Rain or shine, misguided perceptions can't put a damper on buskers
// Claire McGillivray

The weather in Vancouver can be atrocious for street performers, but this does not stop them, nor does it drive away the vast and wildly eclectic community of buskers. Despite various struggles, there is little that can make a dent in the resilience, dedication, and high quality of Vancouver’s street performers.

As a city that is renowned for its consistent torrential downpour, Vancouver poses some difficult obstacles against both the morale and physical capabilities of street performers. Autumn in particular is a time of year that can see many street performers strapped for cash. Grace Cullingworth, Capilano University student and local busker, confirms that this is a “huge problem. You have amps, right? You can’t really have amps in the rain, and there aren’t really people walking by.” As self-employed artists, this factor makes it difficult for individuals like Cullingworth to support themselves, especially in the off-season.

Although Cullingworth is studying to be a professional thespian in Capilano’s Acting for Stage and Screen program, she is passionate about her music and speaks eloquently to the pros and cons of being a street performer in Vancouver. She describes the conditions as being “really competitive. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a job, but it’s like being an actor … you need to be putting yourself out there, trying to get gigs.”

Cullingworth, alongside boyfriend Jeff Huggins, perform during the warmer months under the Granville Island Cultural Society’s Summer Entertainment on Granville Island (SEGI) program. The pair sing duets while Huggins accompanies the vocal harmony on acoustic guitar, their set fully amplified. Together they have had many positive experiences sharing their music with local art appreciators and passers-by. Even though Huggins has seen immense success as the lead singer of local alternative/indie rock band The Knots, winning the Royal City Song Search and the YouThink Magazine and Tom Lee Music co-search to find British Columbia’s Best Teen Band, he still enjoys busking whenever and wherever possible. Both Cullingworth and Huggins take performing very seriously. “As a busker, if you don’t have that professionalism, you won’t make as much [money] … We treat busking as our jobs. We are our own bosses.”

The business of self-employment is an additional challenge unto itself. As individuals, artists like Cullingworth and Huggins have to gauge whether or not a trip downtown will be worth it for that day. Factoring in unforeseen changes in weather, traffic, and impromptu events or protests is key.

Cullingworth explains the challenges conversationally: “It’s gas and it’s transportation and it’s effort … it’s waking up early on a Saturday.” For buskers, each performance session can equate to a hard day’s work at the office, but it often isn’t seen that way. The real difference between busking as a profession and most other occupations isn’t the amount of effort involved, it is the consistency, or lack thereof, of a paycheque at the end of the day.

Along with other challenges, buskers must deal with the misguided perceptions and unfair judgements that our society appears to hold. Oftentimes societal norms or expectations can lead people to have negative reactions when encountering artists who busk. “You get weird looks … [people] are like, ‘You do that? You would lower yourself that much?’” Cullingworth counters this attitude: “As a musician, very seldom do I get to perform … How else do you put yourself out there? With busking you can go and perform everyday for hours.”

The couple prefers to busk at Granville Island over other locations. “We just hit the nail on the head every time we go down there. We’ve had really no reason to look elsewhere, we’re really happy there.” Granville Island, with its heavy foot traffic, is a unique performing space for Vancouver artists, and as such has regulations for buskers independent of other parts of the city. Buskers are specifically required to register at the The Granville Island Buskers Office, must have a neat appearance, and ensure that they are taking into account that Granville Island is a family-friendly location. Different areas are respectively designated acoustic and amplified.

Serendipitous opportunities will sometimes find the duo when they’re performing at Granville Island in the summer. Cullingworth explains that listeners will approach them and say something along the lines of, “I’m looking for wedding singers … I’m just wandering around because you get some really cool talent.”

Other interactions that stand out for street performers, apart from creating connections with their audience, are the bonds fused from performer to performer. A favourite anecdote of Cullingworth and Huggins’ is their interaction with idol Zachary Grey from Vancouver indie rock band the Zolas. While covering the song “You’re Too Cool” off the Zolas’ 2009 album Tic Toc Tic, Huggins caught sight of an unexpected audience member. Cullingworth explains, “We’re singing it [You’re Too Cool] and Jeff goes, ‘Oh my God, there’s Zach from the Zolas!’ … He sat down about six feet in front of us and filmed us on his iPhone, came up and gave us hugs, put a toonie in our case.”

This mutual respect and tight camaraderie among fellow artists is a large part of what makes Vancouver’s busking scene so vibrant and productive. It also draws strong connections from Vancouver’s busking scene to a greater universal community that really has no borders.

Australian acoustic guitar player and vocalist, Johnnie Mac, has created an extensive project to encourage this connection between street performers by sharing a wealth of his own personal knowledge and research in an online community called Busker World. On the website, Mac details an extensive list of famed musicians who began their careers busking. Most notably on the list of famed buskers are Bon Jovi, Edith Piaf, Eric Clapton, Kanye West, Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, and the Beatles. According to the site, rumour has it that Paul McCartney and John Lennon busked in the streets of Liverpool under the pseudonym The Nurk Twins, or even before that when they formed the band The Quarry Men.

Oddly enough, founding father of the United States Benjamin Franklin was originally a busker in his own right. Franklin “composed songs and poetry about the political situation of his era and performed them in public,” according to Mac. An excerpt from his autobiography, edited by Kenneth Silverman, refers to Franklin’s first published copies of original opinion, poetry and prose. “The first sold wonderfully, the event being recent, having made a great noise. This flatter'd my vanity. But my father discourag'd me. Versemakers were always beggars; so I escap'd being a poet, most probably a very bad one.” Mac’s webpage on famous buskers also details that Franklin’s father “discouraged busking by convincing him that the stigmas some people match to busking were not worth it.”

Today, the busking climate is substantially different than it was in the 1700s. Nonetheless, many of those same stigmas are present. Fortunately for street performers in Vancouver, although some of society carries prejudice, the laws around street performance have been created in a style that pays mind to the needs of both performers and city-dwellers. In compliance of such laws, buskers must be in possession of a valid permit at all times, unless they choose to perform at a permit exempt space, such as corners adjacent to Library Square, Science World, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, or directly outside public Skytrain stations. Acceptable performance hours for buskers are 10:00am to 10:00pm, with varying restrictions on volume and proximity to other performers, depending on the neighbourhood.

Current Vancouver busking permit prices, as regulated by the City of Vancouver in conjunction with the Vancouver Police Department and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, are listed on the City of Vancouver website as follows: $40.06 for a four month permit or $118.91 for an annual permit, tax included. The price doesn’t seem too steep for an individual to cover over the course of several months, but any capital and any investment is likely coming directly out of the artists’ pocket. This includes costs of any rental technical equipment, musical instruments, and even whatever professional training the artist might have had in their lifetime.

Despite a variety of ups and downs that Vancouver busking professionals must take into account every day, the community isn’t going anywhere. As Cullingworth emphasizes, she’d never leave Vancouver to busk in another city. “People in Vancouver have an appreciation for buskers because they’re all over the place. It’s a very artsy, ‘big’ city so you have that.” It’s this appreciation that directly channels into the motivation for many performers, like Cullingworth and Huggins, to go into work most mornings, and overall, this energy is what fuels the resilience, determination, and high quality of our thriving artistic community.

// Claire McGillivray, Writer
// Illustration by Katie So

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com