It’s no secret that our city is flush with musicians. Sure, our pubs and music venues are overflowing almost every night of the week, but what about out on the street corner, outside that shop or next to that building? Rain or shine, our buskers continue to entertain – or in some cases, annoy – harried passersby and interested crowds with plenty of enthusiasm in tow.
All the said, busking is far more than just a passionate – but penniless – undertaking. Indeed, street-side entertaining can be a relatively profitable full-time business for some. We spent some time chatting with three of Melbourne’s iconic buskers – Shen the veteran Chinese violinist, Beto the pan flute player and Max the guitar shredder – to get a sense of a day in the life of a street performer.
Known to many passersby for his sweet smile and soft melodies, Shen the Chinese violinist plays regularly in front of the NGV and on Swanston Street. A master of his unique instrument, traditionally known as the erhu, Shen plays songs he learnt as a young man in Shanghai. Now 75, he has retired from his day job and has been busking for the last two years as a hobby. “Busking gives me a stage to practice my instrument and share my music with the community,” he says. While you may see generous donations in his open erhu case, Shen explains that while tips are appreciated, he busks for the people, not the money. “The best payment is when someone compliments me on my playing.” He may not be the loudest or most eccentric busker in Melbourne, but he is still one of the most recognised for his unique instrument and musicianship. “I get invited to do in-house performances and community performances and I appreciate these a lot. I like to see people captivated by my music – it makes me very happy,” he says.
Just down the road, across the river and into the city’s heart, Beto demonstrates that busking can be a relatively profitable venture, his music a familiar soundtrack to shopping along the Bourke Street Mall. Bringing a bit of Machu Picchu to Melbourne, Beto has been busking for nearly eight years across South America and Australia playing the pan flute. Beto learnt the notoriously difficult instrument by ear back in Peru and seems a natural talent. Playing all year round to the thousands of people who wander Bourke Street every day, he doesn’t play at any established venues, nor does he need to work a more conventional job. Instead, he sells his CDs while performing, which proves to be quite a successful business. “It does very well for me, I sell a lot of CDs,” he says. “When I’m not performing, I’m rehearsing.”
When asked about the busking scene and any territorial rivalry or competitiveness, Beto gives a different, more positive spin. “We all know each other, everyone is happy to play. It’s like a free concert and it is really professional and organised.” There is a Bourke Street Mall busking committee and the competition for new buskers is tough as a the strip is prime location for people willing to lend their ears and spend some money.
Come evening, the Melbourne busking community is joined by Max ‘the funky bunny’, as he is known. Predominantly a session musician playing across town and in a wedding band, Max busks as a means to earn some extra cash on the side, not to mention the love of entertaining. “I just like performing for people and making them laugh,” he says of his street-side performance in a bunny suit.
“I used to play in a band where I would dress up as animals and play onstage, so I took it to the streets. I dressed up as a penguin, a polar bear, a horse, but something about the bunny suit seemed to tickle people’s funny bone, so I stuck with that.”
Rocking out to a rendition of Deep Purple’s Smoke on The Water, flipping his bunny head around and entertaining excitable city crowds on a Friday and Saturday, Max’s nights busking are rarely dull and he often becomes a spectator himself. “One of my best experiences was White Night,” he urges. “The city turned into a playground of art… It was cool to be part of.”
Shen plays outside the NGV, the Arts Centre and the State Library 4–5 days a week, usually 11am–2.30pm.
Beto plays at Bourke Street Mall on a rotating roster, from 11am onwards 3–4 days a week.
Max the bunny plays on a Friday and Saturday night on the corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Lane, or Swanston and Collins Street from 7pm onwards.