Heartbeat of the City

Local buskers nervous about competition from international festival

Busker John Gao plays a dizi, a Chinese transverse flute, in the Inner Harbour. Gao moved to Victoria from Shanghai 11 years ago.

Local buskers nervous about competition from international festival

My first memory of Victoria isn’t tethered to the view of the Inner Harbour or the historic downtown buildings. It doesn’t revolve around the pubs, the people or the quaint horse-drawn carriages.

Nope; it was a busker. It was a typically rainy day and this fellow was standing outside the Bay Centre, weaving magic into the air with a battered tenor sax.

Since that time, I have fallen in love with Victoria’s street performers and have come to know more than a few on a first-name basis. I’ve come to believe they’re the heartbeat of this city. Take them away and the place remains scenic, but dull.

It’s why I was thrilled when I heard about the Victoria International Busker’s Festival. The festival will host street entertainers from around the world on a series of five stages in and around the Inner Harbour and downtown. It all sounds incredible.

Still, it’s a double-edged sword and, having been in the festival business myself, I know that it presents risks for the local buskers that I know and love.

You see, Victoria buskers count on the money they make during the summer months in the same way that retailers count on the month before Christmas for the bulk of their earnings. Summer is when the cruise ships hit town. Tourists come to walk the streets and see the sights. Downtown is alive and the buskers make a pretty good living. If a busker loses that income it can have a serious impact.

For some of the local performers, that’s a real possibility.

Let’s start with the Inner Harbour. That’s where the best of Victoria’s performers ply their trade. Unfortunately, our local entertainers aren’t going to be on the main stages. In fact, none of the mainstage acts live here. They come from around the world; and they really are amazing. I’m looking forward to seeing them all. Still, they aren’t our local talent.

That leaves the local performers to earn a living at their usual spots where they will have to compete for the attention of all those tourists, pockets jingling with money, who are heading for the big stages.

Amplification

Several of the buskers (primarily musicians) with whom I spoke are concerned that they’ll simply be drowned out. Inner Harbour performers are licensed to perform at their usual locations, but they are not allowed to use amplifiers when performing. That’s a Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) rule that doesn’t apply to the festival. All of the festival stages have amplified sound, and if organizers aren’t careful, that sound will drown out the regulars on the lower causeway.

It’s a fact that some of them haven’t figured out yet. My friend, Swan, is a case in point. He’s that guy with the big smile, cool hat and reggae soul; a regular at the harbour. I spoke to him recently and he didn’t know that he’ll be competing with amplified performances for 10 days. He’s still smiling, but he’s worried. If you can’t be heard, no one is going to drop money in your hat.

Local juggling acts may fare a little better. They’ve been allowed to hang on to their regular location on the lower causeway across the street from the Empress Hotel. Still, this location (dubbed the “GVHA Stage” by festival organizers) will not have amplified sound. At least one of our best-known local jugglers is off to Vancouver as a result. Hopefully, he comes back in August.

How about the performers who play away from the harbour in Bastion Square, Government Street and those scattered around downtown?

Festival organizer John Vickers says he’s accommodated between 30 and 40 local performers at a series of “Busk Stops” around Bastion Square. The clearly marked locations will be scheduled with steady performances by many of our regulars.

But the question remains; why aren’t the best of our local performers on the festival’s main stages? There are a couple of reasons.

Independent breed

Like it or not, it’s the out-of-town performers who draw crowds, so economic principals demand that a festival has to court them. These performers travel here and have to be given ample opportunity to make enough money to make the trip worthwhile. They’re not typically paid by the festival itself, and while some of their expenses are covered, they still have to foot a lot of their own tabs. So, in order to attract the best entertainers, they have to be given the main stages.

Another reason is that buskers are a pretty independent breed. The local performers aren’t much for stages and schedules.

“They just wanted to be left alone and do what they always do,” says Vickers.

I can see that. Busking is one of the last independent vocations, practised by very independent people.

When I asked local busking musician Dave Harris about this, he laughed. “It’s a bit of a fringe occupation, for sure. Rules, schedules and licenses are like barbed wire to old west cattlemen. They’re free spirits.” That independence could end up hurting them.

In a best case scenario, the festival will raise awareness for all buskers. Folks will loosen the purse strings and actually drop a few bucks into the hats, pots, jugs and guitar cases they encounter during the 10-day run. Ideally, they’ll do that with equal generosity for performances on and off the main stages. Hopefully, they remember that while the more prominent performances might be great, it’s the local artists who will be the ones breathing life into our city when the festival is done. M

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