Death of the busker: saddest song in town
By Raymond Travers
For 40 minutes the polo-necked bohemians, overpaid media luvvies and ladies of leisure who populate Glasgow's affluent West End trooped past. I stood, resplendent in bright orange trousers and an idiot's grin, pumping on my trusty squeezebox. Most of them took no notice. When I picked up the bunnet laid on the pavement in front of me it contained a mere, and frankly pathetic, £3.47, plus an orange wine gum (a wine gum!... which git threw that in there?)
I was a man on a mission: busk or bust. The world's second oldest profession is feeling the pinch. Buskers claim that aggressive beggars and Big Issue sellers are curtailing public generosity and cramping the earning potential of street musicians. The nation's pluckers and pickers, twangers and bangers, insist that income is now so puny, it's hardly worth getting out of bed at the crack of noon and tuning up. Talent - the harmony of imagination and ability - has evidently never been more unappealing to the public, and the message is plain: Dig deep, folks, or buskers might have to consider working for a living.
Last week I loitered in Glasgow's Buchanan Street, eavesdropping on a smashing violinist who clearly knew his airs from his elbow. Moving closer, I was aghast at the pittance he had accumulated in his fiddle case, a situation directly responsible for his grumpiness. Eddie had been working Buchanan Street - a prime lunchtime pitch - for over an hour "I've not even made enough for my bus fare up the road," he grizzled. "I'd have been richer staying at home watching telly."
Eddie claimed his lack of success was particularly surprising, given that the Celtic Connections festival was underway and that his repertoire had been polished by years of practice. I saw him all right for a warming nip.
Over subsequent days I buttonholed musicians in precincts and plazas in an attempt to discover if the busking community as a whole was, like indigent Eddie, experiencing lean times. The response seldom varied: buskers had never had it so bad. Some blamed, but also empathised, with Big Issue vendors, suggesting that Joe Public's disposable income was more likely to find its way into the coffers of the homeless. Others claimed that punters were just hard up, cleaned-out after the festive period.
Most disturbing of all were tales of turf - or rather, tarmac - wars, beggars threatening violence if buskers didn't pack up and scram from a lucrative pitch.
Somehow, it reminds one of The Beggars' Opera, in which professional mendicants hire crutches for a day's sponging, clobbering with a wooden limb anyone who gets in the way of them turning a pretty penny.
Mind you, the public are not mugs, and it's apparent that entertainment expectations have increased. Pedestrians I spoke to claim there are so many organisations and individuals panhandling these days, that deserving buskers have got to be both audibly stirring and visually striking before they merit a bob or two. Too many street operators just don't cut the musical mustard, they argued.
True, the drip of wet guitar-pickers and whine-merchants fouling our thoroughfares are not exactly peddling originality, and some of the young men I saw last week with frowns longer than their fringes, squatting in doorways and disgorging duff renditions of Oasis anthems, should never have left the bedroom mirror.
Busker paranoia or public pickiness? There was only one way to find out: exhume my old Italian Bastari - an anglo concertina that refuses to die despite alternate years of abuse and neglect - and hit the bricks.
In a previous incarnation, this battered squeezebox had accompanied me from the Arctic Circle to the Adriatic, fulfilling its role as chief breadwinner on many improvised trips abroad. Like a faithful mutt that never deserts its owner, it came good when times were bad; earning me a franc here, a guilder there, and a bit of grief with the Stockholm constabulary ("vare ees yoor music permit, meester?")
Ridiculed by musos for not being a "serious" instrument, the concertina is nonetheless a perfect street companion: portable, polyphonic and loud enough to be heard above the urban din.
Moreover, it has a jerky, comic aspect that engages passers-by, particularly kids (rule number one: Please the weans, and mummy'll open her purse). Concertina purists hate to hear it said, but people have thrown money at me just for brandishing such a perceived diddy of an instrument.
But who cares what purists or musos think when there's a buck to be grossed? And so Bastari and I decamped to Byres Road to see if the old money-making magic, such as it ever was, could be rekindled, and to discover if all the pessimism in Buskerville was warranted.
A favourable pitch was commandeered, and although lack of practice meant I'd probably not be going home in a stretch limo, a procession of morning strollers promised rich pickings.
Bastari emerged from its fusty bin-bag wheezing like a 40-a-day man, and a squeeze of its bellows revealed a strange and alarming laryngitic condition. Frankly, had an ambulance been present, the old box would have been fixed to a respirator before a single note was fingered. But the show must go on, as we luvvies say, and the instrument croaked into action.
One two three, dee da dee di di... a charming Big Issue seller approached, inquired of the concertina's origin and chucked a few coins in the bunnet. It was a touching gesture, considering that the guy obviously wasn't Bill Gates.
