I hear his voice long before I see him, the faint echo of his guitar and kick drum lingering around the park, drawing me in to take a closer look. When Harry Treg finally comes into view, it’s an idyllic picture – he’s standing under a tree in Camperdown Memorial Park, serenading a handful of people scattered around the meadow. When I join them, I notice that they’re all wearing a smile. A man to my left knows the song and adds his own harmonies to the melody. Dog walkers, nannies and joggers pass by, their attention momentarily captured by Harry’s voice, each one shooting him a smile or an appreciative nod. Harry has been busking for several years now, first starting off in Adelaide as a duo, then moving to Sydney and trying his luck as a solo artist next to his day job. “I think people often don’t realise that most buskers do have regular jobs. Some do it full-time, but most just do it for fun,” he tells me once I sit down with him after his set.
Today, Harry busks for a good cause. Today is Newtown’s annual Busk for a Cure festival, for which more than 50 artists busk at 5 different locations in Newtown, raising money for Cancer Council NSW and Crohns & Colitis Australia. All of King Street is dotted with bright orange T-Shirts, whether it’s artists, sound engineers or organisers buzzing back and forth between the five locations. Camperdown Memorial Park is the most peaceful and quiet.
Uploaded by Anna-Maria Natlacen on 2018-06-04.
Meanwhile, Newtown Station paints an entirely different picture: people rushing to catch their trains and shouting over the constant roars of vehicles driving past. Amidst all the buzz and traffic: one girl and her guitar, peacefully strumming along to a bittersweet melody. Brynn Luker doesn’t let the bustle faze her. “When I’m busking, I just love playing, and I’m having a good time,” she explains. “Money is cool also, but mostly it’s just a really good experience to just be confident playing in front of people.”
This is also the case for fellow busker Sam Lily, who exclusively plays original music. “Every now and then you can get cranky people who might come across a bad busker and just want some peace and quiet but I think in general everyone’s happy to hear music.” Sam is 23 years old and has been busking since the age of 12. “Honestly, you actually earn more money when you’re younger, because people think you’re cute and it helps if you have talent as well, but I’ve noticed that as you get older the cute factor kind of goes down so you have to make up for it in skills.” When I ask him about his 11 years of busking experience, he cannot recall any particular negative experiences. The positive ones however spill out of him like a waterfall, as he recounts the funniest and most creative items he has received in his guitar case. He has rarely encountered any trouble on the street, and when he did it was mostly on the part of competitive fellow buskers rather than the general public.
I recall my visit to Bunk Bed Beats recording studio a week earlier, where I met the founder of Busk for a Cure, Helmut Uhlmann for an interview. “One thing that you really see when you go busking is that there is no ‘the public’. There are all kinds of people out there.” He goes on to explain the different observations of people he’s made over the years: how people coming from work around 6pm – the audience most buskers go for – seem to be the most unhappy with their lives and tend not to be very generous, while someone who looks like they might give you trouble might say the loveliest things to you. “You really cannot judge a book by its cover.” Those words really resonate with me as I sit and watch Brynn’s set at Newtown Station and observe people in suits and rags alike walking past her.
Uploaded by Anna-Maria Natlacen on 2018-06-04.
When I ask about the most beautiful thing about busking, most of my interviewees reply it’s the spontaneity. Busking is something that happens in a rare moment, something that cannot be planned or recreated. Helmut describes the authenticity of busking in his own words: “Nobody ever needs to give you any money or any praise or even stop to listen to you but each time somebody does choose to do one of those things, it’s a direct show of appreciation for your art and I think that’s something really special.” The quote that sticks with me the most from his interview and remains on my mind for weeks after, is his firm belief that buskers don’t just contribute a soundtrack to people’s commute, but affect many people in deep ways that the busker will never know about: “You don’t know how you’re going to affect someone with your music. Who knows, maybe you saved someone’s life today.”
Finally, I ask him about his inspiration for creating Busk for a Cure. “I wanted a way to feel some sort of existential purpose as my mum was slowly dying and there was nothing I could actually do to help her,” he starts, and the room gets very dusty all of a sudden. “Creating Busk for A Cure was a way for me to find a sense of purpose, something to do, something that kind of kept me going, while also combining that with something that I love doing which is music.” Busking has always been a consistent source of joy in Helmut’s life. When I ask him about the secret of being a good busker, he smiles and replies: “If you’re just doing it for the money, people can tell. If you’re doing it for yourself, because it makes you happy, people will notice, and enjoy that.”
Where do you see the future of busking headed?, I ask all my interviewees, already anticipating their reply: Ranked amongst the world’s top cashless economies, less and less Sydneysiders tend to have cash on them, all of my interviewees observe, although none have noticed a significant decrease in donations. “The amount of times I’ve gone past somebody busking and thought ‘That’s amazing but I don’t have cash on me!’” recounts Brynn Luker. Sam, Harry and Brynn all suggest this could be avoided by buskers accepting EFTPOS donations, although they’re not sure this would gain people’s trust. “People think, if you’re busking, and you have that kind of money that you can buy that technology, then you don’t deserve my money,” Brynn continues. Helmut Uhlmann is not concerned by this, explaining that he always displays his social media handles during his sets and makes up for the missing cash in Facebook Likes and YouTube views, something of significant value when most of the artists’ content is proliferated online.
One thing all of my interviewees are certain about: Busking will stay alive. “People are always going to be wanting to perform on the street, and I think people are always going to appreciate people who do perform on the street,” Sam Lily says matter-of-factly before he says goodbye, shoulders his guitar and heads off to his next busking adventure.
Find all five locations for Busk for a Cure in the map above. Share your experiences with buskers in the comments, and click here to donate to Busk for a Cure’s cause.