Or – Indoors/Outdoors: A Victorian Musical Theatre Graduate’s First-Hand Perspective on Public Entertainment in Louisiana
You’ve seen those guys cheerfully strumming guitars, encouraging you to crowd around their unicycle, or leisurely resting in mid air over a hat full of coins. It looks all fun and raincoats but street performing is a complicated beast to tame, as I discovered yesterday while setting out on my first busking adventure.
Location is everything
My first expectation to be busted was during the walk to our busking spot. I had expected it to be similar to walking to a theatre. You park somewhere cheap, then drag your stuff to the place you’re gonna be performing. But when you’re busking your stage is anywhere and nowhere. It was a brilliant, cloudless day Saturday afternoon as we walked towards the epicentre of noise and colour in the French Quarter. After I stopped being distracted by vintage dresses and open-air bakeries I realised that I didn’t know where we were going, and neither did anyone else. It was too busy to plant ourselves amid the found object jewellery and locally made paintings strung up on the wrought iron fences of Jackson Square, so we followed the crowds through the narrow aisles of the fruit market and realised we couldn’t fit there either. Blocking traffic is a cardinal sin for street musicians. We soon found out that businesses don’t like you planting yourself out front if they have their own music inside and shops that sell quiet things – like mice or hypnosis – don’t appreciate your noise either.
We wound back and forth through the picturesque network of streets and alleyways, sun beating our backs and instruments weighing on our shoulders, until we got tired and started playing in a deserted street a good distance from anything fun. We played to nobody for about 15 minutes before a lady walked up to us smiling and told us to F off coz she couldn’t hear her TV.
You’re not alone
We had been walking in circles for well over an hour before we found a good spot to play. Finding that perfect performance spot where there’s a big wide pavement and a lot of people passing along is made much more difficult by the fact that there are a hundred other groups doing the same thing! A good spot is hard to come by, but very lucrative and jealously guarded by the musicians who stake them out. Street etiquette states that you can’t be within earshot of another musician, which gives acoustic guitars and lap harps a distinct advantage over brass combos. I saw three acoustic musicians crammed onto a single city block, while we needed a full block radius on account of the saxophone and my Ethel Merman projection. I never thought being quiet would be an advantage in music performance, but the slight girl dressed as a clown, playing the banjo and singing barely above a whisper managed to slide into a doorway between a hippie guitarist and a dude singing opera without bothering either of them.
There seem to be two kinds of musicians out here, ones who play on the street and ones who live on the street. The very best busking spots are kept by bands of vagabonds who look as though they were carved from the same concrete they’re sitting on. Layers of greying clothes and bunches of dreadlocks. Dogs in scarves and bags of food litter their territory. They sit in the middle of their sidewalk kingdom laughing toothlessly and playing killer violin solos or singing crusty blues. They stay in big groups and jam at all hours of the day and night. If you play within earshot of them they snarl and hustle you away. They must make enough money to eat but I strongly suspect that they never abandon their performing corners when they need to sleep. They’re the real street musicians and we’re just the pretenders, all soft and spoonfed with access to showers.
Oh! And I forgot marching bands! You can find the perfect spot only to have a big loud marching band blast past you and throw off your rhythm. No one can yell at them because they move swiftly and they’re in huge groups of twenty guys carrying instruments bigger than your car.
By the time we found a nook down the less fancy side of the courthouse it was already mid-afternoon and we were at risk of missing that critical post-brunch-pre-linner crowd. We were perched in a reasonably good spot, close enough to the action that people were walking around giddily looking for ways to get rid of their money. We started to play and quickly got a few dollars in the box. As the singer, it was my job to sing the tune at the start, then step away and let the band take a bunch of solos, then sing the tune at the end. Not a bad deal. It meant that I could afford to blast it out a bit because I got a good rest before the next bit of singing. But in between I was a little confused as to what I was supposed to do. Onstage you are probably doing a dance routine during the instrumental bits, or enacting an elaborate dream sequence, or better still you cut out all the instrumental bits so you can have all the applause for yourself. But here I was standing like a loser while everyone else played. At first I put my hands in my pockets, looked at the ground and swayed slowly back and forth because that seemed like a pretty “jazz” thing to do. Musicians always get away with mooching aimlessly around a stage. That wasn’t really effective because if someone walked up while I wasn’t singing they assumed I was a weird groupie and asked me to step aside so they could take a picture of the band. Then I tried smiling brightly at everyone who walked past. I was greeted with a number of reactions, the most prevalent of which was to quickly look away from me and hurry past. Other people smiled back and others did that guilty look that says “I don’t have any money for you. Sorreeeeeeee.” Sometimes I forgot what I was doing and just eyeballed someone as they walked past. This put them on edge because it looked like I was going to attack them.
Eventually I discovered that the best thing to do was to look at wall across the street and then give people a sneaky sideways smile that said, “I know it looks like this music is for a wall but it’s secretly for you.” When I was really unsure I just did the Charleston.
If there’s too much money in your case people won’t put any in. You need to inspire pity in your audience. Make them think they alone discovered your awesomeness. Six dollars is about right, but don’t put any coins in there or people will think you’re an unwanted change dump.
From what I’ve seen, income is directly proportionate to the number of people in the band. A single musician won’t do as well on the streets as a small band, and a small band will pale next to those burly guys in the huge brass band who probably work out by hurling tractors at each other. Of course, the flip side is that you then have to split the cash between more people so you probably end up with the same money… but if you’re smaller you’re more likely to squeeze into a better spot. But if you’re larger you can claim more of the street. So in short, I dunno.
The mercurial caprice of the city
I got cold.
My deep artistical feelings
Singing on the street was fun. Singing with a band was fun. Much like it’s bastard cousin, flyering*, busking is all about having a plan and a network of friends. Also like flyering, the reception is no reflection on the effort. You can do it one day, make a pile of cash and end up part of someone’s wedding album – then do the exact same thing the next day, make nothing and have someone hurl bottles at you from their balcony. I suppose all performing is like that to some degree, success is a balance of time, place and good luck. And not sucking. And bringing a warm coat and snacks.
Here’s a picture of us on our first day of busking. I asked a lady to take it coz she’d just chucked five bucks into the box. She said “that’ll be five bucks.”
Miles, Carter, Karin and Alex
* Flyering is the least fun thing it is humanly possible to do.