the Barefoot Busker

a blog about the life of a street musician
A View from the Street at the Amsterdam Fringe 2014. Photo by Caleb Sawade.

A View from the Street at the Amsterdam Fringe 2014. Photo by Caleb Sawade.

I Am Sterdam…

I’ve now had a little bit of time to reflect on one of my latest trips; Amsterdam for ten days to play at the ninth edition of the Fringe Festival there. 

By and large, it was a good trip. I met some awesome people, I played some fun shows, and I managed to connect with a city that, until now, has never really grabbed me - mostly, I think, because I’ve only ever visited in winter. But, for some reason, I have come away from it feeling somewhat unenthused, slightly wanting. To be honest, I’m not even exactly sure why, but I hope that by just sitting and writing the words will find their way out, preferably in some form of coherency.

First, a bit about the festival itself. As I mentioned above, this year was the ninth edition of the festival, and the biggest so far in terms of ticket sales and audience numbers. It is a curated festival with the program of eighty companies coming from a mix of successful applicants and invited guests. I was one of the former. Each company plays an average of about four or five shows, in one of the thirty or so venues, across the festival’s ten days. There is also a central Fringe Tent with a bar, garden, and performance space, which doubles as an artist meeting and administration point. It is organised by a small group of highly motivated and hard working events organisers, and employs a not quite as small team of technicians, managers, venue operators, awards judges, and ticketing staff. All of the artists are assigned venues, and ticketing and finance is all internally managed. There is also a well organised Language No Problem program which makes it relatively easy for international acts to take part. They also have a substantial number of connections and working relationships with other festivals, such as Brighton, Prague, and Cape Town, to name a few. Basically, it is a small festival, marketed to prospective artists as a popular but tight-knit arts community festival, in which the majority of patrons see multiple shows in a day. 

I think it is a good festival. But it’s not yet great. And I think there are a number of reasons for this.

I think the first, and possibly biggest problem, is its size. The Amsterdam Fringe is a small festival, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and is exactly the way the organisers want to keep it, but it makes it difficult to promote. Within the Fringe community, the festival is highly praised and very well loved, but outside of that community, even after nine years, there are very few people in Amsterdam who actually know about the festival. For example there were people in the audience of my shows asking me what a Fringe Festival was. Even when I checked into my hotel, a major sponsor of the festival with half of the back page of the festival guide dedicated to advertising it, and asked the lady at the front desk how I could get to the Fringe Tent, she asked, ‘what’s the Fringe?’. 

It is one thing to remain small, in order to maintain exclusivity and cultivate a high standard of production, however unless it grows in presence, the festival will find it increasingly more difficult to attract international standard talent. The problem is not the quality of the festival, or even the size per se, it is the way it is promoted and marketed to the general public. I’m not saying it should go the way of Adelaide or Edinburgh, where people actually visit those cities purely for the festival, but the people that are in Amsterdam when it’s on, need to know about it. There should be advertising everywhere, banners across streets, billboards at bus stops, stickers on trams. There should be dedicated performance spots and Fringe Caravan style promotion areas in major tourist hubs such as Dam Square and Rembrandt Plein. There should be big, well lit, obtrusive signs at the entrances of venues telling people there is a show about to start in the next half hour. They need to do whatever it takes to create some awareness and hype around the festival so that people see it and want to know what it’s about.

One of the problems that stems from this lack of awareness, is the difficulty it brings for international or other non-local acts. Obviously, local companies and artists have an advantage, much like I do in Adelaide, as they have a ready made audience, or at the very least more time to create one. My problem going in, was that I only arrived two days before my first show, never having played in the city before. No-one knew my name, no-one wanted to interview me or give me any form of cheap media or online publicity, and no-one had any reason to come and see me. I tried to send flyers and posters to people before the festival, and attempted to contact anyone I thought could help out in any way, but there is only so much one can do over email. Having said that, the organisation and administrative side of things, when it comes to international acts, is fantastic. All of the events organisers were easy to get in contact with, and went above and beyond to make sure I had a comfortable stay. But in terms of producing a successful, well attended show, as a one person performer/producer in a new city, it was hard work.

I did however fully enjoy my time in Amsterdam and at the festival. The audiences I did have were relatively small but enthusiastic. The venue I was given was awesome (I got ‘lucky’ with a venue right in the middle of town), and the people working there incredibly nice. The organisers, assigned ushers, and other performers were all fantastic people too, and I had a great time meeting everyone and having a beer with them in the Tent each night. I even had a good time chatting to the reviewers when I got the chance, which was probably made easier by the fact they liked my show.

I feel a sense of emptiness writing such a negative post about the festival. I want so much to love the Amsterdam Fringe just as those close to it do. And if it weren’t for the few things I’ve mentioned, I would. It is a good festival, in an amazing city, with awesome people. But it could be so much more. It could be a great festival, and I think it’s a shame I feel the way I do about it. I just hope, that when I do go back, be it next year or in years to come, my opinions are changed, and I get to experience the Amsterdam Fringe for what it should be.

Edinburgh 2014. Photo by Janet Wyllie.

Edinburgh 2014. Photo by Janet Wyllie.

