“Fake” Jobs vs. “Real” Jobs

I had an interesting interaction out on the pitch yesterday.

While performing at Harbourfront, I was met with a particularly vehement reaction from a passerby, who told her friend (purposely within earshot of me) that she did not give money to “those people”.
When I mimed a shrug of ‘why not?’ she spat back at me, “Because you need to get a REAL JOB.”

While I am not interested in revealing the rest of our interaction (suffice to say it is quite sad for me to even publish–the elitism of some people is too depressing to even mention), I am interested in writing a response to the tiring, and yet age-old tension between “real” jobs and “fake” jobs.

Busking is not a conventional job, I know. Hell, I was dumped by a long-term partner over my “fake” job, which many will dismiss as an illegitimate form of employment.

Throughout the years, I’ve been asked all sorts of stupid questions (sorry folks, unlike your grade six teacher, I refused to buy into “there are no stupid questions” crap. There ARE stupid questions, and trust me folks–I get plenty of ’em) ranging from “So let me guess, you go on welfare in the winter time?” to even our OWN CURRENT MAYOR, Rob Ford, upon walking through my crowd to campaign as I was doing a show, insinuating that I don’t even pay my taxes (oh, and by the way, Mayor Ford, I absolutely do pay my taxes, thanks for asking).

But far and wide, the most insulting inference about busking is that it is not a legitimate job.

Let’s look at the history of busking, shall we?

It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of this trade as it’s pretty much as old as prostitution. When and wherever there has been art in history, there have been poor artists who have to fight to earn their income. Our history is largely through oral tradition. The current incarnation of busking that we perform and that you see now was trailblazed in the 70s and 80s by folks like the Checkerboard Guy, Gazzo, and the Three Canadians. It’s to folks like these that I owe much gratitude. Thanks to folks like Chalkmaster Dave and Silver Elvis, we have a licensing system here in Toronto that both protect me and allow me to work. These artists are why I get to travel in a cushy manner to far-off lands to perform shows for adoring fans. Even though I am a dying breed of “streeties” (hard street buskers) in the wake of the festival circut and culture, I know that I am not nearly as hard as these legends.

There is such a range of people who take to the streets, ’tis true: from beginner living statues with crappy costumes, to That Guy With the Guitar, to the crazy dude with the chessboard, it can be daunting to sift through the muck to find the diamonds. But there are diamonds out there, folks. Trust me, I am fortunate enough to work with many of them.

People forget that in a country like Canada, it can be damn difficult to eke out a living as an artist: many of us choose to have day jobs to make ends meet, or, like myself, choose to street perform. And, if we choose to go the pro route with street performing…..well, I feel like it’s almost unnecessary for me to even have to condescend to tell you all about the many hours I spend training, booking, writing up invoices, negotiating contracts, working with directors, balancing the creative and the business-side, wrangling my insurance and licenses, work-permits abroad, etc. … wait.. this is suspiciously sounding like a Real Job™ to me!

The beauty, though, is that the time spent on the street is what helps us hone our crafts so we can get cushier jobs. Here are just a few famous people who started out as buskers:

Steve Martin
Louis Armstrong
Penn & Teller
Bob Dylan
Irving Berlin
BB King

Oh..and guess who else? CIRQUE DU SOLEIL.

The irony, of course, being that Cirque Du Soleil has since made such an impact upon the performing arts industry, globally, but, specifically within Canada so much so that we circus artists are now granted er.. ‘grant-getting’ status by the Canada Council for Arts. We are finally recognized as legitimate artists!!

The problem of making the argument between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art is that it becomes muddied when you are talking about intermediate artists like myself: people who aren’t ‘famous’ but people who can make a comfortable living through producing their own art. What does that make us? “middle art”?

I conducted an interesting experiment last week.

I have a routine that I perform on stage. It’s corporeal mime-based. It’s guaranteed to be artsy and fartsy and “high” art. I trained on it for a long time, worked with a talented artist and developed it based upon classical mime–an art I have studied and paid money to learn. I took it to the street and incorporated it into my statue act for jokes. It did NOT get the response I get when performing on stage. And yet, I get paid to perform it on stages!

Different art for different contexts. No less legitimate. Hell, I would argue that busking is FAR more legitimate: I’ve touched more audiences here and abroad through my street shows than I ever have with my corporate cabaret acts. Plus, what other job gives you the product before asking for payment, now, really?

This is what I do for a living and I take it very seriously. I have no time for “weekender”  (or, as I call then “tourist”) buskers who have day jobs. I have no time for pitch-wasters, and I especially have no time for people who don’t care to understand the amount of work that goes into putting a show together to give to the general public at our own free will.

If busking is  a “fake” job in the eyes of the public, then so be it, but you can be sure that I will argue tooth and nail that it is a legitimate one.


  •    Reply

    From one of your followers on LJ:
    This post has me so pissed off on your behalf, and on behalf of other professional variety performers. My fiance is a professional juggler, and he gets that “real job” crap all the time. Fortunately, a lot of people who are surprised, are also excited to learn he doesn’t have a side job. But there are those who think he’s wasting his time. And they’re sure not afraid to say it. It’s just so rude!

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    Kate, artists like you create “culture” and this is what makes life interesting. That woman is jealous because she doesn’t have the creativity or the courage to choose an untraditional path. Keep being amazing, the rest of us appreciate your hard work and your art!

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    Well said Kate. It`s not differences that hurt us – it`s judgement.

