Seventeen-year-old Elijah Krueger winds his hands up the bridge of his guitar, methodically hitting chord after chord. It takes concentration to even follow his movements, but he plays with a grin on his face like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
It’s First Friday, and as throngs of people walk by, some stop and listen, and the occasional generous donor puts a dollar bill (or three) in a cardboard box set in front of his feet. Playing music for passersby on the street is a passion of his, but it didn’t start that way. It began as a way to raise money for his music education.
For some, like Krueger, busking — performing on the street for donations — became a way to express an artistic voice, the easiest way to find an audience. For others, it is a means of income for a “starving artist.”
The motives vary from artist to artist but one thing remains the same — it’s a crucial way to perform for thousands of musicians throughout the U.S. It’s also an art that’s becoming endangered.
In the Eyes of a Busker
Performing in the street almost twice a week armed with his electric guitar, a grin, and shoulder-length hair, Krueger is pure punk rock. But off the street, Krueger is a student at the Phoenix Conservatory of Music.
The end goal for Krueger is to attend Berklee College of Music, but he began busking simply to raise $700 for a music program in New York. He would set up twice weekly with his dad at Phoenix Suns games, First Fridays, and other events.
It soon became less about the money and more about the act of playing.
“When you’re downtown and you walk on the street, it’s just someone playing music for other people,” Krueger says. “I think that’s so special. They’re not getting paid, necessarily. They’re just doing it because they want to share music with other people.”
Busker Marissa Melon was like Krueger at one point in her life. Performing on the street helped develop her art. But Melon gave a different kind of performance: aerial acrobatics. Whether it was twisting in fabrics and hovering above the ground, swallowing fire, or piggybacking kids over a sheet of glass, performing on the street was one of the ways Melon developed her voice as an artist.
She said it helped push her out of her comfort zone. Melon produced a circus, The Painproof Punks and Dipshit Sideshow, where she performed acrobatics in a rehearsed show. But walking down Mill Avenue in Tempe, her eye was drawn to street performance, where she saw people playing music and spray painting.
“Sometimes it’s a meal,” Melon says. “Sometimes it’s something to eat. A lot of the street performers are migrants and homeless — people that are just traveling. A lot of times it’s just performing to get a burrito down the street or fill up your car with gas to keep going.”
But Melon, who’s been asked to pick up and leave more than a few times, has also seen busking go through a sort of push and pull as anti-busking movements have taken effect.
One of those movements hit downtown Tempe, not just cutting down busking, but nearly the entire music scene.
The idea behind most busking bans usually boils down to public-safety issues and noise complaints. In many cases, city leaders try to expand the definition of panhandling or begging to include buskers.
But usually the issue isn’t so cut and dry. While cities like Chicago, Dublin, Washington D.C., and Boston have proposed bans on street performance, anti-busking movements often tend to manifest themselves indirectly in city ordinances.
This has been the case with Tempe.
Tempe used to be a city rich with music. In the ’80s and ’90s, it birthed bands like Jimmy Eat World and Gin Blossoms, who got their start playing in Mill Avenue bars.
Tempe city councilman Joel Navarro, who leads the Tempe Music Revival movement, says in the late ’90s through 2010, the city worked to discourage live music downtown.
“There was stuff [in the city code] that wasn’t really promoting [live music],” Navarro says. “I don’t think the city encouraged it. In fact, I think the city put up barriers to discourage it.”
He says a lot of the movement was due to a bias; many government officials there viewed street performance as noise pollution, not art. Small barriers and hurdles went up, and the performance culture there withered.
Krueger, who busks in a variety of different locations in the Valley, says performing in the Mill Avenue district doesn’t strike his fancy. He prefers to play electric guitar, but Tempe has placed obstacles in front of performers wishing to use an amp.
In September 2012, the City of Tempe authorized a “noise-control” program. Part of its initiative was prohibiting performers in Tempe’s downtown area from using amps or loud drums unless they go through the city to get a special permit. The idea behind it was to not drown other performers and prevent disruption of businesses, but it becomes a hurdle for performers like Krueger who rely on amps and drums.
There’s no technical ban from preventing buskers from playing in the city; however, there are a variety of small things that discourage live music in the area.
Until recently, the city charged bars a $1,000 one-time fee to have live music. The city instituted a flat fee for closing streets for events — meaning it would cost the same to close down a small side street or all of Mill Avenue.
“I think there were just too many obstacles and bar owners were like, ‘Ah, I can just put a DJ in here,’” Navarro says. DJs did not require the purchase of a live music permit.
It is only in the past few years that Navarro began looking at revising the city code; however, some restrictive ordinances still remain.