EdFringe and other small stories…

Once again, I’ve left it a considerably long time between drinks. And again, it is largely because I have once more been reasonably busy. I’ve noticed a strange peculiarity though; I always feel busy, always finding myself telling people I can’t fit something in as I simply have too much to do, and yet, after the fact, I usually find it difficult to explain what it is I have been doing. At least this time I actually have a reasonably clear recollection of what I’ve been up to in the time since my last post.

Firstly, a couple of friends and I have founded a new project; Berlin Street Music (upon which I’m sure many future posts will be based - however this is not one of them), an advocacy group set up to support street musicians within the capital city. This has obviously taken up a reasonable amount of my time in Berlin (although I feel like I still haven’t been able to give it the time it requires). As part of this we successfully applied to host an event in conjunction with the organisation Sustainability Drinks, essentially a discussion forum which presents a platform to enable the sharing of ideas based on the overarching concept of sustainability. Our event, not surprisingly, is Music,focusing both on sustainable instrument making, and the creation of a sustainable music career at both the individual and community level.

I have also already started thinking about the Adelaide and Prague Fringe Festivals for 2015, setting in motion the application process and working on some new and exciting concepts - obviously none of which I can devolve yet.

I’ve also done some travelling, heading to Stuttgart for a casting as the guitarist in the German Pavilion of the Expo 2015 in Milan, and further on to the Netherlands to perform at the Amsterdam Fringe Festival for a couple of weeks (I’m actually currently on a train from Cologne to Amsterdam). But, for the third year, I also spent a large portion of August living in the staff room of a hostel on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, and performing at what is now the ridiculously huge Edinburgh fringe Festival; the main focus of this essay (of sorts).

For those people who have never had the chance to visit the EdFringe, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to describe the shear enormity and diversity of the festival (and yes I do notice the obvious irony of writing that sentence in a post responsible for describing said festival). And, I must admit, I am a little torn, or at the very least somewhat confused, as to my personal feelings on the festival. I really do love it, but I also completely despise it. It’s  very strange feeling. 

I’ll start with the negatives.

With a little over three thousand shows over the space of a few weeks, I would hate to think how many trees are injured or killed in the making of the festival brochure. It is now similar in size to the Guinness Book of Records, which is ironic, as both publications are filled with predominantly useless facts from which a sane person would only find a smattering even remotely interesting. Without some prior knowledge, it’s almost impossible to even attempt to find anything new simply by reading the program. It’s kind of like reading the yellow pages; unless you know what you’re looking for, the whole thing is essentially just a list of John Smiths.

I’m not sure if I was previously blind to it, or if its a relatively new phenomena given the annual increase in size of the festival, but it suddenly hit me this year, that the festival is turning into not much more than a pubescent playground for aspiring, ultimately doomed theatre students and their younger siblings. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible productions, and some of the best and most respected artists in the world doing shows in Edinburgh (GOM for example is one of the best acrobatics groups currently on the world circuit, and Red Bastard delivers on his global acclaim and more), but I think four school groups doing productions of ‘the Real MacBeth’ is at least four too many. Surely the youthful exuberance and excitement that comes from being a group of seventeen year old future stars visiting the biggest arts festival in the world could act the catalyst for a little more originality than a four hundred year old story about a crazy King. Maybe I’m a bit deluded, but if the EdFringe were a music festival, it would be the equivalent of watching three weeks of ‘battle of the school cover bands’, yet ending with a headline concert from the Rolling Stones. 

Another glaringly obvious problem is the fact that no one, with the exception of venues, local businesses (including the hostel I stayed at and the stall charging seven pounds for traditional German Bratwurst that sells for about one euro in Deutschland), and a handful of street performers, makes any money. It is essentially a professional development festival in that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of promoters, curators, and reviewers looking for new works to fall in love with, as well as countless networking opportunities for up and coming artists. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you are an up and coming producer or theatre group, trying to get a foot in the door, and with money to burn - or at least parents who are willing to pay whatever it takes for their little darlings to follow their dreams. But it makes it a constant struggle for the minority of professional, incredibly talented, and world class performers who rely on performance as their sole income. 

The biggest problem though, at least in my eyes, is an extension of this ever growing amateur group/reviewer melting pot; the reviews essentially now mean nothing. The sheer number of four and five star reviews this year was staggering. It was as though rogue reviewers fired confetti canons on the mile and anybody who could catch some stars was allowed to keep them. Every day, I would squeeze my way past the thousands of people filling the royal mile, hoping my PA, guitar, and buskers pass would make me invisible to flyerers, as they all screamed in tone deaf harmony, as if they were part of some evil practical joke choir, ‘five star sketch comedy’, or ‘Award winning, the Real MacBeth’. For one, a school production of MacBeth, real or not, should never, ever, be given an award, unless it’s in an amateur theatre competition, but the point is that amateur groups should not be awarded stars because they are better than other amateur works. At a festival such as Edinburgh, reviewers should review works in contrast to everything else. The most amateur production performed by fifteen year olds should be rated against the most professional work from performers with fifteen years experience. It’s not the publics responsibility to know if the five stars relate to the quality of the show, or how much bigger the costume budget of one school is than another. As a professional performer, trying to develop a body of work in order to move on to the next festival or season, what is the point of paying so much money, to get the stars to put on flyers and posters, when they have essentially lost all meaning?

But I digress. Like I said earlier; yes, I despise the festival, but I also love it.

