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“Selling Out” as a Street Performer (aka Busker)

Many perform on the streets simply to give free art to the world. Many perform for political reasons, to spread a political message on public streets, as in the tradition of agit-prop (agitational propaganda). But most buskers have had days when they are playing because they need the money, not because they want to. On these days, it is more attractive than ever to "sell out." I interviewed some buskers to find out what "selling out" looks like in a busker context.
"Selling Out" as a Street Performer (aka Busker)
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Written July 3, 2007

The other day I was sitting around with a street performer (aka busker) friend and we were discussing what "selling out" means to us. Many of us perform on the streets simply to give free art to the world. Many of us perform for political reasons, to spread a political message on public streets, as in the tradition of agit-prop (agitational propaganda). But most buskers have had days when they are playing because they need the money, not because they want to. On these days, it is more attractive than ever to "sell out" on the street. I interviewed some buskers to find out what they do to "sell out" when they really need the cash.

We all agree that those days when you really need the money are the ones most prone to low tipping. It is as if the public can tell you really need the money that day. And we all have also had days when we did not need to busk for the money, but made mad tips. And no one I know has figured out any pattern to tipping, even after decades of observations. But we do know that certain things we perform have a pattern of bringing in more tips than others. I know certain songs make money more regularly than others. I know that certain types of humor work better than others. I know that certain acts do better than others. For instance, we elders have always made fun of child jugglers as stiff competition. Any act with fire is also a major contender. It is funny what works and what doesn't on streets around the world! A one man band from Germany named Gerd Kettel came to the West Coast of the U.S., singing in German and singing about things like the environment, ending wars, etc. and he was a wild success here. The novelty of his one man band set up was a big part of how he gathered a crowd in the U.S.. Then I found out they sell the one man band kits he was using all over Europe and that he did not do as well in Europe as he did in the U.S. because over here, we had not seen what is ordinary over there. Street painters working in chalk, or madonnari, are also common all over Europe but very unusual in the U.S. still. So what people pay for *and don't* can even depend on region!

A fellow busker working in New York City currently, PKDwyer (www.pkdwyer.com), brought up the topic of the Naked Cowboy who plays in his underwear with regard to this topic. PK commented he was glad to be street performing his own original music, thus not selling out in content, and also was thankful he did not have to "sell out" in his underwear to do it. He commented that the Naked Cowboy is not remembered for his tunes but rather because he is a guy who plays guitar in his underwear. That really is a beautiful example of a certain type of "selling out." Doing something somewhat humiliating, something people will not want to do themselves, can be enough to "sell out," for sure. Stunts like these are traditionally called "gimmicks."

I used to perform in a nun's outfit. That was a gimmick. I wore it originally to give police a run for the money in *their* costumes as they tried to shut me down on public streets. But as time went on, it became a prop-oriented gimmick. I was recognized as "the singing nun" and my outfit alone set me apart and made me very recognizable. My props became more and more kitsch religious paraphernalia. After a while, I dreaded putting on the nun's habit, but it was what the people wanted! You know you are selling out when you are doing an act even you do not want to do, for the money, and no other reason.

I look at much of vaudeville and burlesque as extreme gimmickry! Often it is not the material or skill per se, so much as the costumes and props that make the show. Can can lines are a good example of this. It seems the costume of a skirt and showing your underwear, along with lots of face make up, really make that show. Is there even one woman who is known as *the* greatest can can line dancer? And why don't men do it? Ever? I have seen can can lines used continually in vaudeville as a place to put women with no act, to get them passes into a fair or gig. As a place to *cover* women who have no other act we can book on a stage. I see a lot of the sexploitation in burlesque and vaudeville as "selling out," by my standards. To me, it would be just as humiliating to stand in a line of sub-par women performers, showing my underwear on stage, as some form of entertainment, as it would be for PKDwyer to perform in his underpants doing songs no one remembers, that someone else wrote. To me, that kind of shit is the ultimate in "selling out." I take on the challenge to *not* engage in stereotypic gender sexploitation roles on stage, just as vaudevillians in the past stood up to black face and Step'n Fetch It roles for blacks. I want to provide a creative role model for girls and boys that relies on talent and skill, on ingenuity and intelligence, rather than on sexploitation and simple gender stereotyping on stages. Again, these are my goals, and my standards of what constitutes "selling out" and no one else's.

