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.

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Black Press Media file photo)
Get the word on art on Sunday afternoons in Victoria

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria presents Sunday lecture series in March

GVPA authors
Write On! Greater Victoria Public Library releases 2021 local authors collection

Greater Victoria Public Library (GVPL) is celebrating local authors with the unveiling… Continue reading

Hermann's Jazz Club
Hermann’s celebrates International Women’s Day and St. Paddy’s Day

International Women’s Day will be celebrated at Hermann’s Jazz Club with an… Continue reading

Gabriola Island poet Naomi Beth Wakan’s latest book is ‘Wind on the Heath.’ (Photo courtesy Elias Wakan)
Former Nanaimo poet laureate revisits past poems in latest collection

Gabriola Island’s Naomi Beth Wakan presents career-spanning ‘Wind on the Heath’

The Sooke Fine Arts Show will be online again this year, showcasing unique artworks from Vancouver Island and B.C.’s coastal island artists from July 23 to Aug. 2. (File - Sooke News Mirror)
Sooke Fine Arts Show goes virtual for second year in a row

Art exhibition and show set for July 23 to Aug. 2

Donna Hales next to one of her paintings of Sooke. (Mandy Moraes photo)
Parksville artist Donna Hales still displaying her work at age 94

Current exhibit at the McMillan Arts Centre through April 1

Nanaimo painter Shawnda Wilson hangs her exhibit Tropical Wallpaper at Jonny the Barber. The show runs until the end of March. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)
Nanaimo painter battles pandemic blues with tropical exhibition

Shawnda Wilson presents ‘Tropical Wallpaper’ at Old City Quarter barbershop

It’s been almost a year since the last public performance inside the Chemainus Theatre. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Donors pledge $60,000 in matching campaign at Chemainus Theatre

Perrys, Hiltons and Duncan Iron Works help to Bridge the Gap during COVID shutdown

Artist Sandra Meigs will be the next speaker in NIC’s online 2021 Artist Talk series, appearing virtually on Friday, March 5 at 1 pm. For the full schedule and link to attend the Artist Talk Online Series, visit https://nicart.tickit.ca/. (Photo: The Glass Ticker (2017) — 15’ X 9’ X 5’, wood, enamel, lights, aluminum, glass, automata. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.)
Celebrated artist and mentor Meigs joins North Island College Artist Talk series

Vivid, immersive, and enigmatic style combines the complex with comic elements

Arts Laureate Barbara Adams joins artist Luke Ramsey and Mayor Kevin Murdoch in front of the Parade of Play mural at the Oak Bay High track. (Black Press Media file photo)
Curtain draws to a close on Oak Bay arts laureate’s term

Barbara Adams has been a champion for arts in the community

The students in the Timberline Musical Theatre program are rehearsing this year’s production, Once Upon a Mattress, three days per week after school in preparation for their upcoming virtual performances. Photo by Mike Davies/Campbell River Mirror
Island high school’s musical theatre program hoping for last-minute ticket surge

Popular annual run of Timberline shows costs $7,000-$8,000 to stage, sold $750 in tickets

Steve Bick is coming out of his COVID cocoon with a curated compilation of original tracks by West Coast musicians. (Submitted photo)
Curated album showcases West Coast musicians

‘Locals Only – Volume One’ features an eclectic mix of tunes from musicians living on the Pacific Rim

WILDLIFE TREE: Tofino Poet Laureate Christine Lowther stands next to a giant cedar tree on District Lot 114, the site of Tofino’s controversial affordable housing project. The tree was pinned with an official Ministry of Forests yellow wildlife tree sign to educate fallers that the tree needs to be left standing for food, shelter and nesting. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Tofino author Christine Lowther calling for poetry about trees

“I’m thrilled to be of service to trees through poetry.”

Most Read