Busking in Sydney: Greed, Hyenas and Divine Retribution


London, UK
Today I decided to get to grips with busking on public transport property and headed towards the tunnels which link George St to the Sydney’s Central train station. I got there just before 9 and took a look around for possible places to sit and play. There was heavy foot traffic but there was a question of whether people would stop on their way in to work or lectures. The demographic appeared to be largely "student" but it is 8.50am, so most office workers are probably already at work putting away their morning latte and cigarette, bracing themselves for another day at the desk.

I wandered through the longer of the two tunnels, only to find that some enterprising souls had already taken up their positions. There was a lady called Kathy whose sign read that she’d lost her job to the recession, one guy whose sign said he had to wait weeks before he would be housed and a very odd man playing the guitar and the didgeridoo. Separately. He didn’t even attempt to play the same piece of music. In fact, there was no discernable tune on either instrument. His guitar case was adorned with pictures and flags. His didgeridoo resonated loudly along the length of the hall, so I didn't bother setting up. I went back the smaller tunnel for my morning set.

Busking Observations 1 - 5:
1. Tunnels have great acoustics. You don't have to push anywhere near as hard as you would otherwise need to do in order to be heard and appreciated. The sound of the saxophone resonates and echoes very sweetly.

2. The Small Smilers. They may not stop, they may not donate, but as they hear the music, you can see they’re listening and as they walk by, a small but heartfelt smile creeps across their faces. From the eye contact, you know it's the music. Maybe they don't have cash, maybe they are running late but their appreciation is well-received and their smiles warm me.

3. Bluffing tunes: I attempted to brazen my way through 'Lily Was Here' and "Nature Boy'. "Lily" is a good example of a metro tunnel song. People won't listen past the first few refrains, but it's the key hook that they cotton onto. I obviously need to relearn Candy Dulfer's solo because it's super funky and fills the song out nicely for a solo instrument. This of course will have to take place AFTER I have finished learning all the other songs I need to add to my repertoire.

4. People who appear to have little, seem to be more generous than their better-heeled counterparts. Many of the people who have given me money have not appeared to be particularly well-off. Perhaps they’re just a little better attuned to the world going on around them. Two ladies stopped in front of me and as they were fumbling around in a purse, I smiled at them. One promptly said to the other "He's smiley too. Give him some more". The other apologised for the amount she was giving me before dropping it in my case. I thanked them profusely anyway.

5. Students, by and large, are busy being students. Their conversations are loud and they appear to be trying to figure it all out. Lectures, accommodation, peer group politics, clothes, clubs, sex, who said what or did what to whom. It's amazing they manage not to walk into walls of fall off escalators with the desperate urgency with which they discuss everything.

After an hour of playing to an rapidly thinning audience through the tunnel, I scooped up my slim pickings and headed to pastures more lucrative in the centre of town. Walking down Pitt street, I thought of the paved shopping mall area which has a lot of people-traffic.

As I drew closer, I noticed of a pack of charity workers I have named the Jackals. I have nothing against charity workers per-se, but these are a new strain. These men are well groomed. Their clothes are cool and smart. They hunt in packs. Their eyes dart rapidly in search of fresh prey. Their smiles are glib and their hair is gelled. They don't wear branded jackets. They do not carry clipboards. They wear belt holsters with notepads, which hang down behind them. They have removed all visual clues which would mark them as charity workers and cause most people to veer away. I have no idea what they are actually attempting to sell or sign people up to, but the slickness of their operation makes my skin crawl.

I noticed an older looking South American looking gentleman sitting beside a musical rig on a trolley. I introduced myself and then took a couple of pictures as he watched me. From the small bag beside him, he pulled out a set of panpipes and I had to resist the urge to laugh out loud. "Panpipes? I'll have you mate. You're toast" I thought rather smugly.

I trotted back to my spot, where two hyenas were standing around plotting their assault on the sensibilities of the general public. Looked over at me, then at my saxophone, said something quietly to his friend and then turned to address me. "So, are you any good then?”

I sized him up for a long second and answered mildly "no, not even slightly" vowing internally to make sure that I played as loudly as possible for maximum disturbance of whatever they were doing, for the duration of my set.

I warmed up, ran some scales patterns in preparation and noted smugly that two of them moved off to somewhere quieter. I took a deep breath for the opening notes of "Poirot" when the sound of another tenor saxophone came crashing through my concentration.

WHAT? No other saxophone buskers throughout the week and today one turns up no more than 15m from me. And they're playing 'The Entertainer'. I was not entertained. Or amused.

A hyena turned to me and said wryly "Well that must be incredibly annoying". I grimaced, packed up and went to throw dirty looks at the competition. I got there and it was a bald guy in a Hawaiian shirt playing the banjo, a kind-faced older lady on the tenor sax with a case of cds in front of them. I gave them a dollar, took a picture and walked away seething at the fact that they were so nice and smiley, I couldn't bring myself to dislike them.

Earphones in, heavy music pumping, I marched down Pitt Street towards my usual haunt on Martin Place. As I drew closer, I took off my earphones and stared in disbelief at the scene before me. This time, it wasn't the flamenco guitarists or even the purple-clad crooner. Today, parked in the Pitt Street seat of honour, with an assistant for CD sales, a big amplifier and a case open for donations was an oriental gentleman playing the theme from "The Godfather" on the violin. It was so loud, you could hear it clear across Martin Place from Pitt to George Street, where I usually played.

Busking Observation 6:
The law of the busking jungle seems to be as follows: Survival of the fastest, the earliest and the loudest.

Gazumped again I sought another familiar hunting ground - Circular Quay, where there would be enough general public to go around. Bravado intact, if a little dented, I walked along the quay, which was teeming with performers: both groups of didgeridancers, the still life artists and the powerboat operators. I picked a spot opposite a cafe and alongside a Chinese restaurant's outdoor seating area. Location set, I made my pre-performance bathroom break. I returned, I set up and proceeded to play.
Unlike this morning’s set, this time, I felt thoroughly uninspired and it showed through. All the tunes felt flat, the sax kept on squawking, my fingers mutinied and my lips simply made no effort to cooperate. The general public seemed similarly uninterested.

Busking Observation 7:
People, if you are going to give a busker some money, fine. If you're not going to give a busker money, that's also fine. However, do not stop to listen to them, take out your purse, pull out a dollar coin or two, have a quick conference with a friend then put the coins back into your purse and walk off looking sheepish. YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED. If I knew a song called "Cheap Cow", I would play it loudly for you. Yes pretty Polynesian-looking lady with the bobbed hairdo and the nice dress, I am talking to you.

I ground out one hour of musical agony then decided to jack it in for the day. I packed up and slunk away with my tail between my legs. After playing two prime venues today, I left with a grand total of $29.40.

Thinking on the subject of “what goes around…” two days ago, I bought a copy of “The Big Issue”, not leaving enough in my wallet for a bottle of water because I thought it would be a good thing for someone who was trying to make a living on the street. I showed consideration to a fellow busker who asked me nicely when I would be finishing, as I was at his usual performance spot. I made a little child smile by playing “my favourite things”. Later on that day, an elegant older lady dropped a $50 note into my case. That day, I made the most money I have since I started busking.

Today, I approached my busking with a more mercenary attitude, trying to milk two prime sites for all the money I could make. I sneered at a pan-piper and planned to sabotage the efforts of a hyena pack. In return, I was ambushed by the only other sax player I have seen since I started busking. I was driven from Martin Place by a violinist armed with an amplifier on horse sterioids. I played for a largely unappreciative audience.

Today's lesson: Be nice to your fellow man, woman or hyena. It's for your own good.
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