Performing for the toughest crowd: A feature on busking In Sydney

There’s always a wealth of suspense when a busker begins to set up for the day. For many, the curiosity will never be satisfied as their suitcase guides them to their next meeting or they run sheepishly to a bus that they’ll narrowly miss. But I had nowhere to be, so I took a seat on the raw marble base of the Queen Victoria Statue to wait for a young girl to finish connecting her microphone. Her friend sat nearby in support, egging her on to help overcome any initial nerves.

Singing under the towering Queen Victoria Building made the young busker and her compact amplifier seem pretty insignificant. And the number of people passing by without even glancing at the talented performer made her seem even more so. But after three songs, and just one person giving change, a group of five men and one woman arrived. They were all wearing casual clothes, unlike the men and women in suits that flurried past them. They gathered in front of the busker, talking amongst themselves as if they were plotting something. And they were.

The group crept behind the performer and to my amusement, started line dancing. A small congregation of people stopped in their tracks to watch the group’s tight choreography – alluding that this was not the first time they had carried out an impromptu performance. By now, everybody under the shadow of the QVB was filming the performer (who was beaming by this point). Then, at the end of the song the group of dancers stopped, donated change to the singer and disappeared amongst the commuters that filled Sydney’s streets.

Before lockdown, five hundred different performers set up on the streets of Sydney each week, so it’s not exactly surprising that so many commuters rush past without a glance. And with such a large number of street performers around, something out of the ordinary is required to really seize the attention of the public. A busker who goes by the name of Yuvi Singhs described busking as “performing for the toughest audience.” I came across Yuvi performing near Newtown train station where he busks three days every week, providing his usual spot near the Newtown FoodWorks isn’t taken.

The vision of Yuvi sitting outside the tobacconist’s window, on a chair borrowed from the chicken shop down the street is not what I would have imagined if I was to listen to him with my eyes closed. His renditions of classics like Vance Joy’s “Riptide” and “I’m On Fire” by Bruce Springsteen made me feel like I should be at a wedding with a sea breeze, on a slightly unstable fold-out chair. But I was brought back to reality as Newtown locals and people on their way home from work strutted by – some momentarily abandoning one earphone to see if they recognised the song Yuvi was playing.

At one point in between songs, a homeless man walked over to him and asked if he could help open a tin. Yuvi helped the man and then continued to play, as if an occurrence like this wasn’t uncommon. Later in the evening, Yuvi revealed something about the homeless man that surprised me, “He was my first ever heckler. He was basically just saying things like, ‘Hey I bet you’re gonna get some cash and you’ll be able to feed yourself, while I’m out here begging on the streets, trying to survive.” That moment really sticks out in Yuvi’s memory.

It’s no secret that the street performance industry is struggling more than ever before. The cost of busking can also be enough to turn some musicians off. Performers are legally required to shell out nearly fifty dollars a year for a busking license, which may not seem like much but a lot of the time a day of performing can earn a busker less than they spent on the train fare to the city. I spoke to Andrew (not his real name), a nineteen-year-old busker who has never purchased a performing license because he can’t justify the cost of it. A lot of the time, he gets around it by performing on private premises, like cafe’s and restaurants.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for buskers as we evolve into a cashless society. Yuvi has frequently been on the receiving end of ‘pocket-patting’ and apologetic looks while out on the streets, “They like the music and they want to show their appreciation, but they can’t because they don’t have any cash.” He admitted there’s even been times when he’s considered buying an EFTPOS machine.

“Some of the homeless guys that come up to me in Newtown and Town Hall, they joke around with people walking past and say, ‘Hey man, he takes EFTPOS, he takes cheque, he takes wallets.’ I mean they make jokes like that, but it’s funny because I actually think it would make a difference.”

Even the factors that make busking really worthwhile are at risk. I spoke to children’s entertainer and former Wiggle, Greg Page, about his experience of busking from 1990 to 1992. “Really it was just the fun of playing music with my friends, and testing the market,” he remembered. But in certain areas of the city, the opportunity for performers to have fun and trial their music could be snatched.

Page busking in Sydney with The Wiggles in the early 90s

There have already been trials in Melbourne, forcing buskers to audition in front of a panel if they wish to perform in Bourke Street Mall. If this is successful, a similar system could be employed for areas in Sydney. The thought of this arrangement frustrates Page, “Busking is their audition, right? It’s never a good thing to prevent people from having the opportunity to refine their live performance skills,” he criticised.

Funding a career from the change thrown into a guitar case is simply unrealistic. That’s why exposure is bread and butter for buskers that are looking to propel their career – just look at Tones and I if you want proof. Yuvi, Greg and Andrew have all landed gigs from busking, so it’s important that performing on the street does not become a thing of the past. One technology being trialled could be the answer. Overseas, app designers have dipped their toes into a project called ‘BuSK’, which utilises a technology that’s been so important during the pandemic. Put simply, BuSK gives performers a unique QR code which pedestrians can scan and directly transfer whatever amount of money they please. Yuvi was buzzing when I described the app, whipping out his phone to search for it. 

The resilience of people like Yuvi is astonishing. His flaring positive attitude for the world really stood out to me. The thought of having to deal with aggressive and rude crowds absolutely terrifies me, especially when you remember that he’s performing alone and completely exposed on a busy street. But simple moments of encouragement make the train trips with a heavy load of gear worthwhile, “people come up to me sometimes and say, ‘Hey you’re actually really good,’ and sometimes I’d rather than the money… It makes the hours where you don’t really earn anything kind of worth it – it feels good man”. 

Andrew has one moment of bliss that sticks out for him. While performing in a restaurant, a little girl eating with her family came up to him with a picture she drew. It was a drawing of him singing, and on the back was a note written in crayon that said “Thank you for playing beautiful music.”