Busking: The Invisible Passion

By Jared Granger, featuring audio from Jason Lane.

Episode Transcript

Intro

Hey, I’m Jared, and you’re listening to “Busking: The Invisible Passion”

How did your commute go this morning? I’m sure it was normal, you had to put up with a million different delays, probably couldn’t find a seat on the subway and had to stand. But how many people did you remember talking to? Strangers? Did you notice the casually sitting busker playing guitar for you, smiling politely as masses of people pass by without a second glance? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The vast majority of people don’t realize that even a casual practice like performing in a subway station has its own importance in society. Performing music doesn’t just enrich the commute, it can inspire creation in others and give an artistic flare to the overall Torontonian culture.

But who knew that it’s actually the Toronto Transit Commission who’s trying to bring attention to it? Lately, our very own TTC has been heavily advocating for the arts on transit, and their most noticeable endeavour is the newly advertised TTC Musicians program. For those of you who don’t know, this is the program that lets buskers perform in your local subway stops. Although the program has actually existed for a while now, the TTC is taking extra steps to make it a more public presence, both online and in subway stations.

Jason: “You do get people who walk by who see the sign and they’re like ‘oh, you need a license for this?’ and they then realize the scope of the program, which is great. If anything, I hope they look into it more.”

That’s Jason Lane, or TTC Musician number 34. He’s a vocalist and guitar player who frequents stops like Eglinton, Dundas, and Bloor. When asked about what makes him unique, he said it’s his connection with Canadian music culture.

Jason: “Yeah, like I’m honestly a big fan of anything Canadian and I’m not just saying that purely out of Canadian Pride. There is Canadian pride, but part of the pride is because it is so great.”

If you catch him on your commute, you can often find him playing renditions of Matt Good’s “Load Me Up” or the Weakerthans’ “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute”.

Now Jason really appreciates the TTC Musicians program, and he’s also a fan of all of the TTC’s artistic endeavors, but he’s also made it clear that the busking experience is not all sunshine and rainbows. And the key to improving this overall experience? It’s all up to you, listeners!

Don’t worry, I’ll elaborate later.

Part 1

So, to start, what is a busker? Well, it’s simply a musician, but instead of playing set venues, they play at street corners, sidewalks, or subway stops. But what’s the key difference? According to Ronald J. Kushner, author of academic paper “The One-Man Band by the Quick Lunch Stand: Modeling Audience Response to Street Performance”, the key is that busking “lacks mechanisms to ensure payment by the audience for consumption of product”. That’s fancy talk for “buskers don’t get paid if no one likes their playing”. In this way, being a successful busker requires a considerable amount of both skill and presence.

In their official website, the city of Toronto defines the term as “[playing music] or otherwise [performing] for voluntary donations in the street.”. They also list a bunch of regulations street performers must follow when performing, and let me tell you, they’re pretty extensive. For example, buskers have to leave at least 3 metres of sidewalk space so as to not obstruct pedestrians, and have to stay at least 9 metres back from any intersection. There are also very strict guidelines for levels of volume.

Jason: “TTC is really good about this, actually, cause they set up a meeting to go over sound testing and to make sure of the maximum level you can play at at certain stations.”

Not to mention, everything is limited to public property. But think about it, when was the last time you’ve been blocked off by a street performer? Probably never, right? And no, those religious guys at the Eaton Centre don’t count: they aren’t buskers because buskers are not allowed to “advertise any commercial business or product.”.

But forget these definitions from Toronto or from Academics. What does busking mean to Jason, a busker?

Jason: “It is like a communal thing and we’re trying to connect with people through music. And not just musicians, but there’s TTC, the customers, or myself. It’s all one big web.”

Busking actually has a pretty deep history in Toronto, too. Of course, it’s existed since the 1900’s, but it really started to connect with the subway system in the 70’s. Here’s a quote from Murray Smith’s academic article “Traditions, Stereotypes, and Tactics: A History of Musical Buskers in Toronto”: “Toronto street musician, Billy James, relates that after 1972 or ’73 an increasing number of Toronto musicians began performing (illegally) in the subway. Many were told to leave or fined. However, a handful of buskers remained to challenge what they felt to be an unjust by-law prohibiting them from making music in the subway system.”. After campaigning heavily, the TTC was essentially forced into creating a system to accommodate buskers. By the year ’79, an audition system was in place and a grand total of eight licences were handed out to the best acts so they could perform on the subway system.

