Monday, April 2, 2018

The Urban Busker and the Virtual Realm

By Nicole Vilkner

Anyone who has ever inhabited, visited, or commuted to a city has probably witnessed some variant of street performance, or busking.  This inherently simple transaction – free, public entertainment in exchange for optional tips – has always been linked to city environments where the constant ebb and flow of traffic supplies continual audiences for the performer. Busking culture varies from city to city, responding to the idiosyncrasies of each metropolis: its pedestrian activity, its traffic patterns, and its local or regional musical styles. Buskers are not innocuous in urban spaces – in many ways, they bring out the social texture of a city. Since public performance is a forced sensory experience, even the person skirting the crowd must confront the busker’s sound, and possibly their appearance, and all that they signify in that community. These encounters between buskers and their audiences, no matter how brief, thus enact social relationships that are specific to local, mostly urban cultures.

In recent years, however, buskers have had a growing presence in a new public arena that also generates high traffic, offers a multi-cultural marketplace, and welcomes browsing audiences – the virtual realm. Through online platforms, buskers stream and post videos of their street performances. They amass audiences of followers through social media and collect donations through virtual tip jars.[1] Some busking websites, like streetmusicmap.com and busk.co, even curate a clickable world map through which audiences can hear global street performances without leaving their homes. This shift -- from street to screen -- raises questions about the ways that space and environment shape busking.  If traditional busking practices were formed in urban settings, do they transform in virtual environments? Does it change the performer-audience relationship?   Is the localness of busking diminished by the vastness of the online world?

Assessment Process: Is this performer any good?
On the street, audiences assess performers in the moment.  There are no newspaper reviews to shape public opinion. No report on CD sales or song downloads to reflect the performer’s popularity are present. No credentials that can verify a track-record of success. As violinist Joshua Bell famously demonstrated in his 2007 busking stunt in the capital city, even a celebrated virtuoso can be unappreciated when performing anonymously in a subway station.[2] This experiment dispelled any assumption that canonic works, musical pedigree, and a Stradivarius might change the transaction between busker and listener, or might transform the street into a concert-like setting where the attention of listeners is undivided.[3] To the contrary, a busker’s reputation is earned and re-earned from minute to minute on the street.

However, social media platforms can change some of the randomness of gaining listeners through busking. When buskers amass followers through Facebook and Twitter, they can maintain and build audiences. They are not always forced to start from square one. The Busking Project (busk.co) allows artists to grow a virtual fan base, a quantifiable credential that works towards validating the performer’s appeal.


Violinist Joshua Bell busks in D.C. subway station


Audience Pool: Who’s listening?
Although urban buskers don’t equally interest everyone who passes, their performance still reaches a broad audience. Some decisive spectators stop and listen. Other curious pedestrians might rubberneck on the periphery. Even the people that quickly dodge the scene are still part of the audience because their actions are a direct reaction to the performance. In this sense, the unsolicited busking in urban settings involves everyone who shares the same public space, regardless of their degree of commitment. Opting out of a busking act is infinitesimally easier on a computer. You simply do not click. Or you don’t even visit a busking site. That is, unless you are genuinely interested:  in this way, online busking fans are distinctly different from street audiences because they actively seek out buskers. On one hand, some online fans might only view a narrow pool, limiting their selections to buskers with the most views, or to the instrument or genre he or she likes best. On the other hand, platforms like streetmusicmap.com could encourage fans to exponentially broaden their exposure to different regional and musical styles. The site’s clickable map documents more than 1,000 buskers in 93 countries, with video clips crowd-sourced by Instagram users. This map not only suggests that the performers hail from all around the world, but also, with so many active users, the audience base is seemingly diverse[3] . Busk.co encourages performers and fans from around the globe to connect through social media, and it even allows fans to purchase the busker’s digital recordings. In addition to networking people across a distance, busk.co also serves local interests by encouraging fans to hire the performers for events. The platform offers the infrastructure to mobilize local and global networks while supporting the buskers’ revenue through digital album sales.

#Streetmusicmap Crowd-Sources Video Clips of Buskers Around the World

A global or local tradition?

The virtual realm might seem to diminish the localness of busking because it activates social networks around the globe, marketing and circulating performers’ music videos and digital albums to seemingly remote audiences. Even though the virtual realm has changed some of the ways that performers and their audience interact, I would argue that localness is still very much a part of the online busking model. In the virtual realm, buskers attract fans precisely because their performances are perceived to be regionally authentic, representing the popular trends, musical tastes, home-grown innovations of a particular urban area. The clickable design of #streetmusicmap underscores the fact that location is inextricably linked to busking practices. On the map, buskers are marked by pinpoints, scattered like confetti over six continents.  The user-friendly format invites visitors to click and listen, and it allows browsers to juxtapose different performers in different locations easily. Ultimately, it encourages viewers to equate place with sound.

Even so, the real-life and virtual platforms ultimately accomplish different work: The virtual realm mobilizes a marketplace for buskers. Global busking maps also reveal that that there is global coherence in the busking practice – they show that busking is a type of audience-performer interaction that is understood around the world.  In this way, virtual busking embraces the spirit of cultural exchange. However, virtual space cannot provide the same platform for the cultural exchange that is enacted in urban spaces, where voluntary and involuntary audiences mix, and where sociocultural relationships are negotiated through the immediacy, grit, and gratification of real-life interactions.

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<1>Matthew Kassel, “Donate to a Street Musician?  There are apps for that.” The Wall Street Journal (5 November 2017),
https://www.wsj.com/articles/donate-to-a-street-musician-there-are-apps-for-that-1509938040. Accessed 5 March 2018.
<2>Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.” Washington Post (April 8, 2007),
https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html?utm_term=.db0d8ccda52a, accessed 5 March 2018.
<3>Joseph Williams examines how the classical notion of a musical “work” is problematized by busking practices in, “Busking in Musical Thought: Value, Affect, and Becoming.” Journal of Musicological Research Vol. 35., No. 2 (2016): 150-3.

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Nicole Vilkner is a visiting faculty member at Arizona State University. Her research centers on French musical practices in the long nineteenth century, particularly in relation to urban planning and geography, the built environment and space, as well as the circulation of musical material culture. Her study and writing on this subject has spanned opéra comique, music salons, street performance, and coach horn playing.  She received a Ph.D. in musicology from Rutgers University in 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this fascinating study. I wish I had known about these digital street performance communities when I was busking my way through my undergraduate degree!
    Amanda Palmer is a pretty interesting case study of a busker who catapulted herself from street performer to touring musician through a combination of online and local music communities. This article reminded me to go reread her book, "The Art of Asking" where she detailed the experience.
    Thank you again for this thought provoking article!

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