Seattle has a long history of street performances. Collective effort of numerous performers took street busking to the height where it is now.
A profession that was considered to be not-so-prestigious some time back is now regarded as a hot favourite amongst Seattleites and the immigrants. Even though one can legally perform in the streets of Downtown, many challenges are being faced by the buskers that hinder them from giving their best.
“People yell at me, sometimes they chase me. I have been kicked out from many places, may be because of my religion. I am a Christian and I usually sing Christian songs”, says Ari Caldwell, a famous piano player who has been performing at Downtown for three years. She has also been a victim of theft. “A group of people once commented with straight faces that they don’t like my songs and tried to run away with my money,” she recounted with apprehension. This gives rise to a prominent question, ‘is busking a safe profession?’
Taking a stroll down the pulsing streets of Downtown, I could observe diverse performers playing their heart out. What caught my eye – and my ears – was Debb Kirkland and her music that personify melody. But the lively environment overshadows the real stories of the street buskers. Having moved to Seattle two years ago, she can now be seen near Pikes Place with her violin, all set to rock the town with her tunes, covering her sorrows with a bright smile on her face.
“Sometimes I feel like people here don’t understand music at all. When it comes to some other forms of arts like sports, people are so enthusiastic. But music seems to be like a different kind of thing to the audience. Or maybe I am not getting the right kind of audiences,” she says. People belittled her and tried to make fun of her. Many people see buskers as beggars but that is not actually true. Busking is a more honest way of asking money. Also, it is not always about money. There are many performers who perform for nothing in return, but just for the pleasure of making others feel happy through their music.
“Some people also assume that a person becomes a busker as a result of a failed musical career,” adds Kirkland. And it is not always about performing in the streets. A busker needs to make an eye contact with the audience and reach out to the individuals passing by. Only then, the busker can perform their heart out. Not being able to find an appropriate place to leave the musical instruments while going to the restroom and uncertain weather conditions are some of the other challenges being faced by buskers.
David Dickinson, Programme Manager at Pike Place Market
However, things have been taking on a bright turn in the past six months, she feels. The number of audiences witnessing live street music is increasing. Despite that, Kirkland expressed her worries over digital platforms such as YouTube and Sound Cloud sidelining live music.
Pike Place market, which is known to be the music hub of Seattle, is in charge of all the busking related activities of the town. “The number of buskers who are obtaining license for street performance has been increased from 300 to 400 over the past many years” said Dickinson, Program Manager at Pike Place Market. “We review the rules annually and allow the buskers to make changes if it seems inappropriate”, adds Dickinson. “We allow a visiting busker to perform for free for a day. After that, we charge them $30 per year.”
This comes as a silver lining for the buskers while they deal with their hardships and face catcalling on a daily basis. In spite of their personal tragedies and grievances, they manage to churn out soulful songs that make tap your feet, nod your and smile along with the tunes. Way to go, buskers.
This story was produced by a student in the “Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI)” program, a collaboration between The Seattle Globalist and FIUTS, supported by the U.S. Department of State. The program brings 20 undergraduates from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Nepal to Seattle. Participants study journalism and new media, and participate in volunteer and service activities, leadership workshops, and cultural excursions. The story is an example of student work and has not yet been through the Seattle Globalist’s standard editing and fact-checking process.