A Closer Listen: Stories from Melbourne's Street Musicians

Saturday, June 15, 2019



Melbourne is fond of its street musicians. Melbourne stops to hear them play, offers streets to be their stage. They are students, architects, dreamers, and even grandparents. I've found there is more to hear from our everyday performers than their music alone.


Over 2,000 buskers perform on Melbourne’s city streets. Talents vary from cello playing, tap dancing, to percussion solos of pots and pans. Melbourne is on its way to become “A Creative City”, and a thriving busking culture serves this growing reputation.

The city government encourages street performers. “The City of Melbourne is proud,” they write, “of its reputation for supporting lively street culture.” The quote was written inside the Melbourne Busking Handbook, a designed booklet filled with guidelines for busking in the city.

Buskers occupy various spots in town – most of which are places swarming with visitors. One of those spots is the Block Arcade, known for its elegant storefronts and European architecture. Under an ornate, metallic dome, at the centre of a tiled mosaic on the floor, a violinist is playing Por Una Cabeza, with a cellist by his side.

Dario has been playing the violin since he was 4 years old. Now 28, he has taken part in many of Melbourne’s orchestras. “I’ve played [in the arcade] since the beginning of this year,” Dario said. “I’m really happy to be here every weekend.”

He is an architect by day, and a crowd-pleaser by night. Between 6 to 9 PM, Dario likes to play near the corner of Bourke Street Mall. His audience sits on the staircase of the Melbourne GPO. They sing along to his pop song covers. They clap on cue when he plays the theme tune of Friends.

Encapsulated by Dario’s performance, some of them sit there for hours. “I feel I’m entertaining people,” he flashed a smile. “I give them a release after a whole day’s work.”

The relationship Melbourne has with its street musicians is symbiotic. Street performers entertain and give spirit to the city. In return, performing is a good source of income – often times a great confidence boost, too.

The musicians I spoke to agree on one thing – the enthusiasm of Melburnians is hard to find anywhere else. “People are very culture-focused, [they] really respect the music,” Dario said. “In Melbourne, I don’t feel nervous, or shame for being a busker. People really enjoy it.”

Sakiko Goto, a saxophonist from Kyoto, Japan, shares the same opinion. “It feels very good because people are very welcome,” she said. “I feel like they enjoy music, and I feel they’re happy to have buskers on the streets.”

Sakiko is one of the newer faces among Melbourne’s street musicians. But she has been playing her saxophone for the past 15 years. “I started my career in music in Japan about 10 years ago,” she told me. “I finished music school and started working as a saxophone player.”

When she moved to Melbourne six months ago, Sakiko carried no lack of experience in musical performance. She worked as entertainer in Universal Studios for over 2 years, and has performed in South Korea, France, and New Orleans, to name a few.

“Melbourne is a very nice city to play music in,” Sakiko told me. “Part of my practice is playing on the streets.” One night, at the start of winter, across a shopping mall on Swanston Street, Sakiko was playing a rendition of Street Life by The Crusaders. 

“I like funky jazz, like grooving,” she said. She was playing with her eyes closed.

When musicians enjoy their own tune, they create bliss in crowded surroundings. If successful, on some occasions, a person jumps in and begins to dance. “When I play Close to You, some couples start dancing,” Sakiko said, smiling. “When I play a Michael Jackson song, young people go in and do a moonwalk.”

Every once in a while, a coin would land on Sakiko’s mat. Without letting go of the music, she would thank the giver with her eyes. One of her spectators waved goodbye to her before walking away. “You seem to have fans!” I lightly said. She only laughed and blushed.

Sakiko considers Melbourne to be the best city to be a busker. “I like the system – the city supports the busking system, it’s awesome,” she told me. Like Sakiko, Melbourne’s street musicians appreciate the city’s regulations. If anything, the city’s rules cover what is already considered their unspoken etiquette. 

Rules that say, for instance, their volumes should not be so loud that it could drown out a passer-by’s conversation. It is also established that between each performer, a distance of at least 30 metres should always be kept. “It’s very easy to understand what it is we can do or can’t do,” Sakiko said. She describes it as a very organised system.

In an article written by Professors of Law Luke McNamara and Julia Quilter, a busker claimed to like the permit system because “it keeps away the riff-raff.” According to this study, a “magic ingredient” makes Melbourne’s busking rules successful – practicing enforcement with a considerate, flexible approach.

“Enforcement happens in a way that is collaborative and non-combative,” they wrote. “Fines are only issued where all the other avenues have been exhausted.”

Street performers in Japan face a much greater risk. Sakiko said, “If I want to play on the street in Japan, sometimes we need to fight with police.”

Sakiko remembers many stories of those who weren’t as lucky. “A person was performing on the street and the police took him to the police station,” she recounted. The man was detained and interrogated. “They put him in a room for, I don’t know, 10 hours or something.”

Most cities don’t pose the same level of threat, but not many cities share Melbourne’s dynamic busking culture. “I feel like people [in Melbourne], they’re more extravagant,” says Rebecca, “they can get noticed very easily.”

Rebecca is a promotional consultant, who works in Bourke Street Mall’s department stores. She had just moved from Scotland earlier this year, but watches Melbourne’s street performers on a daily basis.

