Sunday, September 21, 2014

In which Busking and Politics make unlikely bedfellows

I’ve been busking my whole adult life.  There have been times when it’s my only income, other times when I’ve been working two part time jobs but I still need the busking money to conquer a particularly persistent power bill, or to add cheese to my shopping list for a week, and other other times when I’ve just wanted to go out and have a sing and look at some people. 

Busking is imperfectly differentiated from begging in New Zealand, and over the years I’ve had some fertile discussions with people about whether or not I ‘should’ be out on the street playing for money, when I’m perfectly capable of getting a third part-time job.  People have raised some very fair points, and I’m rudely not going to address them here.  My response always ends up being a more or less nuanced version of ‘people don’t have to pay me if they don’t want to’. And that statement will have to stand for now.  I’m here to talk about what’s awesome about busking, not what’s questionable about it.

Busking is a great way for budding musicians to cut their teeth, and for experienced musicians to work up new material, knock off some rust, or just rehearse performance skills.  You get instant feedback; you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t in different contexts.  You have an average of twenty seconds to catch someone’s attention, and having caught it, to impress them sufficiently that they’re willing to drop a buck in acknowledgement of your skills.  But it’s more than that - it’s a way to connect with people, just for a little while, who you might otherwise never meet.  You see someone’s ears prick up, your eyes meet for a second, you swap smiles. If they’ve got a spare coin and the inclination to spend it, they drop it in your guitar case. In many ways it’s the perfect job.  You’re paid to put smiles on people’s faces.

Being a musician in New Zealand is not lucrative.  We’re taught by experience that if we want to make music, we will have to find another way to pay the rent.  It’s not legitimate to bemoan this state of affairs - no one is owed a career in music, or in law, or in toilet cleaning for that matter.  There is a difference between creative work and ‘conventional’ work though - an aspiring lawyer or cleaner can gain the necessary qualifications, apply for jobs at different outlets, set up their own business, and eventually have a reasonable expectation that they will be paid at least minimum wage for doing so.  A musician or a writer or a painter can work for years - for an entire career in some cases - can be acclaimed, recognised as a master of the craft; can in some cases sell large numbers of albums or books or paintings, and still not expect to earn over a subsistence wage.

We do pay lip service to the idea that some things are worth more than just money.  But in a number of small and mostly unspoken ways, we all accept to some extent the idea that things for which you are paid less are worth less.  And that if you can’t make a living as an artist, it’s because an artist is not something that people are willing to pay for, the way they’re willing to pay for a cleaner or a lawyer.  I’m acutely aware of how many people I would lose at this point if I tried to defend art as an essential tenet of Being Human.  So I won’t.  I’m going to tell you this:  lots and lots of people think that having a smile put on their face is worth a buck.  The hourly rate for a good busker is easily double that of a good cleaner, and on a good day it’s close to that of a junior lawyer.  If you factor in travel and promotion and setup costs, busking is the single best way to make a profit from music in New Zealand, with the sole exception of playing weddings.

We do pay lip service to the idea that some things are worth more than just money.  But god fucking damn, it feels really good to get paid.  And so when I feel bad, I often go busking to make me feel good again.

Today a lot of people in New Zealand have been sad and upset over the outcome of the election.  I’m one, and I’m going to speak only for myself.  I firmly believe - in fact I insist - that people should vote for the party whose policies best reflect their values.  New Zealand is a conservative little country at heart, and in many ways a clean and functioning National Government would reflect the will of this country’s majority.  The people in my life who vote National value some things that are genuinely dear to me - self reliance, a strong work ethic, loyalty, pragmatism; and they value some things that I admire from a distance, like ambition and discipline.  It’s my belief, and I don’t think I’m alone, that these good people (and they are, overwhelmingly, good people, and not idiots, or selfish) are not being fairly represented by the party they’ve voted for.  We do not have a clean and functioning National Party. 

Many National voters are employers.  Few of them would accept the kind of behaviour in their employees that we have seen from ranking members of that party.  We have seen proof of lying and corruption.  We have seen illegal activities, and activities which, while legal, would hardly be considered ethical coming from any other employee.  When questioned on matters of simple fact, ranking members of that party have dismissed concerns and in some cases outright refused to answer their employers.

And those people are our employees.  They should be held to the same standards that any cleaner, or lawyer, or musician is held to.  (Especially musicians!  I would love to offer someone a gig as Prime Minister for one term, unpaid, on the understanding that if people enjoy your performance we’ll pay you for the next one…)  To the catch-cry of ‘the mongrels on the other side do it too’, I reply: Yep damn straight.  And it will change only when we sack every incompetent or dishonest MP or PM and replace them with those who will Do Their Job.  We’ve got a ninety day bill in this country.  Let’s use the damn thing.

So I was sad this morning.  Not because The Other Team Won, but because good people have put bad people in power; and because those bad people have leveraged the idea that politics is a kind of team sport which must be won by any means, to put themselves in a position where they are accountable to none of their employers - neither the ones who enthusiastically voted for them, nor those who voted against, nor the silent million who didn’t vote at all.

And I went for a busk, and as so often happens when you’re grieving, the most trite and tired rock and roll lyrics started to sound like snippets of universal wisdom and truth…

“Thugs, pimps, pushers and the big money makers. Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens. And you wanna grow up to be just like them”

“Children waiting for the day they feel good … made to feel the way that every child should: Sit and Listen. Sit and Listen”

“Power and the money. Money and the power. Minute after minute. Hour after hour”

“Everybody’s looking for something.  Some of them want to use you.  Some of them want to get used by you…”

and because it was sunny, and because everyone needed a smile put on their face, and because I was probably singing the greatest hits of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and today with a peculiar intensity for a Sunday Market busker, the money started rolling in, and I started thinking about all these good people.  With whom I’d very likely agree about very little.  With whom I’d quite happily have staged a screaming and futile internet argument mere hours before.  But with whom I’m privileged to share these little moments, where we both smile, and we’re both just people, loving this one song.  Who agree that having a smile put on your face is worth a buck. Even if it is just for the Theme to Game Of Thrones. 

“Peace came upon me and it left me weak…”
“…because if it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.”

I will live and die without being able to prove that painting and writing and music are worth being paid a living wage for; that they are more than just the expensive hobbies of rich kids who can afford them.  But I am convinced that the people who voted National in (and I include in their number the million default-voters) are good people.  I don’t think they want lying, cheating, arrogance and selfishness to be the guiding lights of their elected administrators any more than I do.  And every time someone gives me a smile and a buck for doing what they consider a good job, it gives me hope that one day we’ll all be just as willing to discipline those who do their job badly.