Firstly, the festival has allowed me to make life long friendships with people I not only like, but who I respect as people and performers, and of whom I am constantly in awe in regards to their talents. I am lucky enough to have met guitarists, bass players, accordionists, puppeteers, bucket drummers, violinists, acrobats, jugglers, sword swallowers, contact jugglers, statues, dancers, actors, comedians, saw players, and everything in between, and I would consider all of them my friends and colleagues. 

I have also met countless contacts with which I have been able to advance my career or at the very least learn from in terms of performance or any other aspects of life in the entertainment industry. I have been able to connect with organisations, venues, facilitators, managers, and entrepreneurs. I’ve been able to meet people from other festivals and make connections I otherwise would have missed.

I have also been able to meet new fans and play to new audiences I wouldn’t have reached without the festival. I’ve met people from all over the world, from the UK to Croatia to India to South Korea, all there simply to experience the festival and the arts. 

I’ve experienced the best and worst of Scottish weather, within the space of an hour, and seen a glimpse of how the worlds biggest arts festival is run. I’ve realised just how much I love the Adelaide Fringe and how well it is run. I’ve been able to get to know another city. I’ve been able to experience another culture. I’ve been able to listen to the arguments for why Scotland should become independent, or not. I’ve been able to see some of the best, and worst, comedy shows on the planet. And I’ve had so much fun.

So, although I hate parts of the festival with all of my being, despise some things so much it annoys me just writing them, the underlying reasons behind the Festival, the driving force that is the connection between art and people, is still, in many ways, at the very core of the beast. Although masked in an ugly corporate disguise, the festival is, and always will be, a simple, and beautiful idea, run by, and for, people who love the arts, and I will always keep coming back, because it’s those people who make me want to do what I do. 

I hate you EdFringe. But I also love you with all my heart.

Busking at Eberswalderstraße Bahnhof. Photo by BErabbit, 2014.

Busking at Eberswalderstraße Bahnhof. Photo by BErabbit, 2014.

286 Easy Steps to being allowed to play music to people who have asked to hear it…

Mauerpark is a park in Prenzlauer Berg where the Berlin Wall once stood. It is also home to Berlin’s biggest and most famous Flomarkt (flea market), and is, traditionally, a weekly meeting and performance spot for the city’s best street performers. It is one of the few places where talent actually rises to the top and the performers are, in many regards, completely self regulated due to the fact that a large percentage of those who frequent the park do so solely for the music; they seek out new acts or look for their favourite bands week in week out. Music and other performance is not just something that happens in Mauerpark, it is, for many, all that happens in Mauerpark. 

But, in line with other restrictions slowly sweeping across Berlin over the past few months, the police and Ordnungsamt (the department charged with upholding ‘order’ in the city) have gradually been stepping up their presence in the park. For a few weeks they have been keeping an eye on the park, and telling the occasional musician to turn down or stop playing, but always haphazardly. 

Then a few weeks ago, on a relatively quiet weekend due to a festival in another Bezirk (neighbourhood), a well known and sought after band at the park was told they couldn’t play, due to the size of their amps - the physical size that is, they hadn’t started playing yet. Then a few other people were stopped throughout the day due to amplification. Not everyone was stopped though. Again, it seemed fairly random, but enough to start causing concern.

The next week everything came to a head. Around ten in the morning, before anyone had started playing, the first round came through. The same band from the week before was told again that they couldn’t play, along with a number of other large bands and solo musicians with amplifiers. I was waiting to play a pitch at the entrance to the park, planning on rotating with two other musicians. Luckily we got tipped off that people were being stopped, so, when we saw them coming we left our gear and spread out into the crowd. We weren’t stopped.

I got one half hour set in around midday, then an incredible loop artist from Italy played his first set, before a soulful singer songwriter from England was stopped about twenty minutes into his first set. The cops first pointed to his CDs, telling him he couldn’t sell merchandise. They then turned their attention to the amp, saying he could play, but it must be acoustic. 

I took the opportunity to talk to the two police officers, asking everything I could about the rules and the permits. I was told explicitly by the two officers: the sale of CDs or merchandise is illegal; playing music unamplified is allowed anywhere and will not be stopped, but; playing with an amplifier is only allowed with a relevant permit for playing in ‘Green Areas’ such as parks. The third point got my attention. It was the first time anyone had ever mentioned anything to do with a park permit. The only set of guidelines I have seen state that under no circumstances can amplified music be played in parks, and every time the police have stopped anyone prior to this, it has never been brought up. Naturally, I asked them about this permit and tried to find out where I could obtain one. Their response was simply, ‘Bezirksamt’.

Throughout the remainder of the day, the police presence stepped up. At one point I counted five wearing full riot gear, six in regular uniform, and three Ordnungsamt. By four in the afternoon everyone who did not have a permit, all but three, were stopped. This included at least one musician who has been playing, amplified, for the past ten years without incident.

After I was stopped, I spoke to Mauerpark management to express my concerns and to inform them what was happening. As far as they and the musicians are concerned there is, and always has been, an understanding between management and the police to allow music, within reason, on Sundays. Mauerpark is well aware of the importance of the performers on market days and has always worked towards creating and maintaining this understanding by fostering a continual relationship with police. A relationship which the police sometimes decide, for whatever reason, not to uphold. 