    I appreciate Buskers and have seen many in various parts of the world. What is more legitimate that performing and having people voluntarily pay after it`s overÉ. Imaging if politicians were paid this way, based on the satisfaction of their constituents.

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    Busking is a publically accessible form of entertainment that is suppose to attract people to watch it, and is often not paid by most who see it, but gives you the ultimate chance to test your creativity. That which causes people to stop and watch you is a creative mastery over what actually entertains people. You are taking peoples minds of f their otherwise normal day and filling it for a time with humor and interesting witty skills that can take great practice to learn. “If you see something that you can not do a donation is appreciated” Performances can be as simple as a mime statue that moves only when a coin is tossed into a hat or as as tough as demonstrations acrobatics that take years to perfect. Buskers are often in a fluid environment of the street where appreciative and not so appreciative people can access. At the end of a show The busker prods the audience with a hat pitch or sell, to collect donations and gratuities which are not forced upon the people like a movie theater would. A busker may never know exactly what one might get, but you hope most people who stop to watch will enjoy your performance and give. There are no employment standard boards which govern the pay of street buskers. It is a risk that the busker takes on himself. Great skill, creativity, imagination and hard work will bring something from someone who is awed by the performance weather its magic or acrobatics. The awe is the fact that most people can not do what the performer can do. “Did you see that” People can feel the risk or understand that it takes certain skill to do stuff. They give voluntarily “to encourage the performer to do it again perhaps for others who might be just as awestruck by the skill”. Everyone is 100% free to try what the performer is doing, so they can know and see for themselves the difficulty of the act. Money says one thing, “hey your very good”.

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    I totally agree with your post, and while I am not an artist, I work at daycare another job that a lot of people think is not that much work at all. It is.

    More to the point though I’ve heard about the work you put in, mainly just the physical since we share a bit of a passion for fitness and I’m sure that you have to put far more work into the artistry than the grueling fitness that is required to carry out the art that you do!

    When people fail to recognize your hard work it can be very frustrating, but you know the truth, the hours that go into it, pity them for being so ignorant, be furious, then dismiss them.


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    This is literally the very week that I have finally accepted that the best I can hope for on my current trajectory is a so-called “real job” in which I’ll never be happy. I’min finally taking a break at work to figure out a way to build my life around my creative projects – and I plan never to turn back! I need all the inspiration and solidarity I can get right now, so thank you!

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    Interesting article, and well worth writing! (And thank you to friend Alexander for reposting it.) I think this is an important topic more people need to think about!

    …But I have this tendency to play devil’s advocate, and I feel sad for those you call “tourist” buskers – some artists CAN’T do what they love full-time, and have to get day gigs to make ends meet – dismissing those artists who can only do art a little is not unlike dismissing those who [are lucky enough] to do art more…

    (I am using “art” broadly. I sell crafts, I perform, I know many musicians – it’s all art.)

    But Alexander raised very good points about there being a “certain quality of ‘weekend’ busker” – I do know those artists who don’t need the money, so they pull the prices down for everyone else by undervaluing the work, or who take up space that could be used by artists who need the work more, or who don’t care enough to do it WELL… So I think know who is meant by tourist buskers, and I think I should refine my sad for just those few who DO want to do it WELL, who RESPECT the art even if they can’t be full-timers – I know them, too, tho I don’t know what to call them. Big world; the art world. big crazy world…

    On another note, I am guilty of implying that my own art, the thing I do full-time that pays for my rent, isn’t a “real” job – I joke about someday getting a “real” job… and a little piece of my brain is furious at me every time I do it, but the cynic part of my brain from whence the mockery comes is bigger. I think I need to work on that. Hence my liking this article, and I think more discussion on this topic is ongoingly needed…

    And on yet another note, I’m going to play devil’s advocate again (sorry)… I agree buskers brighten the world, and quite possibly in a larger way than any ticketed and limited-seating show show could, because there’s a magic to art that anyone might find in unexpected places, but un-asked-for art maybe should not have a price… Would that people opened their pockets more often, but I can understand that they don’t – when you buy a ticket, you have an idea what you’re going for, and have made the predetermined decision to send that money that direction, but when you chance across something random, no matter how wonderful, you might not have extra funds allocated for such spontaneous times. As you say, no less legitimate art, but ours is not a society that is prone to (can afford to?) appreciate art, real art, magic, the way it should…

    As I said, interesting topic(s). Continue the discussion anywhere you can! Educate the world! Maybe we can make people see, understand and appreciate the art, the magic, better…?

    Cheers! Sorry about the novel here. Thanks for posting.

  •    Reply

    Thank you for this post! As a full time busker, I definitely relate.

    And Robin–your comments are very respectfully made and thoughtful. In regards to your last bit of advocacy for the devil, that is in many ways the exact point of street performance. You DON’T have to pay and there is no set price. Even if you think it’s good. It’s pay what you can/pay what you will/ pay what it’s worth to you.


    While it’s true that people don’t often have something budgeted like a surprise art event, it doesn’t get any cheaper than pay what you will. And at this point in my career, anyway (I can’t speak for the author) I no longer feel entitled it presumptuous to expect that if I have moved someone that they may part with the change in their pockets. I believe they should do so knowing that their tips make it possible fir these performances to continue. Sometimes you truly can’t afford it. Sometimes you truly don’t like it. And I will always give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to not tipping. But I also believe that on the audience’s end, there should be an understanding that if possible, for acts that move you, you should leave a token of your appreciation.

    Pay what you can/pay what you will/ pay what it’s worth. You really, really can’t ask for a better deal. It doesn’t exist.

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