The sounds of feet shuffling, coins clinking and people chatting drown out all other sounds every morning in Granville Station.
After the rush dies down, the dim SkyTrain station transforms into a modest concert hall. Paul Neufeld, a classical guitarist, fiddles with guitar strings to play Spanish Romance. Jimmy Jackman serenades commuters with Dream a Little Dream of Me, using his ukulele, kazoo and his voice.[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2009/12/Dream-a-Little-Dream-of-Me.mp3]
“When people walk around the corner, they’re not expecting to be entertained,” said Jackman. “Then there I am, entertaining them, taking them out of themselves and hopefully putting a smile on their faces.”
The livelihood of TransLink buskers such as Neufeld and Jackman is under threat. TransLink is involved in a licencing dispute with SOCAN, which administers performing rights. This issue could push TransLink to downsize or shut down the TransLink Musician Program entirely.
SOCAN, a private organization, said that buskers must pay to perform copyrighted music in public.
“We contact every business that uses music,” said Marie-Josée Dupré, SOCAN’s director of business development. “Whether it comes from Canada or elsewhere, as soon as copyrighted music is played, our society tries to inform people of their legal obligations.”
The Translink Musician Program started in Vancouver 23 years ago. It allows buskers to purchase a permit for $75 a year to perform in SkyTrain stations.
“It’s just a nice thing to do, and our customers appreciate it,” said Bill Knight, the community relations officer at TransLink.
Rosa Paredes, who commutes from Surrey to downtown five days a week, shows her appreciation for buskers by offering spare change.
“Artists make life more interesting, exciting and wonderful,” she said. “They choose this life in spite of hardship, so I just like to make a small contribution and hope they make it.”
“Life would be so lame without artists. We depend on them for creativity and innovation. I encounter them everyday. It makes my day.”
Struggle for free self-expression
Paul Neufeld is one performer willing to put up with the hand-to-mouth lifestyle of a full-time busker to work at his craft.[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2009/12/paul-neufeld.mp3]
“It’s never fun when you go through a dry spell and you’re not getting tipped,” he said. “Sometimes you get the feeling that people don’t respect what you do. But I like the freedom of busking. It’s low-key and it exposes you to different people.”
SOCAN informed TransLink last year that its buskers are infringing upon performance rights that protect artists who create original music.
As the instigator, Translink is required to pay licencing fees for every busker who performs at every station. For the existing SkyTrain locations, TransLink will have to pay between $32,000 to $40,000 a year to SOCAN.
Toronto has allowed buskers to perform in subway stations since 1980. SOCAN could not comment on its involvement due to privacy issues, but Mary Cuckovic, the special events supervisor at the Toronto Transit Commission, said SOCAN approached the TTC in 2003.
“We were under their radar all these years. All of a sudden, they found out about our musician program,” she said.
TTC buskers pay $150 for permits, she said, while the transit body covers the $22,000 required by SOCAN.
TransLink argues it does not have the money to pay SOCAN.
“We don’t actually have a budget for the musician program,” said Knight. “We could use taxpayers’ money to subsidize it, but it wouldn’t work.”
“Our options now are either to pass on the fees to musicians, to scale down the program, or to limit it to only three stations downtown.”
Weighing the options
TransLink wants to settle this issue with SOCAN by the end of the year. If it passes on the fees to performers, Knight said, permits could increase to as much as $1500. If the program is downsized, the only locations available for performers who prefer to busk indoors would be Granville, Burrard and Waterfront.
For those buskers who already live on the fringe, raising the price of permits and facing greater competition for performance space could have dire consequences.
“It can’t work out well, no matter what happens,” said Angie Inglis, a musician who used to busk at TransLink locations for a living and continues to do so sporadically. She wrote a letter to SOCAN (PDF) in November.
“Greater competition will make people who busk for a living more desperate, angry and aggressive about their space and time,” she said. “It’s going to discourage people who don’t usually do it, which will take away the variety presented to the public.”
Inglis, whose busking career allowed her to launch her first CD in 2001 and to perform internationally, said that the survival of the TransLink Musician Program has less to do with buskers than it does with the public.
“We’re moving further away from a feeling of humanity and togetherness,” she said. “When you’re sitting on the train, nobody talks or looks at each other because they all have their phones and iPods.”
“But when you step out of the noisy, ugly, SkyTrain station, and you hear music, it changes your perspective. It jars you out of your own head and your own little world. It transforms your whole day.”