From busk ’til dawn: The Boston busking experience

Greater Boston is a thriving music city. Within its limits, there exists a strong DIY scene, venues of various sizes and atmospheres, and two colleges dedicated to the craft. When you add an excellent transit system and pedestrians flooding its streets on the daily, the conditions are ripe for buskers. Hunkered down on street corners and in subway stations, these musicians play unprompted for the public.

After 18 months of living in the area and seeing buskers around, I have become accustomed to their presence. While I used to stop and listen to the music being performed, now I often shuffle through without glancing at the performer. This is probably due to my reluctance to donate to buskers, despite being a musician and former busker myself. After some thought, I decided to hit the streets with my saxophone, to see firsthand what busking conditions were like in the city. I completed three busking trips feeling musically satisfied, although not much richer.

Davis Square was the first stop on my busking journey. For this outing, I was fortunate enough to be joined by some other Melisma contributors. Greater Boston was enduring its final months of winter, so it was frigid outside. We temporarily avoided the cold by taking the campus shuttle to Davis. Davis is a popular busking destination; one can observe musicians there most weekends, as well as the occasional weeknight performance. As if on cue, the square warmed up once we arrived, and I decided to remove my jacket. Once my friends and I started getting our instruments out, there was an intense mixture of curiosity and indifference in the square. Those sitting on benches nearest us seemed intrigued by our spontaneous jam session, while patrons of JP Lick’s didn’t bat an eye, either because they didn’t notice us or because they had seen buskers there frequently.

The jacket move was a fatal mistake. Within 10 minutes, my whole torso went numb as Mother Nature smote us with biting winds. Adding insult to injury, the cold made our horns very flat, and we sounded quite out of tune. Despite all these issues, the public seemed to enjoy our playing. In addition to a whopping $4, we got good feedback from strangers in the square, who gave us thumbs up and recorded our playing to post on social media later. There were also a decent amount of Tufts students in Davis, who gave us the unconditional support of Jumbos. While we didn’t make much money and we froze our hineys off, the experience was positive overall.

Next on my list was Harvard Square. Similar to Davis, Harvard is an extremely popular busking destination. Buskers there can take advantage of the waves of Harvard University tourists that filter through the area every day. Not only did I want to busk in the square, I also longed to play in the T station, which would surely be warmer and provide more places to sit when I needed a break from playing.

After a brief T ride, I emerged on Massachusetts Avenue and selected my busking spot, a wide sidewalk in front of a bank. Prior to my trip, I worried that busking would require some sort of permit, and that I would be barred from playing there since I didn’t have one. However, once I set up my instrument without incident, I relaxed a little and started to play. Nearly everyone that passed me did not stop to listen, or even turn in my direction. Even the pedestrians that donated were sure to hurry along afterwards. I didn’t mind it, though, because these conditions eliminated performance pressure. I was free to experiment heavily with my improvisation, because no one was hearing it for more than a few seconds. This afternoon, like the last one, was very cold, to the point that I couldn’t feel my thumbs despite having gloves on. I eventually retreated to the T station to escape the cold.

My plan to busk on the platform was still in motion. Ever the lazy bum, I elected not to put my saxophone away in between busking locations. Trudging into the station, I worried that an MBTA employee would prevent me from playing. I made eye contact with one such employee, who very visibly didn’t care about my instrument, so my fears were quickly assuaged. After fumbling through the gate with all my things, I set up on a bench next to the T platform and started playing. T riders were even less inclined to donate than pedestrians in the square, and I ultimately came away penniless. However, the conditions were much nicer in the station, as I had anticipated. The bench allowed me to take much-needed breaks from standing, and I could keep my case at arms reach for easy access. The station was a comfortable temperature, too. I could see myself busking in a T station for an extended period of time in the future.

My third and final busking trip was to the heart of Boston, specifically the area near the Park Street T stop. This spot normally features buskers in multiple places. Musicians will often park themselves on the platform between the inbound and outbound trains on the Red Line or Green line, or they will make their way above ground to try their hand at performing in the garden. This was a few weeks after the first two outings, and it was finally warm out, so I chose the public garden as my busking spot.

This spot was unique in how cozy it felt. The garden is very spacious, so I didn’t feel like I was obstructing anyone as I set up my saxophone. Once I started playing, I received little reaction from passers by. Occasionally, someone tossed me a dollar or a word of encouragement. After 40 minutes of playing, I had accumulated $6: not a terrible sum, but certainly not enough to consistently feed oneself.

I was more or less satisfied with my pittance, but my real sense of satisfaction came from the people who interacted with me. Anytime I received a word of encouragement or a smile, I felt like I was brightening someone’s day. Unfortunately, buskers cannot pay their rent with smiles. I acknowledge that I have none of the pressure of being a full-time busker. Relying on busking as a major source of income would be nerve-wracking. Every person that walks past without donating is a lost opportunity; it’s one less item on the dinner table. Being ignored as a full-time busker seems like depression-icing atop the sad-cake that is an unsuccessful outing.

In Harvard Square and Boston Common, many people passed me without glancing in my direction. I was taken for granted most of the time. Again, I personally don’t mind, because busking is not a major part of my life. I empathize with those for whom it is. I often ignore buskers when I am out, because I don’t want to donate, but even stopping to listen or encouraging the musician in some way now seems like a much better option. I was touched by the thumbs pointed upwards, and the one woman that went “Woo!” Each of those interactions felt very personal. In the future, when I see buskers, I will do my best to appreciate the effort they are putting into public performance. Busking is native to cities, and so as a city-dweller, I realize I should no longer take it for granted.

 

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