Chet Greason, Gazette staff
There is something pleasantly different about Stratford in the summer that’s not found in other cities: music, and not the kind that’s piped into loudspeakers in other communities to enhance the shopping experience.
Where would Stratford artists like Justin Bieber or Loreena McKennitt be without busking? Festival City sidewalks have become synonymous with live music.
“Music on the street completes the Stratford experience,” says Stratford Tourism Alliance executive director Eugene Zakreski. “Buskers and summer just go together.”
Busking has its roots in antiquity. The term comes from the Spanish word “buscar,” meaning “to seek,” which in turn is derived from indo-European and Celtic terms meaning “to win,” “conquer,” and “victory.” The word was brought to England by the Romani, or Gypsy, people, renowned for their strong music and dancing traditions, as well as other cultural entertainments like fortune telling.
In speaking with a number of Stratford buskers, the Gazette learned that the city is significantly more open to street musicians than other communities.
“Busking in Kitchener or Hamilton isn’t as lucrative … People aren’t as interested,” says Stratford musician Ned Wentworth, who that particular day was playing an accordion in Memorial Park. “Stratford, for a small town in Ontario, is really supportive of buskers. It’s an open community to arts in general.”
As if in response, a woman eating on the nearby Pazzo’s patio offers Wentworth a generous tip.
“Thank you. It was so wonderful,” she enthuses, suggesting Wentworth’s performance was like a private dinner show.
Wentworth smiles and thanks the woman before returning to his accordion.
“I only just picked it up a few months ago,” he says of the instrument, adding he also plays the dulcimer, banjo, pennywhistle, guitar, mandolin, and harmonica.
Alex Iarocci, meanwhile, drives in from Brantford to play specifically in Stratford. A lifelong Who fan, Iarocci was drawn to the steps of the Avon Theatre in hopes his covers of Who songs, played on his acoustic guitar, would resonate amongst Tommy ticket-holders.
Iarocci says he began busking in 2003 outside of LCBOs and Beer Stores.
“They tend to have a lot of traffic; people with change in hand.”
Tommy shows are the only time Iarocci busks anymore, playing most of his gigs at restaurants, bars, and community theatre productions closer to home.
“The only other place I go (to busk) was an LCBO in Cambridge, but not really anymore. Nowhere else let’s you do it.”
That’s because the City of Stratford doesn’t require musicians to apply for a permit like in Toronto. Buskers are free to set up on public sidewalks, provided the business or residence they’re performing in front of doesn’t have a problem with it (most don’t).
In fact, the Stratford City Centre has begun to pay buskers to play downtown in order to ensure there’s always live music in the summer. Financed by the BIA levee, the buskers are paid an hourly wage to perform on certain days. Their take includes any tips they might make.
“We wanted something downtown that added to the city,” explains City Centre chair Jackie Catania.
She adds that she hires mostly musicians from the area to support the local music scene.
“The only thing they can’t do is sell CDs. They need a vendor’s permit to do that.”
So how much money can a busker expect to make during a performance? Some claim to have made as much as $225 after a few hours, others as low as 75 cents. Most are somewhere in between. It seems that the amount of money you make largely depends on the location you play in.
City council discussed the possibility of licensing and regulating buskers in 2011 after a few complaints were received regarding musicians arguing over choice spots.
The buskers who spoke with the Gazette say the arguments were isolated incidents initiated by a single individual. That individual was approached by members of Stratford’s busking community and asked to consider sharing the sidewalks. Incidents have been low ever since.
Council, meanwhile, decided to allow the buskers to continue to govern themselves.
“We don’t want it licensed. We like the spontaneity of it,” says Catania.
“If there’s already a busker (in my usual spot), I don’t bug them. It’s bad etiquette,” adds Iarocci. “I just give them some money and listen for a while, then try going somewhere else. Musicians should support each other.”
In fact, being courteous has paid off big for Iarocci. During the opening night of Tommy, the coveted spot in front of the Avon was taken, forcing him to find a different spot near the stage door. This led to a chance encounter with his idol, Who guitarist and Tommy composer Pete Townshend.
“I said, ‘You’re my greatest influence,’ and he smiled and shook my hand. He said, ‘‘I hope to hear your songs someday.’”
Thirteen-year old fiddle-player Jennifer Saunders had a similar celebrity experience. While playing in front of the Avon in 2011, she was approached by former Stratford busker Justin Bieber and his film crew about appearing in his movie Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
The Stratford-raised popstar advised Saunders to “follow her dreams.” She’s since been recognized by visitors who have seen the movie, some from as far away as France.
Saunders can still be found playing in front of the Avon Theatre, now accompanied by her seven-year-old brother Julian. The two incorporate step-dancing into their duelling fiddles.
“I usually get nervous when I perform, but with busking I don’t get nervous at all,” she says. “It’s just fun.”
David Robertson, who’s been busking for four years, echoes that sentiment.
“I suffer from stagefright,” he says. “Busking helped me to get over it.”
Robertson adds performing helped him through a particularly bad time in his life.
“It’s a healing thing,” he says.
Robertson founded the Stratford Busking Association, which currently maintains a YouTube channel of local street musicians. The channel, under the name buskinginstratford, has over 100 different videos uploaded.
“I wanted to showcase people busking,” he explains. “I want the association to be a base for them.”
He says plans are currently underway to open a downtown studio where local musicians can record their music.
“Stratford is a hub for arts energy,” he adds.
That hub, says Wentworth, draws its energy from a close-knit network of like-minded local artists.
“It’s a tight community. Everybody knows everybody and gets along.”
He adds monetary compensation is only a small motivator for busking.
“I do it, partially for the money, but also to spread music around. Music’s my passion. I have a drive to share that.”