As marketgoers meander through cornucopias of freshly harvested vegetables on a soft, sun-draped Saturday morning, sweet sounds of country blues and folk waft through the air and into the ears of passersby. A young woman strums her guitar soulfully from the steps of Portland State’s Branford Price Millar Library, pouring emotion into the lyrics, crooning for anyone who cares to listen.
Children play on the steps around her as an impromptu percussionist hands out shakers and maracas while keeping time on the bongo. The children are lulled, captivated by the magic of music as it is performed live without a net, before their amazed eyes.
Farmer’s market shoppers stroll past, often noticeably slowing their stride as they match sight with sound. Many smile and nod. Occasionally listeners drop a dollar into the open guitar case at the performer’s feet. Some stop to snap a photo; some simply walk on by.
“I like performing on the street because there is no stage,” said Karyn Patridge, an acoustic blues artist. “I think it facilitates more interaction between performer and audience. You are more reachable and relatable when not placed on a pedestal of stage.”
Even amid the age of electronic self-promotion—YouTube, SoundCloud and social media—nothing cements a connection between artist and audience as powerfully as the live performance.
The art of busking, as street performing is officially titled, is often made to appear easy by the plethora of musicians, artists, human statues and flaming-bagpipe-blowing unicyclists in Darth Vader helmets who adorn the streets of Portland. PDX streets are awash in professional-level musical talent, and any pedestrian within a city block of the Saturday Market, Centennial Square or many a random street corner is bound to catch a show.
Mastery of the act, however, is more elusive than meets the eye.
“You play guitar? So does everyone else. What makes you stand out?” said Seth Christman, a unique handpan percussionist who claims to have busked everywhere from D.C. to Georgia to Portland. “Before you go out and play, you have to practice first. A lot. Remember, the only way you’re gonna get a tip is if you impress someone.”
While gleaning a few well-earned dollars from sound-sated bystanders is a bonus, it’s not the main impetus behind many successful buskers’ work.
“Street performing exposes you to such a diverse audience, people you may never meet otherwise,” Patridge said. “I like PSU marketplace because it is on a campus, and college students like music. There are ample performance opportunities that might present themselves if the right person is walking by.”
It may sound tempting to open up shop on the next available esplanade, but there actually are a few unspoken rules by which the street performer abides.
The “Street Musician Partnership for Portland” is a document established in 1994 through a collaboration of artists, business people and government officials with the objective of helping street performers reach their audiences while minimizing impact on businesses in close proximity to the gigs.
According to the agreement, musicians should space themselves a minimum of one city block apart, rotate their location every 60 minutes, play at a volume that is inaudible from over 100 feet away, not play the same location more than twice in one day and have a 60-minute break in order to return.
The document also declares that police will attempt to resolve any dispute that should arise due to the occurrence of street performance without making arrests or issuing tickets.
This is not to say that other challenges for street artists are unheard of. “Plenty of people…will at some point or another try to interrupt your playing,” said Devin Smith, a funk-and-jazz fusion entertainer. “It is usually someone who is struggling with mental health or current substance abuse.”
The bottom line, however, is the opportunity for exposure.
“Bringing your sound to as many ears as possible is important to maintain and create a fan base,” Smith said. “To get a group of musicians together regularly to play all at once is much harder than it sounds with conflicting schedules. Busking serves as a way for the group to rehearse together in front of a constant, revolving live audience, which also happens to pay.”