Frigid February is not the ideal time to tame an erratic, small-buttoned instrument like the concertina, but homespun tunes were soon flowing, if not exactly flourishing. Trouble was, plenty of passers-by smiled and nodded approval and pointed at Bastari like it was some kind of escapee from Barnum, but the bunnet hardly overflowed with silver or bronze.
After 40 minutes of brass monkey - not to say brass neck - busking, facts had to be faced: my meagre takings amounted to the above-mentioned £3.47 (plus wine gum).
It was time to relocate before pales of water and old boots rained from the flats above. Sauchiehall Street shoppers were a little more benevolent, and after approximately 90 minutes of tarmac hustle, I'd coined enough for the train fare to Edinburgh: home to more Scottish millionaires than anywhere else, we are assured.
Thrilled by the thought of the Capital's flush denizens bestowing their shekels on buskers like confetti, drinks were ordered aboard the Queen Street to Waverley shuttle. While musing that the price of a Scotrail tin of beer would give a Swiss banker the willies, an idea occurred: why not treat passengers to a swift squeeze of the bellows (ooh, stop it nurse) à la London Underground performers? I could maybe even recoup the beer money - if I played till midnight, that is.
Alas, a punctilious jobsworth insisted that commuters would rather enjoy the journey east in Bastari-less hush. She was probably right.
However, the Japanese couple thumbing phrase books in a vain attempt to find a native translation for the concertina, were clearly crestfallen at the employee's insistence that the instrument remain unsqueezed.
So, in the spirit of "come on, give the tourists a bit of local colour" I unleashed Bastari on the assembled company, regaling commuters with a ditty I'd renamed 'Out Of My Squeezebox'. Reaction was mixed: most people buried their heads in newspapers, embarrassed by the musical intrusion. Others tapped fingers or feet, enlivened by the distraction. It didn't last.
A railway wallah appeared and, as that wonderful euphemism has it, there was a full and frank exchange of views. When I asked what the worst was that would happen if I continued playing, I was told: "You'll be thrown off… at Falkirk."
There was something about those last two words - delivered with a kind of implied terror - that put the fear of God in me. Bastari went to bed, I sulked off to another carriage.
The train pulled in to what itinerant musicians were already calling Gold Reekie. I anticipated a Klondyke-style exodus to the Capital, but instead of picks and shovels, modern fortune-seekers would arrive with banjos and button-boxes in a bid to relieve all those millionaires of their filthy lucre.
Experience taught me that the most successful buskers were not necessarily the most technically skilled. Strong visual appeal, or an unusual act or approach was often more lucrative than an ability to read sheet music while churning out watered-down jazz or classical clichés. That's why one-man bands or mime artists rake-in more cash than phonies with music stands and bow ties. Go work in a bank, ya squares.
Here's some tips for aspiring buskers: look the part, don't dress like Beau Brummel, make eye-contact and be seen to be having a rare time. Even the needy are permitted a bit of fun.
However, I draw the line at conning the public, and urge readers not to copy a German busker-friend I once knew. On a bad-takings day, he'd show up with dark glasses and a white stick and blow his harmonica. The boy - Mark Grabber, as we punningly called him - made a pile, but it's bad-taste busking, you will agree.
Princes Street was a drag, punters seemingly deaf to the concertina's many charms. A pensioner donated some silver and I called out: "God bless you ma'am, you're the salt of the earth." A beggar in Fleshmarket Close - doing a roaring trade merely by squatting cross-legged on the stairwell - thought better of antagonising an increasingly-exasperated squeeze boxer. Really, £4.78 seemed scant reward for an afternoon's graft, and it became clear that buskers' concerns about diminishing earnings were fully justified.
My first pitch in Edinburgh had been the area outside the Tourist Information Centre, surely an ideal location to eyeball all those foreign Scotophiles. Not really. It seems the concertina's low stature is global. Frankly, if you're not kilted-up and toting bagpipes in this city, forget it.
The Princes Street-Waverley Bridge junction proved only slightly more profitable. A gaggle of scoffing teenagers were unconvinced by my claims that the concertina represented the future of rock and roll. A sarcastic young man asked if I took credit cards. Occasionally, a few coins trickled into the bunnets.
Admittedly, Edinburgh's millionaires did not attain affluence by embracing generosity, but it's surely lamentable that a man is so pitifully reimbursed for an honest shift. In the name of charity, if nothing else, I implore the kind people of the Capital and elsewhere to recognise the worth of our put-upon minstrels.
But believe me, we won't let the buggers - or beggars, for that matter - get us down.