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Busking Loose in Vancouver

This is the summer street performers joined to challenge the city's 'no fun' rules. Are they winning?

Ryan Elias 5 Aug

Ryan Elias is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

"The no-fun city? I find that very hard to believe, actually."

Just finished with his act, Owen Lean was definitely still running on adrenaline. His signature tailcoat and top hat had been stuffed into a briefcase, but his speech still carried a stage magician's cadence, brisk and precise.

"Street performance isn't like the theatre," he said, gesturing broadly in a coffee shop on Granville Island around the corner from his performing spot, or "pitch," as buskers call it.

"You don't have to set aside an evening and sit in the dark to watch it. It comes to you, on your lunch-break or while you're shopping... If you like it, you stop. If you don't, you keep walking."

Every year, Lean flies from his home in London to spend the summer doing magic tricks in Vancouver. The 27-year-old, who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts that he believes may be the world's first academic degree in street magic from Dublin's Trinity College in 2006, didn't need much prompting to wax enthusiastic about the city, especially the zone where he makes much of his yearly income.

"Granville Island is one of the best places in the world to busk," he said. "It's a massive tourist hub, so the money's pretty good, and there's this really fantastic, really familial community of buskers."

But beyond the cozy fairground of Granville Island you'll hear a different story. In Vancouver's bustling downtown core, the relationship between busker and city is less comfortable.

Street performers in Vancouver face a curfew of 10:00PM; play later and you can be shut down and fined. Amplification is largely disallowed. And some performers report being threatened with arrest and the confiscation of their instruments.

Lean said these are symptoms of a mindset where buskers are "akin to panhandlers," a public nuisance rather than an integral part of the cultural life of a city.

He said that noise worries are often overblown.

"Cities like Dublin have a very relaxed policy on busking in the evening," he said. "Areas like Temple Bar and Grafton Street, places that have people reveling in them all through the night anyways. The buskers certainly aren't going to make them any more noisy."

Walking along downtown's Granville Street at midnight on a Saturday, through the thump of bass from a dozen nightclubs, it's certainly hard to imagine how a few musicians could increase the cacophony.

"For the guitarists and the rappers, the bar crowd should be their bread and butter, and they basically aren't allowed to play for them," said Lean.

Street politics

This summer, on the heels of a series of police crackdowns, a group of buskers set out to loosen restrictions. Lean said that the movement was spearheaded by Marc Stokes, a freestyle rapper who started performing in Vancouver just last year.

"Marc has really put himself out there, he's been pushing these issues since he came onto the scene," said Lean.

Owen Lean's video captures his antics on Granville Island.

"Last year was my and [singer/guitarist David Morin]'s first year busking. We had a lot of fun, but it was really difficult at times," said Stokes, referring both to threats of arrest and the difficulty of making a living when you're simply not permitted to play to your natural audience. "Through the year we recognized that we had to do something."

Stokes, who performs as "UN-1," got together with a number of other street performers to form Musicians United Against Censorship. They threw a protest concert in May on Granville at Robson Street, where it had been closed to traffic since 2006. Setting up a stage in the middle of the street, the event flooded the block with people, drawing hundreds to stop, dance, and sign a petition. Despite its flagrant violation of the city's street performance laws, the concert ran until two in the morning.

The protest seems to have gained traction, with the help of some advocacy from the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. The city agreed shortly afterward to extend busking hours and allow amplification along Granville Street until midnight for a trial three-month period.

"We dealt with Marc and a few others during the Olympics, so we had a good frame of reference for what they were trying to do," said Barbara Fairbrother, the DVBIA's event planning coordinator. "We'd seen the great public response to them. It really contributed towards a positive environment on the street."

Extended hours along Granville are a good first step, Stokes said, but there's more work to be done. He wants to see street performers embraced as an asset of the city, rather than merely tolerated to a greater degree.

"There's huge potential in this city for a really great music scene, and I think that busking is the first level to affect that," he said.