But regarding the concept of "selling out," PK also points out, "There are times when I have to work harder and longer than I want but who doesn't have that in their job description? If the fish aren't biting I just make less money." It is somewhat semantical to try to argue what is just the sucking part of a job, the part we all dread, and what is selling out. It seems an inherent component of "work" is kissing up, so to speak. Who you kiss up to is often defined by the job. In busking, the people you "kiss up to" when you are "selling out," are the individuals who pass by you that day, the audience. Sometimes you also need to kiss up to those trying to control public streets, such as city management, police, shop owners, etc. For me, "selling out" often just means being pleasant, or upbeat, singing swing music, when I would rather grumble out the Sex Pistols that day!

Thaddeus Spae (www.ambertide.com), long time busker, replied, when asked what is "selling out" to him: "I wouldn't play "Where Were You When..." whatever it is, 911 country song, or any other 911 gawdcountrykill song unless you held a gun to my head. And it would have to be a BIG gun..." He also noted that he is "incapable, physically incapable, of playing "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree."" He says he breaks into hysterical laughter about 8 bars into it. And alike PK, he chalks some of "selling out" to the unpleasantries associated with any job. Thaddeus says, "Getting to sing for money is an incredible privilege in a country where the vast majority of citizens give up any pretense of their dreams just to survive, eat, raise a family -- all that normal stuff. We're not talking rich folks here, they do what they please. But the rest of us do what we can -- and there's no shame in having to play what the audience wants to hear. They're the ones paying you, mkay? Like Lennie Bruce sez, everybody's as moral as they can afford to be, and that goes for buskers just like everyone else...For myself personally, though, I find that old Grateful Dead quote appropriate: "We wanted to sell out. Nobody was buying.""

"Selling out" to me also means singing songs I hate to sing, which includes anything by Judy Collins or Joan Baez, and singing songs that have been overplayed horribly, like Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz." People pay for songs they know, so to make money, you need to sing popular songs, which is why so few can make it on original music! For me, the closest I can come to "selling out" in my repertoire is to do jazz standards people know, not top 40. And for busker Kind Keith (www.kindkeith.com), who sings with a strong voice and sings beautiful songs in Spanish, he finds "selling out" to be singing songs by the Eagles. The other night he was lamenting that it had been a hard day, that he had been "reduced" to singing "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown." I can see how singing that would feel like a low.

The Saw Lady (www.sawlady.com) in New York City was most eloquent regarding this topic. She said, "For me selling out is not what song I play, but rather how often I play it... I usually play each song once in an hour set. But if I get desperate, I might play the same song which I know works particularly well again and again and again... (not to be confused with when I play the same song many times because I have a gig to practice for or I'm learning a new song). If I play 'Ave Maria' once in an hour - that's not a sell out - it's a gorgeous song which I enjoy playing. But if I play it 10 times in a row - that's a sell out. A cop at Times Square once approached me. I was thinking 'man, he is going to give me a ticket'. But instead, all he wanted was to tell me that he likes my music because I don't play the same song over and over. He said he is stationed at that spot all the time and it drives him nuts to have to listen to the same song over and over. He said there are many buskers who do that. Well, I know why these buskers play the same song over and over. It's not that they don't know other songs. They are just selling out..." I am sure most buskers can relate to what the Saw Lady has said here. Repeating is as much a "selling out" behavior as repertoire choice can be. As Thaddeus and Lenny Bruce have said, we are as moral as we can afford to be, and buskers make compromises just like everyone else while on the job.

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com


another way to look at it... 05.Jul.2007 19:45

Theodor Adorno

If you are bringing some enjoyment to others, that's inherently good, even if it's not the thing you most want to be playing at the moment. As long as you don't have to really feel humiliated doing it. No one should have to experience humiliation in order to earn a living. Surely one must draw a sensible line somewhere.

bad bad leroy brown 11.Jul.2007 15:14

stizzy

That's Jim Croce, not the Eagles. ;-P

From my experience as a street musician (I really can't stand the term "busker" or "busking" or anything prefixed with "busk"), I never considered playing popular/contemporary songs to be "selling out" because I actually enjoy playing a lot of pop songs. I play by ear better than I compose, and I get a kick out of being able to reproduce a song I like in my own style. And it helps when other people like it enough to throw down some cash.

Every once in awhile people would stop and try to talk to me. I really didn't like that so much, because I'm there to play music for tips, not chat. Some of these people would act like I was some kind of hard luck case, which really came across as stereotyping and patronizing to me. But what am I going to do, lose my cool? I guess if I would have played into that role and used it to get pity money, that would've been selling out to me.