Coming to a Transit Station Near You

Busking is in many ways the bottom rung on the performance ladder. I don’t say that as a disparagement of it or any musician who does it. It is a great teacher. You get instant feedback, and you learn to handle hecklers. You learn what works, and what doesn’t, and you grow a thicker skin. Busking can make you fearless if you let it.

All the world isn’t really a stage, but there are a lot of areas available if you really want to make a spectacle of yourself. Busking is a great way of finding out where they are, and more importantly, where your potential audience is. Spots that are always occupied are good bets, but that’s only the beginning. A willingness to try out any available spot and the ability to evaluate it quickly is also something that sharpens with practice.

The ability to pack up and leave quickly can also come in handy. Where is busking legal and where isn’t it? It isn’t always possible to find out, and a lot of spots depend on the tolerance of the people who control access. The other day all the spots in and around the Berkeley BART station were taken. Now that I’m attempting to play after work, spots are harder and harder to find. I ended up on the outer corner of the UC Berkeley campus. I chose that spot because there was a convenient tree to stand under, I could be next to the sidewalk, but not actually on it, and I had a light and crosswalk right there. The light cycle gave me a chance to play to a given crowd long enough to catch ears. I wasn’t making much, even so, and a cop car pulled up in the traffic circle, lights flashing. I finished the song and began packing up. The lights went off, then the cop made a U turn. Was he after me? I don’t know. I never had to find out. But maybe busking is illegal on campus. This blog post has an excellent examination of the problem. In my experience, when I ask in person, I often get told no. If I just play, and move on when I’m asked to, I get to make a lot more music. Maybe someday a hefty ticket or an arrest will change my mind, but for now, asking for forgiveness rather than permission seems to work well, at least in the Bay Area.

Most of all, I think busking is a way of taking back our ability to entertain each other. More and more, we walk around with headphones jammed in our ears, or sit in front of screens and let ourselves be told stories. We don’t tell stories of our own. There are “legitimate” entertainers, and there are consumers. We all used to sing, and we all used to tell each other stories.

Street entertainers are part of a very old tradition and classing us with panhandlers and street people says something about us. The fact that we have such unvalued classes as street people and panhandlers is a statement in itself. We all have worth, and we all have something to say. We also have a responsibility to treat our audience with respect, and to expect respect from the people who pass us by. You don’t have to say anything to me, you don’t have to give me money. You don’t have to listen to me. I don’t even care if you acknowledge my existence, truth be told. But to decide that there is a whole segment of the population that is invisible is a loss for all of us. That “crazy” person shouting on the streetcorner didn’t get there in a vacuum, after all. By enclosing acceptable appearance and behavior within defined lines, and doing nothing for those excluded, we all have a crack to fall through. We all can become “worthless” and we have less latitude for experimentation. We have less scope to create art.

When there is no town square and no communal fire, where do emerging performers get their start? Where do we hone our craft and build our repertoire? You get one song at most open mics. I can have as many as I want in a BART station. Which songs get me tipped? Which ones get a smile? Which ones, in the right venue, get people to sing along? I plan to keep finding out.

2 Replies to “Coming to a Transit Station Near You”

  1. Very nice post. Very helpful, wise & rings of truth.
    I agree with your assessment. Thinking about busking in Berkeley. I play shakuhachi, some percussion, and iPad (rapidly becoming my favorite axe. True story).
    Thank you.

    Keep up the good work & telling your story, on the street & elsewhere.



  2. Did we meet once upon a time? I met a guy nursing loveliness out of a wounded shakuhachi in the back corridor of Montgomery BART.

    Thanks for the good words as well, glad to meet you now if it wasn’t then.


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