Freestyle rapper Marc Stokes (a.k.a. "UN-1") and singer/guitarist David Morin perform on Granville Street in Vancouver.

Some measures Stokes proposes include noise regulations based around decibels rather than the amplified/acoustic dichotomy, which fails to account both for different strengths of speakers and instruments like bagpipes and didgeridoos. He said performers and the city should examine key streets on an individual basis and establish busking stations in areas and at times where volume is less of a concern.

Ultimately, he said he hopes the city might see its way to subsidizing the pay of street performers, treating them as municipal employees or contractors.

Noisy disagreement

There doesn't seem to be any strong opposition to relaxed rules for street performers. But that doesn't mean the status quo is easy to change.

"We realize that sometimes it's challenging for the city to be able to see everything that's going on," said Fairbrother. "But Granville Street is something that we're really in touch with and familiar with... That's why we thought that [Musicians United Against Censorship] would be a great group to support."

Emma Mendoza-Isip, who handles street entertainment licenses for Vancouver, said that the city's only real concern about buskers is noise. She was not aware of any complaints thus far in the trial period on Granville.

Fairbrother also said that the trial period has been very successful. She said that the adjustments made to the city's bylaws really just legitimate practices that were already common, allowing buskers to play as they have been without needing to fear police intervention.

"Buskers in general are really respectful of the space, and with the merchants, the city, and us. Everybody's been working really well together," she said.

Ironically, the stiffest opposition to Musicians United Against Censorship has come from their fellow street performers. The group has been accused of promoting its members, many of whom belong to a community which performs regularly at Vancouver's Anza Club, at the expense of other buskers.

Others accuse Stokes of needlessly rocking the boat and provoking the police. They claim that before this summer the city's busking bylaws, harsh though they were, were largely unenforced.

"It might be purely coincidental, but as I recall the bans on busking only started the day the Stokester showed up... [I]t seems to me that he just likes to talk a lot of shit," guitarist Bodhi Jones wrote in May on the group's Facebook page.

"[S]orry that you feel I haven't had your best interests at heart. I am doing my best, if you have suggestions on how I can better represent you, I am all ears," Stokes replied.

Stokes' unflagging goodwill seems to be working. Geoffrey Leathwood, a fixture on Vancouver's busking circuit for more than four years, was one of Stokes' harshest critics initially, but has since come around.

"I was annoyed because [Musicians United Against Censorship] were making such a big stink about it and I was trying to exist under the radar," Leathwood said. "Even if there were laws inhibiting me from doing stuff, I would just kind of do it anyway, and have conversations with the cops on the scene. The law is a good thing to have on your side, though. It never really affected me before, but I'm glad to have it on my side."

'Not a protest, a celebration'

Busking advocates in Vancouver feel that momentum is on their side.

Musicians United Against Censorship held the City Motion Busking Series Concert on July 9 with help from the Downtown Vancouver BIA and Tom Lee Music. It was emceed by Lean and Anthony "Atma" Madani, another rapper. The event featured paid musicians, drawn from the city's club and street performers, who auditioned for spaces. The show drew sizable crowds for several hours on Granville.

"This is not a protest. This is a celebration," Madani declared at the concert.

Come September, buses will be back on Granville Street after a four-year hiatus for Canada Line construction, and some of the pitches set up by the BIA will shrink or disappear. But Fairbrother said she hopes that performers will keep coming even as the weather turns cold.

Stokes is hopeful too.

"Last year, Vancouver was probably the most difficult city to perform in in Canada," Stokes said, "And this year, well, I think it's still probably the most difficult city in Canada to perform in, but there's been real improvement. We're continuing to see improvement. And I think we can make it the best."

Lean left town July 29 to prepare for Failure, a one-man show he's putting on in London. Building on that, next year he plans to skip Vancouver for a European tour. But he'll be back in 2012. A summer in Vancouver makes up a significant portion of his yearly income, and he's not certain he'll do as well in Europe. Besides, he said, "I love it here. How could I not come back?"  [Tyee]

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