you have to belt out something someone knows.
Don’t sing busking standards. There are enough buskers out there already singing Wonderwalland Hallelujah. If you’re busking in the traditional way, do something novel with your material.
Don’t be persistent. No hands out. If you’re good, the money will come to you.
No wind instruments. No one likes barely tuned bagpipes or trumpets.
Be noticeable. Dress brightly, perform loudly (but not ear-splittingly loud).
Don’t ask your friends to help you. They will just stand there awkwardly, detract from your presence and disappear when you give them €2 to go get you a coffee.
Hone your set.Don’t go out and play it by ear. Have a couple of hours ready, and storm through it.