“But Jared!” you may be thinking, “I’ve definitely seen more than 8 acts on the subway!” and you’re right, over the years, the program has since expanded. According to Smith’s article, the initial 8 acts doubled to 16 in 1990. That still might seem like a small number, and that’s because it is. In 1991, Ezra Azmon, a Toronto violinist, started a protest demanding for the stations to work on a first come, first serve basis. He didn’t get his wish, but the TTC agreed to expand the number of acts to 42. According to Smith, by 1993, “there were 75 acts and 35 stations; the number has not changed since.”.  Seems about right, right? Well, on the TTC’s official site, it still lists 75 musicians, but there are actually only 25 available stations to play at.

Part 2

So, this now brings me to the audition process. Auditions are held every three years, on three consecutive days. According to the TTC site, the last auditions were held “Friday, August 21, 2015, Saturday, August 22, 2015, Sunday, August 23, 2015”. Now this is a challenge in and of itself. If you miss auditions or don’t make the cut, you’re simply out of luck for three whole years. There’s a lot riding on these auditions. In an no-recorder conversation I had with Jason, he told me that the audition was extremely nerve-wracking: he was shaking all over. I know I would be, too: not only are the 3 days your only chance, the total number of musicians that audition is 175, and Jason even said that at his audition, the number was upwards of 200. That means that they cut the number by more than half. These musicians really have to prove their worth.

And that brings me back to the secretive numbering system. You heard me refer to Jason as Musician Number 34, and that’s because every musician gets a number from 1 to however many of them there are at the time. Its on their lanyard and laminate that they’re supposed to have on display while they’re playing, even though not all of them do. I asked Jason about the numbering system, and if there was any actual order behind it.

Jason: “I think what I heard was that it is based on the score that you got. And especially considering that Billy’s number 1, like, he’s the one who basically created the program, so of course he’s number one. I think there’s a reasoning and method behind, like especially the people who are top ten, I think they are actually tope ten. So in terms of my number, I’m like 34, which is pretty much almost smack in the middle of everything.”

It’s important to note that this is just a theory and there’s nothing backing it up online, but there’s no doubt that Billy James gets the number one for a reason. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it is: Billy is mentioned in Smith’s history of busking article. And it’s true, he is very much a piece of Toronto busking history. Just a quick google search for his name and you’ll find plenty of articles on him. Among those, a National Post article explains that he tried out for the very first TTC audition ever held in 1978. So remember that group of 8 that was first permitted to play? He was one of them! Because he’s been playing for over 35 years, he is currently the only member of the program that doesn’t need to audition, listed as the ‘honorary member’ on the TTC’s website.

I actually met Billy because he’s a good friend of Jason’s. He’s a great guy who you can definitely tell has an air of experience. Billy’s main station is Dundas, where you can find him playing bouncy folk tunes with an amazing energy. He’s a standout because of his bushy white beard, so he’s easily recognizable. Give him a listen if you pass by!

Part 3

Billy’s experience as a TTC musician is actually really beneficial for him, but unfortunately, it’s not something every busker has. I asked Jason about some bad things that tend to happen while busking.

Jason: “I know you might be surprised to hear that but even just 2 or 3 days ago, I was playing at Dundas and unfortunately, Dundas is a constant place for these occurrences. People, whether they’re heckling me, or threatening me, but this incident 3 days ago, someone just didn’t like my music, so they came up and they kicked my case as hard as they could. My drink spilled over and my money flew out of the case as well as my laminate and everything. Stuff like that happens and it’s just like, uh, not everyone’s gonna like you.”

Sorry for my background exclamations there, but I was absolutely shocked. Buskers need to put up with hecklers, panhandlers, and drunks regularly. A grizzled veteran like Billy tends to deter such behaviour, but younger buskers like Jason can sometimes attract it. Especially at stations like Dundas, where people can be returning from bars or clubs, not thinking quite straight, buskers can sometimes be in danger.

I also asked Jason about pay. He didn’t want to divulge concrete numbers, as it is a private matter, but he did allude to the fact that it can be hard at times.

“It definitely is one of those jobs where are those days when you’ll be kicked when you’re down.’

