Buskers are people who perform on the street, usually for money or to promote an act. Athens is home to several different street performers, including some who specialize in reading poetry to passersby and some who play the saxophone to popular songs.
A plethora of musicians started as buskers. Janis Joplin, one of rock’s most iconic voices, started busking in the streets of Austin while attending the University of Texas at Austin before dropping out and hitchhiking to San Francisco, where her career took off. Riley B. King, a.k.a. B.B. King, taught himself guitar and performed on the street before becoming Beale Street royalty. Even modern artists like Ed Sheeran began their careers as street performers.
Street performers get into busking through many different paths. Many of the local artists on Court Street got started because their friends introduced them to the world of street performance.
Chris Harmison, a junior studying music, shared his experience in getting started as a busker.
“(A friend) originally just brought me out one night,” Harmison said. “We saw one of our other friends play at a bar and we were like, ‘We just want to go out and make music.’ I didn't think it was going to go well, I thought people were just going to give us weird looks, but the very first night we were out, we had a crowd.”
While some buskers start performing because of the people around them, this is not a universal experience. Some buskers have been singing, dancing or playing instruments for years and want to hone their craft while making some money on the side.
Logan Reynolds, a philosophy graduate student and teacher’s assistant at Ohio University, shared why he sings and plays the acoustic guitar on Court Street.
“What pushed me to start (performing) up here was I was having a good time, but also I figured I could make more money doing it,” Reynolds. “I don't do it for the money, but the money helps keep it going. I basically treat it like a part-time job. I sing for anywhere between six and 10 hours a week and make enough to actually really help with my situation.”
In the era of digital money, it may seem more difficult for buskers to make money because people are carrying cash significantly less. However, artists have adapted to this through the use of mobile payment sites.
Sean Parsons, the director of the Contemporary Music and Digital Instrument (CMDI) program at OU, said street performers are evolving in the changing monetary landscape.
“It used to be throwing coins, right?” Parsons said. “Nobody really carries change; who really carries paper money? The shift is really interesting to see collecting money moving from spare change to dollars to, ‘Here's my link to Venmo. Donate five bucks.’”
Busking is a potentially lucrative business endeavor for performers all over the world. A 2021 study done by the Tilburg School of Economics and Management on buskers in Cologne, Germany, found that musicians can earn 23 euros per hour, which is equivalent to $24.55. When the music quality increases, musicians can earn up to 28 euros per hour, which is equivalent to $29.88.
The study also found that Sundays lead to higher hourly donations, performing outside of small businesses on days with colder weather have higher donation levels and classical music performers make significantly more than jazz and rock performers.
It is important to note that Cologne is not a college town in the U.S. Setting is a significant factor in the findings of any study, and many performers in Athens have had experiences that at times contradict what the Tilburg study found. People—especially students—favor the warmer months of the school year to go out and be potential consumers of what buskers have to offer.
“(Busking) made me realize how much I enjoy the performing side of (music) ... It helped me improve the performance side of it and just entertaining people more than just playing songs.”-Rylee Bapst
“They're living large for that first month and then that starts to settle down a little bit,” Reynolds said. “And then of course, in the winter, things can be a bit more difficult. But you know, it's never been bad.”
For many musicians, street performing is a gateway to more opportunities. Like Joplin, King and Sheeran, buskers in Athens and beyond use their history of street performing to establish connections and heighten their musical abilities.
Rylee Bapst, a junior studying marketing, no longer busks because he now releases and performs his original music around Athens. However, he was the friend who introduced Harmison to busking, and his experience as a street performer still influences his current music career.
“(Busking) made me realize how much I enjoy the performing side of (music),” Bapst said. “It helped me improve the performance side of it and just entertaining people more than just playing songs.”
While many buskers hope to perform in places other than the street, certain venues can prey on the want that buskers have to spread their art to a wider audience.
“People will say, ‘Well, why don't you come perform for the experience?’” Parsons said. “Well, if you're having dinner, you don't hire the waitstaff for experience, you don't hire chefs for experience. There is a real cost to these things. I do think that busking is an opportunity for people to be out in their community performing, sharing their art, working out the bugs of playing and learning how to communicate musically or artistically with people.”
Each street performer still has musical influences that manifest in their live shows. Genre and song choice are all impacted by each busker’s champions and heroes. These influences are also felt outside of their busking careers and in their other musical pursuits and personal lives.
“My first real musical memory is Johnny Cash,” Reynolds said. “My dad introduced me at a very young age to guys like Gordon Lightfoot and Jim Croce; these real singer-songwriter types and storyteller types got a hold of me.”
Musical inspirations like Reynolds’ can also impact the performances of buskers. Even after street performers enter the world of bar and club stages, they still feel connections to their performing role models.
“My performance side is definitely inspired by John Mayer,” Bapst said. “The way he moves when he's playing, he just kind of commands attention … He was an inspiration pretty much the minute I started hearing his music.”
Although some OU students may see busking as an easy hobby, performing over the weekend on Court Street is not for the faint of heart. As the uptown for one of America’s top party schools, people going out for a night of fun can get somewhat out of hand.
“You see so much s--- out here,” Harmison said. “I've seen car crashes. I've had people like trying to kiss me when I'm playing. I saw someone climb onto (a fire escape) and start dancing while I was playing. It's Court Street on a weekend night. You're going to see a bit of everything. Yeah, so I don't think anything could surprise me at this point.”
For musicians who started as buskers and eventually made it to releasing their own music, looking back and helping other musicians can feel like an important task. Bapst released his EP “In Due Time” this year, and he offered some advice to people who started the same way he did before he got the opportunity to release his music.
“My advice would just be to do it and just keep playing because you get better at doing anything by doing it,” Bapst said. “It just helps you get better playing in front of people, so just keep doing it.”
Buskers tend to perform with an intention. They may just want to express themselves or they may want to earn a little cash on the side, but many have aspirational and musical goals.
“I would like to do some bigger shows,” Reynolds said. “I did the Washington County Fair this year and Pleasants County Fair in West Virginia and Black Walnut Festival, so I've done some bigger stuff. Recording a record would be really cool, and maybe I'll try (to) self-produce something. I'm looking at trying to maybe do some distribution on Spotify because enough people are asking about that for me to think maybe (I should) take that plunge.”
“Busking or outdoor arts can play a part in how we kind of reenvision or revitalize or use our public spaces ... People can go and hear or participate in a really neat, high-level artistic kind of presentation with very little cost to them.”-Sean Parsons
Other performers have also expressed an urge to record music as their motive for busking, but also that busking is a good way to get a musical background to help with producing other people’s music.
“I would say I (would) love to make music professionally one day,” Harmison said. “I mean, this is kind of semi-professional because I’m getting paid to do it, but it's not like I'm signed to a label. I've got a band that is playing uptown, so I'd love to do more of that someday.”
Street performers, while some may regard them as a nuisance, do have a positive impact on the streets where they perform, Parsons said.
“Busking or outdoor arts can play a part in how we kind of reenvision or revitalize or use our public spaces,” he said. “People can go and hear or participate in a really neat, high-level artistic kind of presentation with very little cost to them.”
Athens in particular is known for its music scene. For some students, the music scene is what brings them to OU, or it is at least a “pro” on their pros and cons list. Both buskers on Court Street and pedestrians on a night out readily welcome this and acknowledge the positive impact it has on the town and its residents.
“I would just encourage people to get around town and support local musicians,” Harmison said. “It's a really cool thing that we actually have a healthy music scene in Athens and it's something that a lot of towns our size don't have the luxury of having.”