Take Sec. 24-19b, which prohibits performers from asking for donations at a minimum price, preventing musicians from selling CDs while busking, for example. Navarro says small pieces like this add up and create a sort of hostile atmosphere.
Sec. 24-19. Vending prohibited.
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in vending on any public sidewalk, right of way or city-owned property unless authorized pursuant to this article.
(b) It is not a defense to a violation of this section that the vending activity is offered on a donation basis, if there is credible evidence that the items offered for donation are subject to any minimum purchase price.
(c) Any person or persons guilty of violating any of the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and punishable as set forth in § 1-7 of this code.
The Process of Revival
That’s not to say there hasn’t been a busking revival in Tempe in past years.
Navarro has tried to break down barriers and bring back the music culture in Tempe.
The whole movement began about four years ago, when he hosted quarterly coffee talks discussing a potential revamp to the “vibe” that used to be ubiquitous on Mill Avenue. He recruited attorneys, local business owners, the Downtown Tempe Authority, bar owners, bands, and musicians to figure out how to bring the vibe back. He worked on the city ordinances, removing the $1,000 permit fee and cutting the cost of shutting down a side street for a concert or performance in half.
"It would make it just a little more practical for a bar owner who may [be located] off of a small street who used to say, ‘Hey I want to try and do something on that street, but the cost is way too high,’” Navarro says.
Navarro and musician Ted Allen formed a committee of six people and had local bars donate money and time, got stage companies to cut their prices in half, and secured donations from companies to pay bands instead of just asking them to play for free. They made a tentative deal with State Farm that would give the city $100,000 for live music.
Slowly, the music scene began to revive. Bars like C.A.S.A. Sunbá built stages and began hosting live events. The Downtown Tempe Authority began to run the events the small committee of six used to, giving them more time to focus on big-picture work. The DTA hired buskers to perform on street corners, and the city hosted an annual music revival month.
In the past year, the city even held a Busker Bowl in conjunction with the Super Bowl.
“Until you start encouraging live music,” Navarro says, “until you start encouraging what the history is all about and until you start encouraging the bands — you’re not going to see that movement starting to shift toward the music.”
However, there’s still a long way to go for the city. The hired buskers have to go through an audition process, and the city has to be a little more “hands-on” with who it selects, Navarro says.
Navarro explains that they were being methodical for a reason. They were making events open to the public to snag attention, then allowing that organic feel to manifest itself naturally.
“That’s when you see these small breakout areas in hidden spots and breakout bands performing, but you have to really think about catering to the market, and using the bar owners to create it and promote it,” he says.
Still, walking the streets of Tempe, your mind doesn’t automatically think music like it might have in the ’90s; that’s something Navarro believes will come with time.
Phoenix approaches busking differently than Tempe and many cities around the nation. Dwight Walth, director of grant services and community initiatives for the city of Phoenix, says busking and performing come with few, if any, regulations.
“Other cities have this whole process of licensing and permits, but here, as long as they don’t block public right of way, artists are free to set up and play,” Walth says.
Because of that relative freedom, Aaron Hopkins-Johnson, a poet and owner of Lawn Gnome Publishing on Roosevelt Row, hopes to foster a more robust busking culture downtown.
Hopkins-Johnson knows the value of busking due to personal experience.
“I came into it backwards,” he says. “A lot of people start busking, then go into venues and stuff. I went back to busking after already touring because I felt what I was doing was too formulaic. All my poems started sounding the same and following the same writing, memorizing, and performing process.”
He was a slam poet, one who toured the world, performing at festivals with authors like Lemony Snicket and Diana Gabaldon. But he found himself drawn to the street.
He discovered a sort of intimacy standing on equal ground with people painted head-to-toe in greens, dressed like a toy army soldier, or beat-boxing into a harmonica.
The spontaneity of busking was what caught his attention. It wasn’t like performing in a theater or following a routine. It was raw.
In 2012, Hopkins-Johnson opened a small used bookshop in the Phoenix Arts District called Lawn Gnome Publishing. Now, as a leader in the arts district, Hopkins-Johnson, like Navarro, is fostering community in his own way.
The store hosts live events almost every night of the week, doing open mics and storytelling events with the goal of simply giving someone a platform to express themselves without the fear of failure.
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In December, the store hosted its first annual International Busking Festival.
The idea behind the festival was to make street performing a more universal aspect of downtown — not just something that happens on First Fridays. He hopes to make busking a more widely expressed form of art in the city.
“Half the time I start something, I don’t know what I expect. If we’re dictating what culture is all the time, we’re not really going to know what our culture is,” Hopkins-Johnson says.