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  • Dan Duguay

Busking: A Dying Art Form

Updated: May 9

Busking is the art of performing in a public place for donations

Busking has been around for a long time. I'm not going to bore you with a history. Let's just say it's probably been around since coin currency was invented (Siri tells me 7th century BC).

It makes sense that with the disappearance of coin and paper currency, busking will follow.

You probably haven't noticed, less and less buskers are populating your city. Busking is going the way of the dodo bird because the financial incentives aren't there.

Ottawa's Sparks Street has always attracted buskers
Early days of Dan the One Man Band on Sparks Street Mall

I started busking in 1990 in Ottawa, Canada. It had a thriving street performing scene at the time. You could see buskers on Sparks Street and in the Byward Market. There were acts like The Checkerboard GuyAytahn RossJunkyard Symphony and The Cow Guys. I was 13 years old when I saw my first one-man band. He was from Switzerland and I was with my dear childhood friend Pete O'Connell. (We would both go on to become one-man bands) Haha.

The 90's was like a golden age for busking in Canada. The Loonie and the Twoonie were both introduced around then, so Canadians were carrying abundantly more change in their pockets. Buskers were happy to help unburden passers-by with their added weight.

Once I finished my University degree from Carleton University, I set out to earn my living by entertaining in the public spaces of whichever city I was in. Within the first couple years of my decided-upon occupation, I traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Scotland and multiple cities in Canada and the U.S.

Since 1996, Calgary has been my home. It's unusual for a wandering minstrel to settle into a city for the long haul, but having a partner who requires more of an established residence due to work, will do that.

Once a beacon for buskers
Eau Claire Market in Calgary

We settled on Calgary for a few reasons. Two of the notable ones were: Eau Claire Market and Stephen Avenue. These two spots were a beacon for buskers. Eau Claire was of particular interest because it allowed INDOOR busking. Between weekend work at Eau Claire Market and weekday work (weather permitting) on Stephen Avenue, there was no shortage of opportunities to go out and put a smile on someone's face. It was my job, and as long as I kept the local vendors happy, I was free to do it whenever I wanted.

Those were great times for busking in Calgary. Just ask James JordanChris VisserTomko LambPaul Isaak or Amber Lynn Walker.

Eau Claire Market is slated for demolition in the next few months and Stephen Avenue has for years been grappling with how to get good busking back on the street in the summer. It's a sign of the times.

From 2019 to 2023, I was employed by a tech start-up company called Stagehand, as a Subject Matter Expert. The software they were developing was essentially iterating on the art of busking. Making it easier to match artists with public spaces. They had an "aha moment" in 2019 when they helped transform the Calgary International Airport into a "busking pitch". The airport allowed security-cleared artists to perform for a small honourarium plus tips. It proved to be a successful program for everyone. The musicians loved the opportunity to perform in a controlled environment and have "paid rehearsal". The airport had a large uptick in positive social media posts because the passengers loved being seranaded to, while they waited for their departure time. As a result of the software, the airport hosted 1800 performances in one year and won them an International Airport Award. 

Through my work with Stagehand, I discovered that many people working in various capacities within Calgary and in other cities, are interested in having buskers to create vibrancy and entice Suburbanites to come into the city.

Beyond the normal issues with buskers, such as volume, act quality, traffic concerns...What is blatantly obvious to me is, fewer artists are interested in performing in a busking-style environment. The financial rewards aren't enticing, nor is having to deal with the "outspoken" general public. I believe the younger generation is more interested in YouTube subscribers and TikTok followers.

Cities want buskers and are interested in funding the artists to incentivize them. Numerous organizations in Calgary have paid buskers, such as the Calgary Downtown Association, CLMC and The Central Library.

From what I witnessed on Calgary's Stephen Avenue last year with their "Summer Song" series, it wasn't really busking. The artists were performing on the street, but there was no "hustle" to get people to throw money. I imagine it's because the young performers don't think anyone is carrying money anymore. Because the acts were being paid, there was no urgency for people to stop and listen. Back in the true busking days, you worked to get people to stop. Getting your first few listeners was half the battle. 

Why I think busking is worth saving:

  1. Great for artist development. 

  2. Brings vibrancy and culture to unusual spaces.

  3. It can be an excellent "waitering gig" for any aspiring artist.

  4. It inspires people. 

  5. It can bring a sense of security to any space.

  6. It is the most DEI art form in existence.

  7. It's the most accessible art form.

  8. Great way to spotlight a city's unique culture.

  9. The artist gets paid AND gets exposure.

 Imagine a world where artists are paid to perform their art in public spaces. They are trained in the art of busking. They learn the differences between performing on a stage and performing in a public space. They train in how to engage an unsuspecting audience. The city offering steady work to performing artists. They could be placed all over town in random places for anyone to enjoy. Their biggest task would be to brighten someone's day, add ambience or inspire a little kid to think outside the box. 

There are a few notable organizations that have been iterating on the art of busking. The best ones I know of are The Busking Project and Busk London. There's a company called Sound Diplomacy that did an audit on Alberta's music ecosystem, and one of their recommendations was to try and develop a more robust busking environment. 

There's a company in Dubai, Dolphin Creative led by Stuart Every. He has created a business model where they bring busking festivals to shopping malls internationally and use the highest caliber of buskers in the world to entertain the masses. Stuart is a champion of street entertainment. I have been pondering ways in which I could also fill that role.

Because hard currency is disappearing, so are buskers
Currency is disappearing

I've discussed this issue of a dying art form with many people. Almost everyone says "Geez, I never thought of that!" They invariably say we need to make it easy for people to pay with their phones! (Lots of companies iterating on that) I like to point out that the hospitality industry has benefitted from the cashless society in the sense that it's easier than ever to tip the staff. The POS machine gives you percentage options, so it's the click of a button. Buskers have not seen these same benefits.

I owe my career to busking and I'll be sad to see it disappear, but unless people see the value in it and support it, I can't see it surviving into the digital age. The extinction of busking would be a sad mark on society.

I will leave you with this video created by Nick Broad and The Busking Project:

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