“All the performers I’ve seen in Melbourne so far have been really, really good,” she said. “It’s entertaining for everybody else to watch.” Back in Scotland, Rebecca hardly sees the same energy, or the same public response. “Back home, people are good, but not as many people would stop unless they’re amazing,” she explained. 

“Like there’s a lady on Elizabeth Street, who’s playing piano, even to late hours at night,” Rebecca recalled. The lady she referred to is Natalie Trayling, an 84-year-old woman who has been busking for the past 10 years.

It was cold on the night I stumbled upon Natalie. She wore a thick jacket, white Converse shoes, and blue socks with ribbons circling her ankles. She barely looked up during the time she played – her gaunt face covered by long locks of silver hair.

Sitting across the sidewalk is her son, Matthew, keeping her company. That night, Matthew was sitting on a milk crate, quietly watching his mother play. He was always the first to clap for her at the end of every song. As the wind blew harder, Matthew went to fetch her a warm cup of coffee.

Matthew is also the one to change the batteries in her amplifier. “I’d argue with her because she’d tell me, ‘Ah I don’t need it,’” he said, “and I’m like, ‘Yes you do! I hear it!” He chuckled at his mother.

Natalie’s fingers suffer from arthritis, but it doesn’t hold her back one bit. “I have arthritis, look,” she opened and closed her fingers. She then placed them on the keys, and played a perfect harmony chord.

Despite receiving many honourable offers, Natalie is happy settling for street performing. One of those offers was to play in the City Hall. But regarding that, Matthew told me, “She’d rather play here than anywhere else.”

Not all buskers aim to pursue recognition, or launch a music career. There are musicians who, like Natalie, perform simply because they can. Shen, for instance, one of Melbourne’s long-standing buskers, is a retired man from China. He also claims he doesn’t play for the money – it is people that gives him joy.

“Lots of people can hear my music, lots of people like my music,” he said, “and a small personality trait of mine is I like to be complimented!” he laughed.

After busking for over 7 years, Shen has built a presence in the CBD. He plays the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle. He performs it as a way of introducing Chinese culture. “It originally described scenery,” Shen said of one of his ancient folk songs. “[It] included many elements of beauty and delicateness.”

His wrinkles curl into a smile almost every minute he speaks. His eyes are sincere, shielded from the sun under his red baseball cap. “The time I spend performing on the streets also counts as practice for me,” he said, “so every time I play, I want to give it my all and improve.”

Dedicating time to practice and improve is part of the reality of busking in a metropolitan. The self-sustenance of a street performer still comes down to whether or not their performance is worth stopping for. “It’s the quality of the act, how good they are,” said a passer-by. “It really depends – if it’s something that I like, I’ll stop,” said another.

Aside from their act, a busker’s income also depends on their location and time of day. Guitarist Mark Sandusky told Money Magazine, “It’s also not as if I can walk out on the street and make $21.22 an hour whenever I want.”

The street musicians I spoke to all played between Thursdays to Sundays each week. Good timing is crucial for a busker’s revenue – many aim for weekends, from late afternoons to evenings.

Location is another factor. It determines the type of attention your audience would give. Sandusky loves to play next to a crosswalk. “[It] grants at least 20 seconds of a captive audience,” the article writes.

Shen plays his erhu outside of a busy Melbourne Central Station. Most people who hear him are on-the-go commuters – everyone is rushing to be someplace else. “People tend to give me 30 cents, or 50 cents, and so I earn 30 to 50 dollars a day,” he said. Whereas Dario’s shows quickly turn into spectacles – especially because they take place in front of the iconic Melbourne GPO.

“The income is good, I made a lot of friends, and I got a lot of followers,” Dario told me. On one of the days I saw him, Dario was scooping coins and pouring handfuls of them into a pouch. I later learned he could earn up to $150 a day. Additionally, he has gained over 5,000 Instagram followers.

Busking, it turns out, is less impulsive than it sounds. It takes sheer courage, but also good strategy, backed up by many years of skill. This blend of rehearsed performance and spontaneity generates the energy that keeps Melbourne alive. “Every time I walk through the city and there isn’t a busker, the city seems dead,” musician Bobz Ng told the Herald Sun.

On a busy night, I walked down Swanston Street in what felt like a real life playlist experience. As I paced, the music shifted seamlessly, gently transitioning from the sound of one musician to another.

Somewhere in Melbourne, an architect wows a crowd with a violin. A mother-son duo braves a cold winter night. A saxophonist finds freedom to play funk and make people dance. I see a musician. I do not pass through. Rather, I pause, and listen.

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Another piece as one of the assignments of my feature writing class. This was my final story and I'm so grateful for the chance to have a chat with these talented, generous people. What an honour.

I want to continue telling the stories of street musicians. Maybe someday, when my schedule gets a bit less demanding. Either way, you'll hear about it soon. Thank you for sticking to my fumbling attempts of feature journalism. I very much enjoy the process, I hope the stories are just as enjoyable for you too.










1 comment

  1. Hopefully, one day when I walk through the streets of Melbourne, I can have a new leveL of appreciation for the music they bring us.

    ReplyDelete

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