The Northern suburbs of Melbourne have a lot to offer by way of live music. Nine times out of ten if you’re looking for a lovely spot to chat with friends and sample an alcoholic beverage, chances are your froth-filled catch-ups will also have the added backdrop of musical wonderment, provided by Melbourne’s ever-growing talent. There are lots of venues where you can visit almost any day of the week to get your musical fix: the Spotted Mallard or the Reverence on Sydney Road, the Evelyn Hotel on Brunswick St, or even the John Curtin Hotel in Carlton just to name a few.
Yet it’s not only in venues that you can experience live music and the likes circulating in our fair city: dedicated buskers and street performers can be found setting up on corners and under shelters, laying their empty guitar cases and up-turned hats to entertain us with their tricks and shower us with a melodic atmosphere as we go about our day.
Being a musician myself in the underground rock scene, I have always been intrigued by the whole busking culture as playing gigs in venues and bars has always been a very organised affair: you contact a venue, you book in a date in advance, you organise your line up and spread the word to get your friends and fans down to enjoy an evening of music with you and keep the promoter and venue managers happy. It’s all very regimented and to a schedule.
However, when it comes to street performing and busking, a different sort of dedication and discipline is required: as a busker you are reliant on nobody but yourself to get out of the house and hit the streets with your art. There is no appointment or formal agreement with a venue and nobody is holding you accountable to hold your weight in a group environment. Instead it’s the ‘early bird catches the worm’ scenario in the form of a low-key turf war to stake your claim on some prime piece of concrete real-estate to best show your musical and creative performing wares to as many passers-by as possible.
“In a pub you have maybe a forty-five minute set to grab someone’s attention but when you’re busking you have about five seconds, so it’s great way to practice grabbing people with your music and holding them as well, as people can literally walk off,” says Brendan Forward, local busker and musician.
If you’re wandering down Fitzroy St, on the corner of Johnston St when that man who plays the drums on up-turned rubbish bins is vacating another busking strip, you might find yourself stumbling across Forward and his one-man blues band, rocking his signature long brown locks stuffed into a black broad-brim.
I caught up with him to talk about his personal experiences with busking.
“I saw busking as a great way to play music and a great way to practice, with hopefully getting some money at the same time,”
Originally from Newcastle, like so many others Forward migrated down to Melbourne, attracted to its vivacious music scene.
“When I first moved to Melbourne I literally didn’t know anyone and didn’t know many of the pubs and clubs, so busking was a great way I could get out there and play,”
Busking has proven to be a great way for musicians to build a following amongst those who probably like music but are more the day-dwelling type who don’t necessarily want to frequent bars and pubs in the late hours of the evening.
Quite recently there have been a few fairytale endings for hard-working street performers. The likes of George Kamikawa, the cowboy hat-wearing, Sake-fuelled blues brother from Japan went on to be a contestant on Australia’s Got Talent in 2012 and got as far as the semi-finals. Kamikawa has also performed regularly with his band mate Noriko Todano at the Queen Victorian night market in North Melbourne. I got in contact with Kamikawa who was kind enough to answer some questions I had about his busking experiences.
Kamikawa first started busking when he was on holiday in New Zealand about twenty years ago, “I saw another Japanese guy playing harmonica on the street and I joined him. I really enjoyed and just kept going with it.”
I ventured to ask Kamikawa as an active musician if he believed it was harder for muso’s these days to get recognition.
“I think in a way it’s harder than it used to be especially with people favouring music downloads and music streaming services which makes selling CDs harder than it used to be,”
On that note you may have heard of artists like Tash Sultana and the Pierce brothers who have all made the journey from busker to internationally acclaimed recording artists. Sultana in particular was a regular busker who also has a thriving Youtube channel with lots of followers and viewers, and has since gained a lot of success with her music more recently independently releasing her debut EP “Notion” which reached #11 on the ARIA album charts.
“On the other side,” continues Kamikawa, “social media and Youtube etc. gives you more opportunity for people to see you,”
If you’re thinking of giving busking a go, it’s an easy process to getting your licence. You can head to the busking website and purchase a license online. There are no restrictions in the Northern suburbs of where you can busk with a ‘General Pavement’ busking license ($10 for three months or $20 for one year) but be mindful of certain shop owners who may ask you to move along from their shop front. It happens rarely, and most shop owners are accommodating and love having a busker bringing attention to their shop.
Once you purchase your licence online, you just need to book yourself in for the free health and safety seminar and you’re good to go.
For anyone looking at testing their creativity on a sunny pavement somewhere, Forward advises to “be smart with what you’re doing, work constantly, always try and improve, always be willing to learn, always be respectful and stay grounded.”
Kamikawa adds “Do what you enjoy doing but also take note of what the audience responds to positively and learn by that. Be polite and work well with other buskers and the public.”
So folks, the next time you’re walking home and you see a musician, a magician, a rapper or “one of them statue-people-things,” take a moment to enjoy the music and appreciate the talent, smell the roses and get rid of your clunky shrapnel change in your pocket at the same time. Who knows, your gold or silver coin may be helping out the next Australian artist headed for success!
Feature Image Credit: Miltonmonster’s Photo