So I decided, that until we are able to set up the necessary infrastructure to be able to challenge the regulations in a unified and organised manner, which a number of friends and I are currently working on, the only thing I could do is purchase all the necessary permits and stay legal. Surely that’s the easy option. Right? 


I got my girlfriend, whose German is for some reason better than mine, to ring the Ordnungsamt to enquire about where to get the permits. They said the street and park permits could be obtained from the Bezirksamt and the CD sales permit from the Gewerberamt. Easy. However the helpful customer service representative on the other end of the line also made a point of mentioning that if it was for someone like me whose German is ok but not perfect then it would essentially be impossible because they need to be able to speak to me in German and I must understand everything before they can give me any permits. Then, when asked where a copy of the regulations could be found, she replied by stating that it was not her job to explain how to google something. Sehr nett. 

So Jule rang the Bezirksamt. They told her we could make an appointment for a street permit that day at the Umwelt- und Naturschutzamt, but they had nothing to do with Parks. Regardless, I made the appointment, signed the forms, and my permit to play on the streets for the next year was sent to me a few days later with an invoice. To their credit, once I had actually found the right place to go to get that particular permit, it was very straightforward - I can only assume the treasure hunt in order to get there was deliberately installed solely to make it just that bit more exciting. 

But I still didn’t have a permit to play in Mauerpark.

In order to find out where to get the parks permit I decided to take the two trains to go back to the police who told me there was one. After explaining the situation a few times, and insisting that the policeman working in the room behind him was the one who had actually given me the initial information, the man working the front desk finally told me they had nothing to do with it and I should go to Rathaus Pankow. Another train and a brief two kilometre walk and I was waiting in line at the information desk. When I asked the lady who I could speak with she told me they had nothing to do with it. I told her the police had told me to come, and so she replied “oh, well then maybe try room thirty eight”. I thanked her profusely and went to find the secret room she had mentioned. It turned out not to be overly secret, and just as I’d thought it was in the corridor, tucked away between thirty seven and thirty nine. Just as I was about to knock a lady came out, obviously the gatekeeper, and asked what I was doing. I asked her about the permit and she told me she had nothing to do with it. So I explained that the police had told me to come to the Rathaus and that the lady at the info desk told me to come to room thirty eight. Her response was something along the lines of, “oh, well maybe go in and ask”. I thanked her for going out of her way to help (not a metaphor - she had to take a step to the left to let me in) and knocked. There was another lady sitting behind a desk with a big Bezirksamt smile (a little joke for anyone who lives in Berlin), so I asked her about the permit, and I was quite taken aback by her response. You won’t believe it, but she said, “No, I’ve got nothing to do with that”. So I explained that the police had told me to come to the Rathaus and that the lady at the information desk told me to come to room thirty eight and that the gatekeeper outside the door told me to ask inside. She replied, “oh, well maybe I can ring someone”. I attempted to convey my approval of the idea by telling her I thought that was a good idea. On obtaining my approval she proceeded to pick up the phone and dialed - the Umwelt- und Naturschutzamt who I’d already spoken to. You can probably guess their response, but just to be safe it was “no sorry, we have nothing to do with that”. But then, finally, something wonderful happened. I’m not sure if it’s because sometimes two bureaucrats make a positive, or because the stars were aligned just right at that particular moment, but the lady on the other end added that the parks permits were controlled by the Straßen- und Grünflächenamt. 


As the visiting hours and physical location of this particular amt were designed to allow the minimal amount of visitors possible, I decided to get Jule to make one last phone call. She explained what we were looking for and the lady on the other end confirmed that there was in fact a permit to allow music in Mauerpark and that we had called the right place. I could smell victory. Everything was falling into place. There was only one small problem - the lady then added that we were more than welcome to make an application but without a doubt it would be refused. She said that music in Mauerpark never was and never will be allowed and that the only permit available had already been given to the Karaoke guys. 

There are a couple of things wrong with this. Firstly, there always has been and always will be music in Mauerpark, and secondly, there in fact exists three permits for bands already. In my opinion this is the biggest problem facing street musicians in Berlin. Some of the people in charge of making the rules have never even stepped foot inside the places the rules are designed to control, and the people enforcing them follow them to the letter, simply because they are written down, albeit in a document that the public cannot see, hidden within the google labyrinth with no instructions in sight, unless you have to google that too? Unfortunately for us and Berlin culture, one closed off person sitting in a concrete box with no foresight or view of what really happens has the power to make the rules, rather than good old common sense. It’s an illogical and outdated way of governing and creating policy and yet unfortunately it is continually allowed to eat away at the artistic culture that has grown out of Berlin. Not always, but still too often.

So after all of this, I now have a permit to play on the streets, where I never get stopped anyway, and no permit for the parks where it is up to the mood of the police chief on any given Sunday as to whether I can play or not - regardless of what everyone else who actually uses the park wants. For now it’s ok. Since I started writing this the understanding between the park and police has been reiterated and we have been allowed to play - we just don’t know how long it will last. But regardless, I think the next time they decide to stop us, I might just have a day off.

Interview with the Curious Busker Tale. Photo by Anne Wil. © 2014 Annewil Stroo | The Curious Busker Tale

Interview with the Curious Busker Tale. Photo by Anne Wil. 
© 2014 Annewil Stroo | The Curious Busker Tale

I will never stop busking… yeh, and?

