Performance is the lifeblood of most musicians. We don’t spend hours in our bedrooms working out new tunes to impress our mothers, even if they are our biggest fans. It’s the connection created by a stranger identifying with and responding to the music I play that’s worth more than any amount of time struggling to learn or write a new song. And in most cases, the trouble isn’t in beefing up a repertoire, but in finding a space that will not only host an act, but also provide a crowd of receptive listeners. As for money, a Mets fan has a better chance of making a friend at Citizen’s Bank Park than a musician does in being well compensated at a local venue.
For Philadelphia musicians (as well as those in most major cities), the streets are often the best stage. Not just for exposure- a good performer playing in the right spot can earn a nice piece of dough. Any money earned seems to be luck- street performance never feels like work. There is no bureaucracy involved (unless you choose to play in a SEPTA concourse, where you now need to apply for a free permit to perform). Unlike most venues, street corners do not require a demo tape or a nod from an established name. A street performer, also known as a busker, does not need an ‘in’ to play the best spots. In a city clogged with cliques, the network of musicians can feel tighter than the jeans at The Barbary on Friday night (See? If that doesn’t make you chuckle, you may be at a disadvantage). This can make exposure difficult for a new act to gather; an equally talented-though better-connected- act will almost certainly not have such trouble.
For those who have never played at one of Philly’s many small venues, here’s a little inside information: In most cases, it doesn’t matter how good you or your band is. Venues are businesses, and just like those fat cats in the skyscrapers on Market Street, the owners are motivated by money, no matter how many of your favorite records may be on their jukebox. Your band could absolutely floor your six friends that came to see you (as well as the bartender), but if each one of those six friends didn’t buy about ten drinks each, you will probably not play that venue again. As a performer, your job is to bring people into the venue (as opposed to making people happy through a shared musical experience).
On the street, that system does not exist. The better-connected act is the one that got to the spot first. There is no pressure to draw a crowd, because the crowd (at a good spot) is all around. Busking is complete freedom from the jaws of seedy bar owners and their henchmen. I have spent countless sunny hours working crowds of passersby from South Street to Rittenhouse Square to Suburban Station, and the experience is so utterly opposed to playing any of the bars I’ve played, that the performances can hardly be compared.
Playing in a bar, or on most any stage, is exhibitionism. The crowd is essentially captive, and your performance is on display. Personally, I find that being on stage comes with a need to impress, or at least satisfy, the crowd. Give ’em their money’s worth. This is the case at most at bars, where the music is ‘entertainment’ for the ‘customers.’ At non-profit venues (DIY house shows, community centers, etc), there is a more relaxed atmosphere, because there is no emphasis on the venue making money beyond optional donations.
But when my friends and I set up in front of that fountain in Rittenhouse Square on a Saturday afternoon in May, all of the pressure is off. We become part of the scenery, free to operate at our own pace. If people don’t like what they hear, they can simply walk on. Although many people (I dare say a majority) are thrilled to see a live band playing music on the street. There is no doubt that the atmosphere is more conducive to pleasure-a sunny day in a beautiful outdoor setting will encourage smiling and reveling, not to mention loose wallets. It is not unusual for us to make over fifty dollars in an hour under these circumstances. What better way to spend a Saturday than to earn dinner and beer money playing music we love?
Not only do we make money, but we also meet people from literally all walks of life. No one is there to see you on purpose, so those who would likely never hear your music in a planned location are suddenly within listening range. Expect people completely unlike you to stop and listen. Though, keep in mind, this is not always as pleasant and genteel as it may sound. Try to remember the words when you’ve got a manic young girl telling you about her last abortion and the scumbag who left her. If that doesn’t do it, try to keep picking your banjo while she tries dancing with you. This is one of the necessary evils of public performance, though I am not alone in believing that dealing with the occasional drunk/lunatic is a manageable problem that should not dissuade busking.
On a warm weekend, performers will be stationed at various locations throughout the city. While it would be difficult for your new thrash metal band to play unamplified in Rittenhouse square, most musicians have some form of unamplified ware that they can take to the streets. You might hear Jafar Barron sending jazzy tones dancing out of his cornet from a bench, while Anthony Riley weakens the knees of every female within listening range as he belts out a Four Seasons tune from the corner of 18th and Walnut. If you are lucky, you might even see Sour Mash pickin’ out the old time bluegrass tunes from the fountain in the center of the park.