Busking in Santa Monica
Santa Monica, California is a very pedestrian friendly, pet friendly, bicycle friendly town. Bikes are available for rent by the day, there are bicycle taxis and even a system in place where one can pickup a bike from one location and drop it off at your destination that are available to rent by the hour, month or year. Metro buses run to the most popular spots, the pier, the third street promenade and up and down Ocean Blvd, (Highway 1) and loads of taxis, Lyft and Uber drivers.
Everywhere you go in Santa Monica, on the pier, the third street promenade, on the sidewalk, you will encounter somebody playing music, doing a monologue or some other form of street art. The city sees this as part of the charm and experience of visiting Santa Monica. There is an ordinance restricting the number of buskers in a given area, how far they must be from an entrance and how loud they can be. There is a patrol, whimsically called the “clown police”, that enforce the ordinance. Street artists must be family friendly, must be safe, can’t be aggressive or overly solicitous and must move on if a vendor or store owner finds them disruptive.
Almost all of the buskers carry with them a portable sound system that includes a microphone, speaker and even effects. Not all are talented, some sing off key, others utilize music tracks, but I did meet some pretty phenomenal players while there. In the course of a four block walk on the promenade I met four buskers and asked each one of them to describe what they do, why they do it and their relationship with the city. Their names have been changed at their request.
Busker #1, Tom, was a young African-American guitarist playing a 2007 Gibson SE through a small Behringer amp. I listened quietly as he ran through a number of smooth jazz tunes. It was clear that he had skills and had been playing for some time. His chord progressions were complex and well thought out.
When I approached and asked him about playing on the promenade, he said that he enjoyed playing for people. Like everyone playing on the street, he had a small receptacle, a beach bucket, in front of him to collect tips. It held, by my estimation, about 15 or 20 one dollar bills. Tom said that he worked in the service industry in Santa Monica, was native to southern California and played on the street to earn extra money. He didn’t work the crowd, preferring to “dazzle rather than hassle”. He said he didn’t like some of the in your face performers, that they were bad for the rest of the people trying to make a living.
I asked him if he had ever had any run ins with the clown police. He said that they really didn’t come around much except during the summer when the crowds were huge. He had never had a problem with any of the shop owners but did have the occasional run in with other street performers who were territorial, preferring a location because of its proximity to other popular destinations in Santa Monica. He had all but stopped playing the pier because of these conflicts.
I asked Tom what his average take was on the promenade. Weekdays, were light, not more than $20 or $30 for a few hours. Weekends were better, but there were more buskers out and the competition brought out the aggressive buskers who were off putting to some of the tourists.
Busker #2, Phil, was one of those in your face performers. A non-musician, Phil would stand at his mic and ask people questions as they passed by, carefully skirting the line set by city ordinance about soliciting money. He would break into an old monologue by Richard Pryor or some other comedian, always giving credit to his source and ask “How’d I do? Was that worth anything?” Phil had to be in his mid-fifties, thin and tall and imposing.
When I approached and asked him how long he’d been busking, he reminded me that this was his job, a cryptic way of asking me for money. Ten dollars later, he was willing to talk, but always in vague reference to art. He was, an artist. He did not have another job, wouldn’t say he was homeless, referring to earth as his home (I suspect he was homeless) and maintained that it was his right to express himself artistically and politically as a way to make people aware of what was going on around them. Why shouldn’t he be paid for this service?
I asked about any conflicts with the clown police. He chuckled and said “They can’t touch me.” I had noticed that he had been in another location a day earlier. He had been asked to leave that space because the shop owner “didn’t want to hear the truth.” The truth about what, we can only speculate. Buskers must move on if a shop owner asks per city ordinance. There need not be any explanation given.
When I asked Phil what he made average in a day, he said “enough”. I asked if some days were better than others. He said “Every day’s a good day.” I asked if he enjoyed what he did and he quoted Star Trek. “Is the word given, Captain? The word is given.”
Busker #3, John was a twenty-something white guy with nicely coiffed hair and wearing white shirt, thin tie and dark slacks. He sat on a wooden folding chair in the sun and playing a beautiful mahogany late model Baby Taylor, a three-quarter sized guitar mic’d and plugged into a Fender mini 57 twin. I have to say that I have thus far been impressed with the quality of the equipment people were using on the street. John was singing original compositions and collecting his tips in a tophat. John never looked up from his guitar, never spoke to the crowd, never introduced songs. In fact, he never said anything. He looked to have about seven or eight dollars in his hat when I put my ten in.
I asked John about playing here. Was this his only job? He was a student at Santa Monica College working on his Associate in Science Degree and hoped to be moving on to animation. The school was on holiday break, but said that he played on the promenade and around the pier regularly. It was a way to make extra money for living expenses even though he was native to Santa Monica.
John’s music was original. He has been writing since he was 15 and was influenced by groups like Nirvana and Three Doors Down. I asked him why he didn’t intro his songs or interact with the crowd. He said “I dunno, I guess I just like to play and if someone wants to give me money than, alright.” When I asked if he had ever encountered the clown police, he said that he had seen them in the area sometimes, but mostly they just stood and watched him for a while before moving on. His experience was that they were there more as a presence to prevent trouble rather than harass performers.
Busker #4, Tim, was the most energetic of the performers I say that day. He played an old banjo and sat on a travel case with a kick pedal. His banjo was un-amplified and he sang into an SM-58 connected to a Fender Passport sound system, collecting his tips in an old mason jar. His whole look was designed for the performance. His hair was spiked, he wore a white wife-beater and corduroy slacks and rainbow colored suspenders. Even the case that he sat on and used as a drum was vintage.
Tim played standards with lots of gusto, going through My Kind of Town, Just a Gigolo and Chatanooga Choo Choo in quick succession. His chops were amazing and his mason jar was stuffed with one dollar bills. People would come up to him and tell him how much they enjoyed his playing and he was always grinning from ear to ear.
Tim took requests, sang happy birthday when requested by one patron and engaged little kids, letting them pet his instrument. I asked him about his work. “This”, he said, “is my favorite thing to do. I get to meet people. I get to play music. I make money. The weather here is nice.” Tim had moved from Texas to the west coast, not for fame, but for climate. He wanted to learn to surf and live next to an ocean, “and now I do,” he says with a big smile.
I asked him if this was a good living. He didn’t want to say how much money he made, but he did say that the key was being entertaining. “You want people to have a good time. You want them to enjoy watching and hearing you play. “They’re on vacation or out for a night on the town and they want to be entertained and it’s my job to do that.”
I asked if Tim had ever had any conflicts with the shop owners, other buskers or the police. He said that for the most part, if you were polite and respectful that the shop owners didn’t mind having you around. He took offense at my reference to the clown police, saying that they were just there to do their job and only connected with those people that were breaking the rules. As far as the other buskers, there were always going to be people who expected people to give them money “just because, but those guys don’t last long out here. If you want to make a living, you really do have to work for it.”