• Thom

What the busk?

When I moved from drums to guitar and electric bass in the early 90's, a group of musicians I played with regularly would busk at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. Nowadays at the Fringe, you have to busk in certain places and at specific times. But back then you could play on Whyte Avenue - the main South Side cultural artery - all day and night, if you wanted to. The only people who could chase you off were the store front businesses (or the police, I suppose). Every one of the businesses we played in front of wanted us there because we were pretty good and we played electric instruments and were fresh compared with someone strumming an acoustic guitar and singing Johnny Cash songs (nothing wrong with that though!).

So in a very real way, I cut my teeth busking on the street.

When I was moving in a new direction a couple years ago to solidify my singing and playing I decided to go back to busking... in February. The only two gigs in town for a busker in Edmonton in February are one of the many indoor farmer's markets or the LRT Stations. I chose the latter as I work downtown and you can pretty much play anytime you want so long as it's your spot or, if it's not, if the person who "owns the spot" isn't there at the same time. You can also play as long (or short) a set as you want. Not locked in to the 20-40 minute sets at farmer's markets.

I've had a lot of advice offered to me, some asked of me (usually directions to washrooms - which I rarely know!) and have been accosted by people in various states of distress. I've also had a young African man freestyle over the changes to "Don't Think Twice it's Alright" - something so amazing, I'll never forget it, and I had a woman request that I play "House of the Rising Sun" so she could sing "Amazing Grace" over it - also incredible! And, just recently, I had an elderly couple slow dance to "Satellite of Love." So, so sweet.

This choice of performance venue turns out to be the place I've felt closest to being a part of the community as a performer in my life. I've played on a metric tonne of stages and I never really appreciate the separation from the audience. After all, I too am an audience member a lot of times. But not everyone is a musician or performer. Never been a fan of being placed on a pedestal above others. Maybe it's because I've felt that way a lot of my life, because I'm tall.

Who says you can't make money performing in the street?

I am aware that, to professional musicians and many in the public, busking is perceived as low-rent at best and begging at worst. I understand this but call bullshit on all of it. You want to be a great musician? Busk and get a few coins tossed your way, or none, see how that feels. When whether anybody puts anything in the tip jar or not ceases to elicit an effect on you or your performance, you've gained ground as a performing musician and as a human I think. See how you do when someone comes up inches from your face, reeking of booze, and starts talking about god-knows-what to you while you try to deliver a reasonably lyrically rich song. No, it's not always fun, not for everyone. Also not to be mocked until tried. I've seen some great musicians in the LRT stations. Some not so great and a few not at all good or even musical. I read a blog or social media post somewhere about how Edmonton better pull up its bootstraps busking-wise compared with a larger center (likely NYC...isn't it always?). Like comparing apples to Saskatoons, that. I'll wager that that person has never busked in either city.

As far as professional musicians are concerned, we can - how shall I say this - put on a few airs, sometimes. I know I did and I still do. Essentially a pro musician is part of a secret society. And not often all that much a part of normal society, when performing anyway. For me, I find that going into a train station and creating music helps to integrate me into society in a way. I wonder at the ways in which music existed in society before it became a (recorded*) commodity. I have read a little about it. But nobody can really experience it as it was then. Still the unspoken code of musicians is "don't give your shit away for free." Where do you draw the line, though? $50 gigs are OK but playing benefits gratis is bad? Only sell CDs and nothing on Spotify or Apple Music? I definitely don't have the answers but have lots of questions.

Performing on the street has rekindled my love for music, performance, song craft in a lot of ways and given me more confidence in my voice and musicality than I ever could have guessed going into it.

A more realistic portrayal of what one actually makes: Music!

*More thoughts on recorded music coming soon!

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