Recently I read a short article from a blog predominantly concerned with alternate ways of living, essentially breaking out of the nine to five. This particular article was about a musician and street performer who has grown incredibly in popularity over the last couple of years. 

Passenger, an incredibly talented singer songwriter, started out busking on the streets around the world, slowly growing his audience, until he got a offered some tours, started getting radio airplay, and ended up writing a couple of worldwide number one hits. He is fast becoming a superstar in the increasingly cluttered world of folksy, rootsy, worldsy, singer songwriters. 

He is also, a genuinely nice guy, and an incredibly talented musician. He is one of those people who has become famous because of his talent and his writing ability, not just because he was in the right place at the right time. For that reason, before I go on, I want to say that I don’t mean any disrespect to him or the people around him with what I’m about to write. It in no way reflects my opinions on him, but rather the situations surrounding him.

As you may know, if you have read my previous posts, Berlin is going through a relatively uncertain period in regards to street art, in particular that regarding music and other physical performance with the use of amplification. Currently, as a consequence, Alexanderplatz is off limits for musicians. This is non-negotiable for musicians for which amplification is needed, but also, depending on the governing officer, often for those without, regardless of the written regulations. Those who have tried to stand up for their right to play, or continued to play with amplification, have been fined or even threatened with jail time. One example that immediately comes to mind is that of a couple, both musicians, one of whom has been asked to audition for the Berlin Symphony Orchestra after being seen on the street, and who have a small child to look after, who have received a letter ‘offering’ them fifty days in jail. They also have over two thousand Euros in outstanding fines for playing music.

For this reason many of the musicians who regularly play Alexanderplatz have been forced to search for new pitches, leading to more musicians in places there weren’t before and in turn more policing of pitches that were previously free of regulation, relatively speaking. Throughout Berlin, in general, street performance is still abundantly possible, but performers have needed to become increasingly more aware and more responsible for their actions. For now it’s a delicate, not desperate, situation, but is nonetheless something that needs to be addressed before it’s too late.

Not surprisingly, it was somewhat of a shock when I was walking through Alexanderplatz late last week, just after midday, when I saw a large crowd and the faint sounds of a guitar wafting through the air. As I got closer, I realised I recognised what I heard and knew instantly that Passenger was back in town. He had two PA speakers, a few girls working the crowd handing out flyers, and about a three or four hundred fans gathered around taking videos, cheering, and singing along. It was not small.

And good on him. I wish I could rock up to a new city, set up my gear, and play to hundreds of fans. I really do. When you think about it, it’s not really too surprising that he would tell a reporter he’s never going to give up busking is it? Why would he? He plays bigger gigs on the street than most musicians do in concert halls. Moreover, why would he stop when he is afforded liberties the rest of us are merely able to muse upon?

Over the last month or so, between the fines and threats of imprisonment, buskers in Berlin have been demonstrating against the restrictive, illogical, and ill-thought out regulations, taking to the streets en masse, peacefully, with the support of music fans and media alike, to no avail. For our efforts we have received orders to stop playing followed by blank looks when we ask for clarification of any rules in writing. Not once throughout any of these demonstrations or run ins with the Police or Ordnungsamt, have any of them mentioned the possibility of organised busking, permits, or leniency in any regard when it comes to Alexanderplatz. We have simply been told to stop playing, almost instantly, every time we’ve tried to play.

But somehow Passenger was allowed to set up, with a bigger sound system than some clubs, and play to hundreds of people, without, at least to my knowledge, being even so much as looked at by the authorities. But how? Maybe he organised it with Alexanderplatz management before hand.  But then why are local performers not offered the same possibility? Maybe he just got lucky. But how can the Ordnungsamt fail to see four hundred cheering people watching a famous musician play in the middle of the city at midday, when a man playing a plastic tube didgeridoo under a train line is too loud? Or, maybe, when you’re famous, the Berlin authorities think street music is a positive thing, but for everyone else it is simply a blight on the community?

I’m not writing this out of jealousy either. I wish that sort of success on all of my friends that call themselves street performers, even if I never get there myself. Hell, some of them are already well on their way to achieving it, and I wish them all the luck in the world. I’m writing this out of confusion. Confusion as to why there seems to be different rules for different people. Why, on some days, by some people, in some situations, Berlin is the greatest place on earth to be a street musician, and on others, for others, in others, we are criminals. It just doesn’t make sense.

I welcome regulation and restrictions, especially in a place such as Alexanderplatz which welcomes three hundred and sixty thousand visitors a day, so long as the system in place is well thought out and developed in consultation with performers, business, public and policy makers. In a city such as Berlin, where street art tours thrive and people flock from around the world to be a part of the street subculture, it is simply not good enough to present a superficial facade of culture, while simultaneously undermining those struggling to keep the scene afloat. While those with a following and a clean media image are afforded the luxury of free reign, the rest of us are drowning under a sea of bureaucracy and ill-advised policy that’s not only suffocating the people involved, but the cultural value they are trying to uphold.

So I ask you Berlin, please continue to allow Passenger to play Alexanderplatz to his hordes of adoring fans, but at the very least, and if nothing else, allow the rest of us the opportunity to do so too. Even if you are too fool hardy to repeal your restrictions, too closed off to allow the obvious benefits that grow from a thriving street art culture, at least give us the chance to be seen, give us a chance to be selected too. 

