“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man / Sing us a song tonight. / Well we’re all in the mood for a melody / And you’ve got us feelin’ alright,” sings Billy Joel on his hit song “Piano Man”.
The song is, in fact, a fictionalized retelling of Joel’s brief stint working in a piano lounge called the Executive Room in a not so nice part of Los Angeles. The song is firmly planted in every list of classic rock and roll tunes of our time and Joel is one of the most famous examples of someone who used café busking to make a living.
Café busking is a form of busking that takes place in restaurants, pubs, bars and cafés. Musicians perform and, in return, they are tipped by customers. More commonly known forms of busking are walk-by acts, where passersby give a tip to someone who continually performs on the street. There are also circle acts, where performers try to gather a crowd to watch them for a 10-20 minute long show.
Idols Season 6 winner Elvis Blue was a busker on the streets of Joburg. At 16, he was faced with the choice of being a waiter at Spur or playing music in the street. Music, according to Blue, won by a landslide. “I was playing and singing for hours on end every day. I was writing tons of songs in the process and performing them for onlookers. It helped me [become] a better musician,” says Blue. While he maintains that busking will rarely make someone famous, it does literally expose musicians and their music to the man on the street. “It gives you the opportunity to hone your craft and see how people perceive you,” he says.
Elvis Blue was lucky enough to break into the industry through another avenue. For some street performers, the reliance on money made from busking clouds the allure of fame and fortune.
Biza is a blind busker who plays guitar and sings in the streets of Hatfield. “I realised that I have to share my talent with the people, even though I’ve never been recorded,” he says. Share his talent he does, but Biza also plays his pop and gospel tunes in the hope of making enough money to support his mother and two children. Having learned how to play guitar at a school for the blind, Biza makes between R60 and R100 a day.
Not all musicians busk for the money, though. Deon Bakkes, an environmental studies student at Tuks, used to busk for the pure fun of it. After endless nights of sitting at home with nothing to do, he decided to take his guitar and go play some tunes outside local watering hole, Aandklas. Bakkes, who is also in a band called SwampHound Tritet, says that on some nights he would earn more money busking than from doing a formal gig. “If you hit the night at the right time and you hit the right crowd and you’re playing the right tunes, you can make more money busking because there’s less costs involved,” he says. Bakkes would earn on average R40 a night and on good nights, up to R150. He complains, though, of people’s attitudes towards buskers. “The only problem is that you have [the authorities] on your case. People don’t like buskers because they say it’s the same as begging,” he says.
Busking in the United States and in Europe falls under the protection of artistic free speech, although there are cases where the practice is regulated. In the UK, this is especially common. While busking is not illegal in the UK, many local authorities have passed by-laws to regulate it. Buskers have to apply for special licenses, sometimes even having to audition for them. There was a huge furore earlier this year over buskers in Liverpool needing a photo ID card before they could play two-hour slots in a spot designated to them by the municipality. Entertainers are bound by numerous restrictive terms and conditions. For example, council officials have the right to stop a performance purely on the basis of personal taste. If buskers in Liverpool don’t comply with the system, they could be charged with trespassing.
Fortunately, buskers in South Africa are not subject to any regulations.
While these traditional forms of busking are still quite dominant, the concept of virtual busking is becoming more and more common. Punk cabaret performer Amanda Palmer spent six years busking as a live statue called “The Eight-Foot Bride”. An article in The Economist reveals that her time spent performing on numerous streets around the world “led her to realise that people willing to toss money in a hat do so according to their means and interest rather than in response to a specific reward.” With the aim of making back the production costs of her latest album Palmer gave away her album for free online and, in return, fans could pledge any amount of money above $1 for it.
Some busk for that bit of extra cash, some treat it almost as a music industry entry-level job and for others, it’s a means of survival. Either way, the next time you’re strolling down the street and you hear someone strumming a guitar while singing one of your favourite classics, stop to give them a couple of coins, because you never know why they are there, or where they might end up.
Illustration: Simon-Kai Garvie