By Ryan Mernin
Most people have, at one point or another, benefitted from the street performers that have for a long time been a part of the cultural flora in North American cities. All across the continent, since the early days of American ballads and folk music, singers and amateur musicians have made their livings performing on the metropolitan streets. Despite recent legal roadblocks, San Francisco has earned a reputation as one of the best places to go to hear a diversity of street music. Glimmers of opportunity can make the hard living worth it for the performers. Just ask Norbert “Dynamite” Yancy, who began his career in the ‘60s singing ballads to passers-by, and went on to play with the likes of Santana and legendary opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti. In the long tradition of busking to get by, San Francisco has set an example for how to make it on one’s own. But finding a lucrative place to play, free from interruption, seems to have become harder and harder, and many musicians are finding it impossible to scrape together a living.
From 1970-2015 there were fifteen major court cases concerning performers rights in San Francisco. It boils down to a contest between first amendment rights to free speech and regulations on public performance. The two violations that most commonly plague musical performers in particular are blocking the sidewalk and amplification without a permit. But acquiring the correct permit can be an impossible task, and even then can fail to solve the performers’ problems.
Music student Stephen Dreyfuss fought for years to establish what is now known as the Fisherman’s Wharf Street Performers Program. For years, performers at the wharf played there illegally, returning each day to practice their acts despite constant police citations. Now in this specially designated corner of the city, San Francisco issues permits and mandatory entertainer’s insurance to a limited number of musicians, artists, and performers; the lucky few.
Outside of the wharf, street musicians play a game of hide and seek with the authorities, who issue expensive citations to the musicians for lacking permits (which do not exist). High-end local businesses, many of which report street performers to the Union Square Business Improvement District (BID), also work against the many musicians on Market Street and elsewhere.
Larry Hunt, who makes some 8 dollars an hour (on a good day) playing drums on overturned buckets, pots, and other household items, is often stopped by the SFPD before managing to fully set up his equipment. Hunt’s reputation as “Bucketman” earned him a cameo in Will Smith’s movie The Pursuit of Happiness, and other San Francisco films and TV shows. Hunt taught himself to play at age 3, and makes his living performing on the streets and giving drum lessons for 6 dollars an hour. A short documentary, found here1, details the daily routine of the San Francisco “Butcketman”.
It’s often a representative of the BID that end up calling the police on Hunt. Claude Imbault, who works for the BID, says, “Stores like Prada, a highend retailer, expect a high-end ambiance. Someone banging on plastic bins outside takes away from that.”
An online campaign was set up in 2008 to exonerate Hunt from four $250 citations, but the tickets keep on coming and Hunt has been threatened with jail time if he is unable to pay. Even musicians on the wharf, however, can be charged with random citations that, while generally struck down in court, pull them away from their livelihoods.
The overall daily average for the performers on the wharf is $82. But this number varies drastically between acts and from day to day. On a good day, bands can walk away with anywhere from $100-500. On a bad day, say, with heavy rain, bands like that of Emerson Ortis and his seven-year-old son can leave with barely enough to cover the cost of gas. Such are the volatile and uncertain conditions faced by the wharf musicians.
Underground in San Francisco it’s a different story. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway stations have become proving grounds of a kind for amateur musicians, a safer but far less lucrative environment for less experienced performers looking quite literally to work their way to the surface.
The BART stations are safer because performers have access to free “Permits to Engage in Expressive Activity” issued by the transit authority, and don’t have to worry about police or weather getting in the way of their acts. But bustling commuters are apparently less eager to stop and listen, and thus less likely to pay for the pleasure of a song.
Skill is certainly a factor in the amount a BART musician makes in a day, but it can only take the underground acts so far. The Washington Post conducted an experiment with violin virtuoso Joshua Bell to discover how much the best in the world would make as opposed to BART station regulars. Bell, who has lead orchestras at New York’s Lincoln Centre, descended into the Washington D.C. subways in disguise and played a 43-minute set on his $3.5 million Stradivarius. Bell fared better than most, earning some $32. But such a set is demanding, and keeping up the pace for a full day is nearly impossible.
The trick for anyone, says Nathan Sharpe of the Sharpe Brothers street act, is to draw a crowd. For musicians, this means getting enough people to stop and listen long enough that they feel obliged to contribute. The subways offer slim hope for this kind of success, as most people rush by with the hope of spending as little time in the stations as possible. Though less subject to disruption than the San Francisco streets, the BART stations seem to offer at best a meagre living for those whose livelihoods are made by the generosity of others.
The best opportunities are had by those who manage to obtain permits on the Fisherman’s Wharf, who can play all day in the nice weather and are not constantly battling the dreary and fast-paced underground atmosphere. But the 44 existing $500-a-year permits issued to the wharf are an unlikely luxury for most, and are enjoyed by an absurdly slim number of active performers and musicians. For those whose luck or experience is not so extensive, life is much more difficult. In each case, however, a musician’s luck is made or broken by streaks of cruelty or kindness, from strangers.
Read more: http://priceonomics.com/thesecretlifeofsanfranciscostreetperformers/