These seem like pretty serious problems, right? So how do we fix them? Jason believes that the TTC is already working to do just that.

Part 4

Jason: “Going back to the pilot Stages, that’s why I like the pilot Stages cause when that Stage is there, it’s a lot more of a message of ‘yeah, we’re meant to be here and we’re meant to spread positivity and connect people.”

The ‘Stages’ project is something the TTC have been implementing into various subway stops. According to an article by Ben Spurr for the Toronto Star, the Stages are “made out of vinyl adhesive, and will replace the barely noticeable dotted yellow lines that usually demarcate performance areas at stations.”. Jason thinks they are a great addition.

Jason: “I’m a huge fan of the Stages, I was even emailing one of the correspondents with TTC talking about how much I admire them. Because they have that hashtag ‘#TTCMusic’ on them, now, since the release of the pilot Stages, I’ve been adding the hashtag.”

They aren’t just good for the social media aspect, either. They also make the busker visibly ‘pop’. It makes them stand out, and by making the musician a focal point of the station, it highlights their importance and belonging in the system.

Jason: “It definitely looks like a stage, and there’s more of a presence, which I really appreciate because you get that sense of ‘it’s a grander thing than just someone who’s trying to make some money.’ It’s not necessarily about that.”

Conclusion

So, in the end, what can you do to improve the overall busking experience in the TTC system? It’s simple! Just know. Know that people like Jason and Billy are people. They’re people who have been through so much just to get to where you are, and it’s pretty insulting to treat them as if they were just random people who picked up instruments. Just by the simple knowledge of their belonging being spread, it will reduce the number of bad occurrences. If more people know they belong, less people will treat them as if they don’t. All these musicians want is a connection with you, because that’s what music is about.

So why does this matter to you? I’ll let Jason explain.

Jason: “I’ve seen firsthand how pleasant it can be for those people who really connect with the music. But there was one experience I remember very vividly where I happened to be playing this very slow, poetic song. And then, this one dancer and her friend, she started to dance first, like a very slow moving, poetic, ballet-type dancing, and then he joined her. And before I knew it, I was playing the song, they were dancing, in accordance to the song, and it all blended so well.

Creation encourages more creation, that’s why I think it’s so important to be out there and doing what I’m doing. And not just me, but artists who are out there doing their art.”

If all of us accept this art into our community, we are accepting the inspiration for even more art to be created. The TTC is right in spreading the value of art because, after all, it’s guaranteed to reach anyone and everyone through their far-reaching system. And what can you do to benefit from this art? Its easy. Just stop by, close your eyes, and listen.

Jason Lane can be found on Facebook, at @JejsonLane. As for his hours at Downsview station:

“I find that the times I usually play there are on a Saturday or maybe a Friday. Yeah, like those days.”

 

 

Works Cited

“Buskers, Performers and Sidewalk (Chalk) Artists.” Toroto.ca. Retrieved from

http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=e37d8bee09724410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD&vgnextchannel=b5336fd1f0724410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

“Facts.” TTC Subway Musicians. Retrieved from

https://www.ttc.ca/TTC_Business/Subway_Musicians/Audition_Facts.jsp

Kuitenbrouwer, Peter. "Hear the One Man Allowed to Perform on Toronto Subway Platforms

without Auditioning." National Post, 30 Mar 2012. Retrieved from http://news.nationalpost.com/posted-toronto/subway-buskers

Kushner, R. J., & Brooks, A. C. (2000). “The One-Man Band by the Quick Lunch Stand:

Modeling Audience Response to Street Performance.” Journal of Cultural Economics, 24(1), 65. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.l ibrary.yorku.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1308025702?accountid=15182

Smith, M. (1996). “Traditions, Stereotypes, and Tactics: A History of Musical Buskers in

Toronto.” Canadian Journal for Traditional Music, 24, 6. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1292146735?accountid=15182

Spurr, Ben. “TTC ‘Stages’ Will Give Subway Buskers a Boost.” Toronto Star, 18 Oct 2016.

Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/10/18/ttc-stages-will-give-subway-buskers-a-boost.html

“Subway Musician Profiles” TTC Subway Musicians. Retrieved from

https://www.ttc.ca/TTC_Business/Subway_Musicians/Profiles/index.jsp