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This article was written by a Baybeats Budding Writer under the guidance of mentor Eddino Abdul Hadi, music correspondent for The Straits Times.
On his first ever busking set four years ago, singer-songwriter Jason Yu earned $48. He had played for about 90 minutes—at the Marina Bay Sands, no less. Yu had just completed his National Service and, prior to busking, had been working at part-time jobs that would pay between $8 to $10 hourly. It was this experience that convinced him that it was possible—and in many ways more worthwhile—to continue busking regularly as a means of earning a decent income. “The fact that I was doing something I enjoyed, and that the money was even comparable to those other jobs, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, was amazing to me,” he shares.
When you picture the average Singaporean busker, you’re typically reminded of an older man or woman covering songs from the 1950s and 1960s. Over the past five years, however, a new crop of younger street musicians has been on the rise—half of the 300 currently licenced buskers are below the age of 35. For these young musicians, many of whom write and perform original songs, busking is not just as a hobby, but a crucial part of their livelihood. As part of this era’s burgeoning gig economy, it’s a viable alternative to the conventional structures of work life and the rigours of the 9-to-5, five-day work week.
“Growing up, I knew I wanted to pursue music as a career,” says Yu, now 26. The prospect of performing in live venues was somewhat intimidating to him then, as it came with daunting expectations about the kind of music to perform based on each venue’s clientele. “So I started out busking for fun, just to try it out, and I had zero expectations. I slowly learned it could actually be lucrative.”
More than being a worthwhile source of income, busking serves as the easiest and most organic form of marketing for many aspiring musicians. After trying to use Instagram advertisements to promote his music online, Yu discovered that his street performances propelled the growth of his following with greater speed and immediacy than any social media campaigning could hope to achieve. Four years, two singles and numerous sets since he started busking, he has attracted over 31,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.
He’s not alone in using busking as a pathway to amassing a following from scratch. Fellow musician Joy Heng, 25, started busking with the goal of building a profile for herself as a singer-songwriter. “Busking gives us a platform to showcase ourselves and our music to people,” she shares. She had started busking in 2016 as an undergraduate student in Melbourne, and continued the practice after she returned to Singapore in 2018.
Heng had decided upon graduating from the University of Melbourne’s Interactive Composition programme, that busking was going to be one of her main sources of income. She also took up teaching stints and gigs at weddings and birthday events, which together amounted to a full-time music practice. “But to get a full-time income, I really had to busk every week. Four times a week was the usual, but if I had other gigs that week I’d take a break from it. I’d busk for for three to four hours—by then, my speaker, and my voice, would probably just die.”
Similar to Heng, Rachel Gay, 24, started busking soon after graduating from LASALLE College of the Arts’ music programme. “I like jobs I can do ‘own time own target’. So I busked two to four times every week, three to four hours each.”
So we’ve met three enterprising youths embarking on busking careers fresh out of music school. What about the buskers who started out later? Mano Esperanza, 38, has one such story. He got his busking licence five years ago, and took it up as a part-time passion project, singing covers and original compositions while holding a full-time day job. He transitioned to full-time busking after losing the job, sticking it out for two years—until serendipitously, a spectator who listened to him playing at Clarke Quay offered him a job fixing safety nets for pets. The Brazilian man was taken with Esperanza singing an original composition in Brazilian Portuguese. “People (at Clarke Quay) know me as the guy who sings Spanish, Portuguese, Malay and English songs,” he explains. Naturally, that’s his favourite spot to busk. “When the sun goes down, the street lights create this homely feeling, such that I can just be myself and interact with the older buskers and strangers who become friends!”
In contrast to Esperanza’s preference of locale, Heng and Gay’s preferred site to busk at is near the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station in their respective neighbourhoods of Pasir Ris and Tampines. Meanwhile, Yu’s inclinations gravitate closer towards the bustling centre of the city, such as Orchard Road or Marina Bay, finding the response more substantial there than the neighbourhood spots he plays in Bukit Batok and Yew Tee. “In terms of raw traffic, it’s one of the best spots in the world, I think,” he says. His most profitable set took place at Orchard around Christmas in 2017, when he earned almost $1,000 in a day. “When the going is that good, even if I’m tired I’ll do five to six hours—it’s worth it.” His lowest takings tended to be “maybe on random Tuesdays, daytime, along Orchard Road, I could play for four or five hours and it’ll be a little over $100 for the whole day.”
On the other hand, Heng and Gay find the city area too competitive an arena for buskers to hold their own. “Once you get there, it seems like everyone’s fighting for a spot, and there are few good ones,” Heng shares. “It’s not worth it, especially considering the cab fare to travel there and back.”
For Heng and Gay, the most profitable sets they’ve played were in their neighbourhoods. For example, on a good weekend afternoon, slightly before Chinese New Year, Gay pulled in a total of $300 playing at Tampines, and the lowest amount she’d received in a day was around $40. Heng’s biggest earnings were also in Tampines, while her lowest was on an afternoon in Orchard.
Still, if there’s one common ground shared by these four buskers, it’s that the most rewarding moments of each of their busking careers comes not so much from the money earned but from the pure joy of self-expression and the genuine connections forged with their audience which gives them the encouragement and motivation to continue on the road less travelled. “You have to ask yourself why are you doing this,” emphasises Esperanza. “Is it really just for the money, or is it because music is so deeply rooted and embedded in you that if you don’t find ways to express yourself you will explode?” In addition, he goes on to share about receiving pleasant surprise gifts such as Valentine’s Day chocolates, tickets to a boat trip on Clarke Quay, and a note encouraging him to follow his passion.
Similarly, Yu recalls very clearly that it was his third busking set when an expat staying at Marina Bay Sands walked up to him and told him never to give up. Yu later received a long, sincere and heartening e-mail from the traveller sharing his reflections on Yu’s performance. For Gay, receiving encouraging hand-written notes from students was the highlight of her busking experience.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, new modes of performance have emerged. Livestreamed performances, for example, have become ubiquitous, and despite their limitations, offer a degree of intimacy between performer and audience. Yu and Gay have both taken part in live-streams, but they’ve been fairly unimpressed with the form: there’s simply no substitute for the real thing. Gay feels that the hype of live-streams was promising at the beginning of the circuit breaker, but as they became so frequent and common, it died down after a while. Yu, who last month released a new single Now I Know, shared that promoting the release was significantly challenging. “I can’t do physical promotions, so I have to rely on digital means, and livestreaming simply cannot recreate the physical performance.” Esperanza shares his ambivalence: “It depends on the situation and what my objective is. I do livestreaming to entertain my friends who are overseas—it’s more of a bonding session than actual busking.”
So what lies ahead for these young upstarts in the busking scene, now that COVID-19 has kept them away from the streets? For the time being, Yu continues his undergraduate study in Monash University’s Bachelor of Music programme. Heng had taken a job in audio production for advertising, citing that busking solo had begun to be mentally draining—but she continues to pursue her songwriting career through a mentorship with Noise Singapore. During the circuit breaker period, Gay took up a job processing online deliveries to tide herself through to the next time she can perform in public, and more recently has started pet-sitting. “I always wanted to be a zookeeper. That’s my end goal: to do music and to work with animals.”
And finally, Esperanza responds with an apt citation from a classic Joni Mitchell hit. “Like everybody else, I’m trying to cope and move on with life. I think everything happens for a reason and we can always learn from them. Just like in the song Big Yellow Taxi: Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got, ‘til it’s gone?”