Any chance you heard the busker outside Central station this morning?
It is a cold morning, people are jostling one another, everyone seems to be in a rush to get somewhere. Putting one foot in front of the other staring intently at small screens, some people are holding up the traffic and not keeping up the pace. The Central station tunnel is buzzing with activity, there are hi-vis shirts, suits and glum faces. The sound of heels hitting the tiles. Every now and then a skater glides past on his board. In the distance out of sight, within earshot there is a faint sound of music. As the herd edges forward, a soulful voice and the strumming of a guitar cuts through the white noise.
Here is a dude at 7am with his guitar, amp and a hat, soulfully singing a few tunes, bringing some cheer to an otherwise dull Monday morning. Technically he is at work (such is the life of the street musician aka busker) playing his music, following his dream and earning a living. He draws the attention of a few people; most stay in step with the collective march, not breaking their purposeful stride.
Buskers are first and foremost, artists. Streets and train stations are perfect places for them to be heard and noticed by people like you and me. They are looking for feedback about their music, hoping that someone who listens can help them get discovered. Street musicians who really want to have a career in music often drop regular jobs to focus on their music.
Busking is a way for a full-time musician to supplement their income and gain experience when they are not playing shows in pubs and clubs. These days here in Sydney, the options are very limited to earn a living from playing music. Our city over the years has lost a lot of live music venues and while there are an increasing number of musicians trying to showcase their talent, there are very few venues left to play.
Paul Kelly, during the 2010 campaign to save Melbourne’s Tote Hotel live music venue, said: “You don’t learn how to write a song in school. You can’t do a TAFE course on how to play in front of a live audience. These places were my universities…. some of these places are gone, but their legacy lives on in the venues under threat today.”
Dave Faulkner of the Hoodoo Gurus, addressing a City of Sydney panel on preserving live music, said: “After two solid years of gigging we had built a market for our music all by ourselves. All we ever needed was a place to play and someone to play to.”
The Hoodoo Gurus, who are currently on The Red Hot Summer tour, started their journey at a little Surry Hills pub that is now the Strawberry Hills Hotel. When they formed it became the base from which they launched themselves.
“It wasn’t long before we started attracting a following and that led to opportunities to open for other bands at bigger venues because they knew we’d bring our crowd with us. Soon we got offers to headline those same venues as we continued to win over audiences one gig at a time,” Faulkner said.
During the late ’80s, regulatory pressure and the introduction of poker machines in hotels led many venues like the Strawberry Hills Hotel to convert their band rooms into more lucrative VIP gaming lounges. To maintain a live music venue, a venue needs to comply with regulations and pay licensing fees. Most important, it needs to make enough money from the bar and door charges to cover the costs of promoting live music. If they don’t, they can’t present live music.
Technology is great to get music out into the world and reach a wider audience. However a playlist on SoundCloud and a few tracks on YouTube won’t feed you. The digital era of music poses the question why should I pay for something when I can download it for free? Why would I go to a show when I can watch it on YouTube free? Musicians in the digital era, as they always have, earn the majority of their income from ticket sales, merchandise and live performances.
In the past, Sydney provided a platform where many notable artists earned their stripes. The city was home to a great range of venues which provided an opportunity for artists to perform and hone their skills in front of a live audience. As much as the city needs large and iconic spaces such as the Sydney Opera House and the State Theatre, smaller more intimate spaces like Good God Small Club, Brighton Up Bar, Venue 505, 107 Projects and The Oxford Art Factory are among a handful of venues left that provide opportunity and diversity in Sydney’s live music scene as the Strawberry Hills Hotel did in the past. These small and medium-sized venues allow artists to forge intimate connections with audiences, gain performing experience and experiment with new material.
A Live Music and Performance Task Force was formed in 2014 by City of Sydney Council with industry support to promote live music. It has addressed such issues as reducing red tape, accessing non-traditional performance spaces and simplifying approval processes for under-18 events. The task force has made some positive changes, identifying live music hotspots and improving urban and cultural lifelines to keep neighbours and patrons happy.
The reopening of the Annandale Hotel last year is a tribute to those changes. Just check the local gig guide. Sydney once again has a substantial and diverse community of artists and audiences committed to live music and performance and more venues are jumping on the band wagon including some catering to specific genres. The Bald Faced Stag & Valve Bar is for rock and metal fanatics. The Basement in Circular Quay offers a classy night of jazz and world music while the Factory Theatre and The Vanguard support new music. And of course the street musicians create their own venues wherever they set down their hats or guitar cases.
The resurgence goes beyond the task force. Many organisations, like Unsigned Bands Australia, help promote talent. Lisa Nowasad, the founder of Unsigned Bands Australia, told The Newsroom: “I’m just trying to keep the dream alive and give some of the amazing talent we have here in Sydney an opportunity.”
If you listen to and appreciate music, the most valuable thing you can do to preserve what you enjoy is to attend live shows and support the industry. By doing so, more opportunities will be created and more venues will open. Together we can keep the dream alive for future generations of music lovers. – Photo and report by Dominic Andrew