Just keep walking past that street-side guitar player or violinist, because if you stop, they’re gonna expect you to drop some change into that instrument case. Yet, on a saturday full of the Portland gray and rain, the small number of rain coat-clad city folk could still hear the sound of music on the sidewalks around Pioneer Courthouse.
“I think people tend to think that their main purpose is to make money.” said UP chemistry student Daphne Pai about her perception about street musicians.
In Portland’s winter shill and rain, there are not as many casual strollers in good spirits of charity. Evident as well though, is the truth that there are not as many musicians on Portland’s city sidewalks,
Street saxophonist Greg Merphy acknowledged that musicians with that attitude towards their own music are out there, but musicians with love for music and people first are out there as well.
“Whether I get paid or not, it’s fine by me.” said Merphy.
“Just putting a smile on somebody’s face is big to me.” said street bucket percussionist Thomas Brown. “Somebody might be feeling down one day. They’ll come by, and, ‘Aw man, you just kinda picked me up. I was kind of feeling down’ and that beat, that drive… “
These street musicians do not rely on the charity of others’ small change to provide them their income.
Brown views his weekend stints as a street bucket drummer merely as a hobby. He makes a living as a journeyman plumber currently working at Intel while Merphy is a graduate student at Portland State University studying to be an educator.
“I love doing that, but I love doing this a lot more because it’s a lot more exciting because I get to show my gift and allow people to hear music.” Brown said.
Pai recalled an experience when during a trip to Mew York City, she wittnessed the way that street musicians would confront passers-by and solicit money. This experience has led her to a realization about the general attitude towards busking.
“even if people passing by think that the musician performs well, they do not stop to listen because they think that they are obligated to tip the musician.” Pai points out.
There was no cajoling or pleas for money by the musicians out on the wet sidewalks on Saturday however. Instead of unashamed tactics, there exists a formal agreement between the City of Portland and street musicians.
Within the Contract for Street Musicians of Portland which is an official document which lists mutual duties and obligations for the musician and members of the community, musicians are obligated to be courteous to other musicians by playing one hour in a spot, then moving to another to give other musicians time at prime locations. Musicians should play a minimum of one block from each other to keep the noise level down. Musicians should not be heard from 100 feet away. Failure to abide by these guidelines could result in six months jail time or a $500 fine.
Community members in turn are obliged to be courteous to the musicians by not interrupting them while performing a number, or resorting to threats or intimidation in confronting problems.
It seems furthermore, that there exists a community among street musicians as well as a benevolent relationship with Portland law enforcement.
“if I’m sharing the corner with some people who are playing out for money… [I] try to give them a few bucks after I’m done. It’s pretty much a community out here. I don’t want to be selfish when it comes to that.” Merphy said about his ties to other musicians around him.
“I think I break the rule a little bit.” said the street percussionist. “The buckets are so loud and you hear the acoustics. I’m pretty cool with all the officers and police so they really don’t bother me. So if you cooperate and be cordial, they’ll work with you. If you’re not so nice of a person, you might not get as much respect, but I’m pretty tight with most of them.”
Portland’s street musicians do set out the open instrument case that is associated with their type, but playing music on sidewalks to a sparse city audience who hurry towards the indoors makes a statement. Maybe it is a passing smile, or a couple who stops to listen, but it is definitely not just the total in coins and bills that make the day’s work a success.