Busking at Warschauerstraße Bahnhof. Photo by Jürgen Bräunig, 2014.

Busking at Warschauerstraße Bahnhof. Photo by Jürgen Bräunig, 2014.

I was wrong…

Since writing my last blog post I have done a bit of research and been involved in a couple of demonstrations here in Berlin. These experiences have taught me a few things. 

Firstly I would like to say that I was wrong about a number of aspects of street performance regulation in Berlin, which I will rectify in a moment. Additionally though, I have also realised just how confused street performers and officials are about the practise of Busking here in the Hauptstadt. There seems to be the same or similar problems here in Berlin as everywhere else, the same problems I wrote about in Adelaide, the same problems being faced in London, but I think here there are a number of other complications magnifying and exacerbating the situation.

First and foremost though, I want to rectify the errors I made re the city’s busking regulations. The following is a very brief translated overview of the actual busking laws here in Berlin. These regulations are taken from an internal letter sent to the SPD (the governing party) in May last year, which references an official external three page document detailing what can and can’t be done on the streets. 

Busking with an amp is only allowed with a valid permit, which can be obtained from any Umweltamt (the price of which was not listed but I understand it to be around €80), and lasts for the entire year. This permit does not entitle the holder to play everywhere though, and the document lists the places in which amplified busking is banned. Also, instruments seen as too loud to be unamplified, such as drums, trumpets, or bagpipes, need to follow the rules for amplified instruments (the actual instruments to be included in this list are at the discretion of the governing officer). Buskers without an amplifier are essentially allowed to busk anywhere and do not need a permit, however unamplified buskers and amplified buskers with a permit must follow the following rules; a busker must not set up within 50 metres of any other buskers, within 60 metres of a hospital, or 20 metres of a residential building; after one hour, or 15 minutes in a pedestrian zone, the busker must move at least 100 metres away; whether a busker is too loud or not is at the discretion of the governing officer (be it police or Ordnungsamt); and the governing officer has the power to give warnings, fines, or confiscate equipment for non compliance, however confiscation should only ever be a last resort. There are also a number of areas with their own particular laws listed in the document, however these are not regularly frequented by any of the buskers that I know personally, and too specific to list here.

The regulations above are the official and currently valid guidelines for the regulation of street music in Berlin. Although in my mind they are slightly short focussed and could be greatly improved through consultation with performers, the problem with these rules, and the document from which they came, is that it seems I am the only person that has seen them. Not a single person I have met, spoken to, or even read about on blogs or other websites has mentioned these rules or has any knowledge of the existence of this document. No official from any regulatory body has pointed to this document, or even mentioned it. And even though some police seem to know the rules, some almost as though they’re reading word for word from the document, when asked directly to point to or quote any form of document, they can’t - or won’t.

And it’s this confusion surrounding the rules that has created the problems we’re experiencing at the moment. The buskers don’t know the rules, because officials tell us the wrong things, so then we rebel and fight for our rights, they in turn fine us or ban us from playing, so naturally we fight harder, but without knowing where we legally stand in the first place we start accusing the authorities of things we thought were true but weren’t, leading them to crack down even harder. It’s a downward spiral or self fuelling destruction which is impacting not only on the street culture of one of the most vibrant cities in the world, but the livelihoods of hundreds of professional performers around the city. 

This is then where the universal busking problems kick in. We need the policy makers to see the value in a high functioning street scene, especially in a city such as Berlin where a large percentage of it’s tourism is based on it. If those in power were able to see clearly the benefit of a rich street culture, we could sit down together with performers, public, and policy makers, and create a fair and effective system that aims to serve all parties involved. That system must then be made public so there is no confusion as to how people should conduct themselves. Unfortunately though, it seems the world over, the idea of street art and street culture, and it’s benefits, are shrouded in mystery, inappropriately perceived as a plight on the community, largely, as I touched on in my last post, due to the minority of selfish performers who don’t think about the wider community.

I sincerely hope that in Berlin we can reach a compromise and arrive at a place where street art is nurtured and respected for its artistic value. Berlin, perhaps more than anywhere else, needs to set the standard. But, until that happens, we as street musicians will continue to demonstrate and bring our struggle to the attention of the public, the media, the authorities, and anyone else that will listen. We need street art. Berlin needs street art. And, until we restore street art, we will keep fighting. 

Our challenge though; to make sure we fight the right fight.

Back at Warschauerstraße Bahnhof, 2014. Photo by Jürgen Bräunig.

Back at Warschauerstraße Bahnhof, 2014. Photo by Jürgen Bräunig.

How do you fuck up House of the Rising Sun?

I wrote this blog post the other day, however I ran out of time to post it. Since writing it I’ve come to realise I was mistaken about a few things, but I have decided to post it anyway in order to make a point. Also, the underlying theme still stands. I will post a follow up to this article in a few days, but first…

It’s been a while since I sat down and wrote something. I have been fairly busy; moving to Berlin permanently, setting up my new apartment, seeing friends for the first time in a while and the last time in even longer, learning a new language, joining a street performance advocacy group, helping to fight for musicians rights in a new city, and getting back into the swing of Berlin life and busking. 

