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Facing the Music

Busking could help revitalize Pittsburgh … if only Pittsburghers knew what it was

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Here’s one tip every Pittsburgh street performer can count on receiving:

“Get a real job.”

“Pittsburgh is a tough place for buskers,” says Sean Miller. He should know: Miller is a professional busker — an artist who performs in public spaces for donations — and the public face for Busk Pittsburgh, a loose confederation of roughly 150 active street performers, plus their supporters. And unfortunately, he says, “The arts community is not as well-received as it could be here. It’s not just busking.”

The problem, Miller says, isn’t hostility from public officials or property owners. “Policy-wise, I’ve mostly seen a very helpful response. I’ve never had a problem with the police, and I know very few buskers who have.”

The problem is Pittsburgh itself. With the exception of a handful of places like East Carson Street on the South Side, “Pittsburgh isn’t really set up for busking,” Miller says. “One of the things a street performer needs is foot traffic, and there’s just not a whole lot of places where you park and walk a lot from store to store.” And while Miller says the tips he gets here are equal to those in Cleveland and other similar cities, many Pittsburghers shy away from giving anything at all.

“People think we’re panhandling, or homeless.”

But busking is a job, even if only a part-time occupation for some. You’ll meet some local buskers on the following pages, and Miller himself had more than 250 gigs in 25 states last year, performing fire-eating, story-telling and balloon-sculpting with a partner.

“I call busking the world’s third-oldest profession,” he says. “It’s entertainment in its purest form. There is no middleman.”

Well, maybe not yet. But organizations like the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which seeks to enhance activity in the Golden Triangle, do want to encourage it.

“We’re very interested in busking, because we think it can play a major part in activating the streets,” says Patricia Burk, the PDP’s vice president of housing and economic development. In fact, the organization sponsors busking already: It just wrapped up a series of Thursday-night events at Market Square, where buskers were paid to entertain diners at area restaurants.

But despite years of renewal efforts, the city’s business district still shuts down after working hours. And the PDP hopes the humble busker, playing for tips, may help to achieve what multi-million-dollar redevelopments have not accomplished on their own. “We’ve got housing up and running Downtown, the office market has been perking up, and we’re seeing retail and entertainment coming,” Burk says. “But it could be happening faster by activating the streets more.”

Right now, though, many Pittsburghers just don’t seem to get it.

Early this summer, the PDP commissioned a report on busking from Leadership Pittsburgh, Inc. The survey found that 86 percent of suburbanites — whom the PDP would like to attract to the Golden Triangle — don’t even know what busking is. And once they found out, they were lukewarm about introducing more of it: According to the survey, they “were much more supportive of [bringing] new vending activities” and sidewalk retail to city streets.

“One of the issues we see is pedestrian education,” Burk says. “It’s going to be very important to busking’s success here that we educate people that this is the busker’s job.” The PDP plans to circulate flyers explaining what busking is and why it’s important to tip performers.

But public support won’t be won easily. The PDP’s survey found that audiences “felt talented individuals only should be busking.” Why should a street performer be held to a higher standard than, say, a member of the Pussycat Dolls? In part, the survey says, because “less talented buskers would fuel misperceptions that busking and panhandling are the same.”

Confirms Burk, “You do have some drug addicts who are panhandling, some of whom can be very intimidating. And in Pittsburgh, where we don’t have a lot of experience with busking, people have a hard time separating them.” It’s a vicious cycle: The public is often wary because it sees so few buskers, and there are so few buskers because of public indifference.

Busking is a First Amendment activity: As long as a busker isn’t blocking traffic or trespassing on private property, he or she can’t be cited, no matter how badly tuned his or her guitar may be. Which means the PDP has to walk carefully as it encourages some types of street culture and not others … trying to create vitality without losing authenticity. While survey respondents thought busking “made a city feel more metropolitan,” for example, they also didn’t want too many buses rumbling nearby.

In fact, the places Miller says are best for busking — like Boston’s Fanueil Hall — tend to be touristy, and are often fairly controlled environments. But Miller says sometimes, “It’s one of those things that has to happen. Fanueil Hall can’t be complete anarchy. It has to have some oversight.” Elsewhere, the entertainers themselves are the ones organizing busking activities. While Busk Pittsburgh is “in a state of transition right now, we hope to be playing a similar role in the future.”

Other players may get involved as well. One proposal the PDP’s survey suggests, for example, is to “explore corporate support/sponsorship for talented buskers.” Doing so would establish a more organized busker presence (and maybe give UPMC something else to slap its logo on).

But the idea that seems to be generating the most interest is in credentialing buskers. The credentials would be voluntary; earning them would require performing before a board created for the purpose. By issuing a badge or other credential, says Miller, the board would be saying, “This board has reviewed this person as an entertainer, and that they knew what they are doing. They didn’t just go down to the pawn shop and buy a guitar.”

The proposal is still in its infancy, but the hope is that a peer-reviewed seal of approval would help make pedestrians and property owners more comfortable about buskers.

What if the busking board fails to appreciate the way you reject such bourgeois notions as singing in key? Burk notes that even uncertified musicians will be welcomed, and Miller too professes a soft spot for the as-yet unschooled.

“When you look at the number of musicians who’ve started playing on the streets and gone on the greatness,” he says, “you can’t walk away from those people.”

Bruce Miller
Marion Mays
Steve Rusch, Zak Kane
Amanda Nygard
Down on the Corner

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