But I saw something yesterday that made me want to sit down and write. I don’t exactly know where this is going to end up, but I figured I’d just sit down, make myself a coffee, and let my fingers do what they do. So here goes.

Busking in Berlin, predominantly music, is in a tricky spot at the moment. Here, as in many major cities, there are rules governing what you can and can’t do, which, as far as permit or regulatory systems go, are not exactly the most liberal around. Amplification is banned, period. Anyone busking without an amp needs, at least according to some people, a permit, and must only perform in the same place for thirty minutes before moving, as far as I know, at least 200 metres. Additionally, anyone selling CDs requires a separate permit which allows the sale of goods on the street. Breaches of these rules will attract a fine of anywhere up to 5000€ and the confiscation of equipment. 

As far as I know this has been the case for some time now, but, at least in my time here, no one knew the rules, including the majority of people working for the regulatory bodies. Berlin busking, from the point of view of the performers, has been a sort of “yeh, you can play, but someone might tell you to move if there is a complaint” sort of system. I never thought there would actually be fines given out. 

Then, last year, a few people were fined in Alexanderplatz, the closest thing Berlin has to a city centre and tourist meeting point. A wide open square in which there is no residential apartments and constantly hosts markets, festivals, and community events. Since then, Alexanderplatz has been open to unamplified busking, as long as you stuck to the rules above, and seen as a hit and miss spot for amplified buskers to play until they got kicked out, and maybe fined after a few warnings. A “play dumb, and it will all be ok” set up. 

Fast forward to last week. As of last Wednesday or Thursday, all busking has been banned in Alexanderplatz. No amplified or unamplified busking is to take place in the centre of the Street Art Capital of the world. A city which hosts Street Art Walking Tours, a city where people come from all over the world to live just because of the arts scene, a place that is or was home to some of the most respected artists, musicians, and performers, whether in venues or out. Seems somewhat counterintuitive doesn’t it? And, I think, or rather, I hope, is somewhat of a big misunderstanding that will be resolved eventually.

In the mean time though, one of the biggest reasons why buskers are being forced out of the city, and in my mind, why they are constantly looked down on by authorities as a nuisance, and why people complain and get certain places around the city banned; is the buskers themselves. Yes there are myriad policy, public space, and “creativity in the public realm” issues to be considered, which I won’t go into now, but, for as many professional, artistically and community minded, and environmentally aware street performers there are that see the streets as their stage, there are just as many selfish, egotistical, “after a quick buck” wannabes who ruin it for everyone else. 

Before I continue, I feel like I should mention, for fear of being misunderstood, I am purely talking about mentality here, not talent. Although this rant was brought about by someone ruining a classic, which I will mention in a moment, just because someone isn’t very good, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t perform on the street. That part is self regulating. I’m talking about people with complete disrespect and disregard for fellow performers and their environment, regardless of how good they are.

I, like many of the buskers I associate with, pride myself on being a good person. I will always find a spot to play which I know will minimise impact to residents and businesses. If there is someone playing one of my regular pitches I will ask them how long they will play and either wait as long as it takes or find a new place to play. I will never set up near beggars or anyone else who I may take income from, unless they ask me to. If someone from a shop or similar asks me to turn down, I will. In my mind, if you respect the people around you and the environment you are in, they will respect you. 

Yesterday, after a few hours at Language School, learning what increasingly seems to be the most complicated language ever thought up…ever, I caught a train to one of my favourite busking spots. When I got there, I discovered an elderly gentleman playing a Drehorgel, essentially a box that plays music when you turn a wheel. As I wanted to play in the spot when he was done, I waited until the end of a song and went and asked him how long he was going to play. He told me he would be there until five pm, almost two hours. I left. 

After playing a couple of other spots, I decided to go back and see if he had finished. When I got there, he was still playing, but so was a guy playing covers, badly, who had set up maybe ten or eleven metres away on the other side of the pedestrian crossing. I know I said talent doesn’t matter, but seriously, how do you fuck up House of the Rising Sun? 

Talent though, or his lack of it, wasn’t the problem. One bad singer can be ignored. It was the fact that wherever you stood in that area, an area that includes a pedestrian crossing, a market, a cafe, a shopping mall entrance, and a train station, you could hear both buskers, at the same time. I don’t care how good, or bad, the music is, unless it is the YouTube videos of Miles Davis’ “Elevator to the Gallows” and LCD Soundsystem’s “New York I Love You” played simultaneously (seriously, you should try it), two songs played at the same time sound terrible. No one wants to hear that.

It is my honest opinion, that if what you do brings joy to an area, and if people want you to be there, city policy will begin to reflect that. Councils, for the most part, are there to represent the people in their jurisdiction. They do not live and make policies in a bubble. Yes it seems like that sometimes, but if all they hear is complaints, they will legislate against whatever it is that causes that. Simple (obviously I have very much simplified this problem, but that’s where we need to start).

It does not make sense to act purely in your own interest, without thought for the surrounding community, and then wonder why people are complaining. It makes even less sense, when you are asked to stop because someone has complained, to go and play louder, or later, or more obnoxiously. That is when councils and governments feel like they have no choice but to ban it. Obviously complete bans outweigh the problem, and regulation should be thought through intelligently and through consultation with the public, but that is a completely different topic.

It is a persons right to choose to play music or perform, period. However, being able to make a living from it, and to generate an audience of people who also enjoy what you do, is a privilege. Too often people take advantage of the words ‘Artist’ or ‘Musician’. No one needs to hear your music. No one needs to like it. If you are obnoxious, if you think people are obliged to pay you, if you are so self absorbed that you think anything you do is welcome, you are the ones these constrictive and overly excessive policies are trying to stop. Unfortunately, it’s not just you that they effect. The rest of us are simply trying to bring joy to the people around us, and make a living doing what we love. 

So, to the guy destroying the peace, a classic, and my faith in the sincerity of people, please try and be better next time. We’re all in this together, and we need you on our side. And please, stop playing House of the Rising Sun until you’ve learnt to sing in tune.

A View From the Street at the Adelaide Fringe 2014. Photo by Mike Williamson.

A View From the Street at the Adelaide Fringe 2014. Photo by Mike Williamson.

A Reflection…

As I sit in Dusseldorf Airport awaiting my final Air Berlin flight to take me home, I figure now is as good a time as any to reflect on the past two and a bit months. 

Adelaide has been, well, interesting. It was absolutely wonderful for all the obvious reasons; seeing my mum, my brother, and other extended family, hanging out with my friends, enjoying the sun and the hottest summer on record, catching up with everyone I’ve met busking over my time there, just being back in Australia, experiencing my Australian life again, and of course the Fringe Festival. It really was nice being back. It was though, on top of all this, a confirmation to me that I am doing the right thing in moving to the other side of the world. I had somewhat of a realisation that, as good as the Fringe was, as much fun as it is playing to all my many friends and family in Australia, there really is no future for me, at least in the short term, as a musician in Australia. In particular Adelaide.

I find it such a shame that what I once thought of as such an amazing place, somewhere I would have defended to my last breath, somewhere I called home, has effectively made the decision for me to leave. I do think Adelaide is great, and it could be incredible for artists in years to come, but at the moment, it’s drowning. Politics is taking over, and the people in power who have what little compassion and foresight is left, are so far tangled up in bureaucracy and red tape that many of the decisions that are eating away at Adelaide’s cultural bedrock are too far gone. 

The problem is not that we don’t have good people trying to do the right thing, it’s that everything in Australia is so over regulated that it makes it impossible to make decisions for the good of the people in any meaningful time frame. Many of the laws and decisions that are made, have such a slow flow on effect, that any negative effects that need to be rectified have time to become ingrained before they can be fixed. Then the myriad barriers to reacting effectively compound the problem resulting in the only remedy being that of making new laws to try and combat the initial problems. The people aren’t broken, the system is.

But I digress. I will probably pick this up again in a later post, and I’m sure some of you have followed the conversations I’ve started with the Adelaide City Council, so I won’t bore you with these challenges here. Rather, I want to talk about something positive; the Fringe Festival.*

Last year’s Fringe Festival was my first. It was scary and nerve-wracking. It was incredibly challenging, and yet incredibly rewarding. Having that experience, no matter how naive I was at the time, also meant that I had some idea of what to expect this year. Which at time was probably the only thing that kept me going.

This year I worked hard. My good friend and co-presenter Mike Williamson and I undertook a project that was ambitious to say the least. It was something that we should have spent a year working on, not a month. It was a project bigger than either of us had even contemplated doing before we started, but once we had, we just had to keep going. I spent pretty much every waking hour for the last six weeks or so organising schedules, filming scenes, editing with Mike, busking to promote the show, organising gigs for promo, emailing media outlets, industry professional and prospective customers, setting up the venue, fixing technical faults, sending out social media updates, liaising with the festival organisers, playing promo spots, and practising for the shows. Everything I did, was for the show. I kept thinking to myself, ‘if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it as well as we possibly can, and it will be a success’. What’s the point otherwise?

And it was worth it. The show was everything I wanted it to be and more. Working with Mike made it so much fun, and easy, and professional. Without him, the show would never have become what it did. We left nothing on the table, and it really was as good as we could have made it. 

The best part of it though, was not that we had a product that we were proud of, not that it won an award, not that it may still have life in it, but the people and their response to what we had come up with. It was truly humbling to see so many people each night, to have so many people come and tell us how much they enjoyed it, and why. To have people come up after a show, shake your hand, and just say ‘thank you’, is an amazing feeling. That is why I perform, why I give my music to people, so that family, friends, strangers can come together in a meaningful way and experience some sort of connection. 

I have high hopes to take the show around Europe and around the world over the next year or so, and I hope to create those meaningful experiences over and over again. But it is Adelaide, and it’s people, that have started this, and what made it so special up to now. It’s something I haven’t done before, and something I am more than willing to work even harder at to achieve. And, after all that could happen, no matter where my life leads, and no matter the state of the arts in SA, I still look forward to coming back to Adelaide next Fringe, to do it all again. 

See you next Fringe Adelaide. It’s been fun.

*There are also a number of  glaring problems with the Adelaide Fringe Festival in regards to street performing and it’s relationship with the council. These are not small matters, and I will endeavour to address them in the near future, however in the interest of staying happy, for today I will focus on the good bits!

Rundle Mall before the construction. Photo by Russell Tovey, 2013.

Rundle Mall before the construction. Photo by Russell Tovey, 2013.