Here follows a tale of honour and responsibility, of deceit and discourage, a true picaresque, and furthermore, an informative story about busking in the Montreal Metro.
My name’s Bashu. I’m a young British Columbian who played accordion for joy and money 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 2 1/2 months in Montreal. There are buskers throughout the metro system who have done it for longer. I asked them questions when I met them, and gathered a wealth of useful rules and stories.
Photos were taken by Joaquin Cabello Aguilar. More photos of metro musicians can be found at his site, jcabelloa.tumblr.com.
I arrived in Montreal in October. The weather was pleasant and my head was light with the easy feeling of passing into a new town along a journey’s route. My brother had secured lodgings for us in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. I stopped there long enough for a glass of homebrew champagne, then took up my accordion and headed into the Metro.
So soon upon arrival? Maybe, but I was driven by a dream. People back in BC asked me “What will you do in Montreal?” and I said “Make 100 dollars a day playing accordion in the Metro.” It did sound grandiose to my quiet side. But a travelling poet in Santa Barbara once professed the value of “testing faith through action”, and I knew a song or two.
And besides, I like busking.
I headed to Berri-UQAM with my friend, K’esu, a Discordian. There by the St. Catherine exit, we met Carolina, an accordeoniste who would give us our first peek into the rules of busking in the Metro.
1) There are 55 signs throughout Montreal’s Metro stations with a lyre on them. In the space in front of these signs, it is legal and encouraged to play music, without needing a license, following the regulations described here.
Carolina was in the middle of a set and ready to start playing again. I thanked her for stopping to talk and left wondering:
Who gets to play at a certain time? Is it won by argument? Does one approach them, claim they’ve been there too long and it’s your turn? Horror stories of territorialism passed through my imagination. Old buskers can be hard people. She was a member of an organization called MusiMetroMontreal. Was that a requirement?
What do I have to do to be able to play? I pondered.
With this in my head, I parted with K’esu, went up the stairs to Rue St-Catherine, opened my case and played and thought. After three songs in a spot, I usually know whether to stay or leave. The third song finished. No money in my case. Fingers were numb. I looked back up the street. The Metro station beckoned.
I found the space empty. Carolina was gone. I looked up and down the hallway, asked the busking Gods for no trouble, and set up.
2) If a performer is absent from their spot, and it’s been 30 minutes or longer since the time they signed up for, a new musician can take that spot. To secure it, they must write their name in place of the absent musician’s.
I sang my heart out, made 10 dollars, K’esu came by, and we agreed that this was something we could get into. Two Montreal girls, sweet as honeywater, came by just as we were going. Play us a song, they said. So we made time, of course.
Too many girls are attracted to musicians. I have gotten much attention and at least one number while playing accordion. They are obviously nuts and should be hooking up with accountants or somebody more financially stable. But, I like nuts.
The next day, I found the MusiMetroMontreal website. If you want to busk and do well, read it. It’s the complete rulebook, in French only. It also has a list of every single busking sign in the metro system, with notes. But I was still confused, because Carolina had mentioned needing to be a member of MMM for some spots. Asking around, somebody told me to go to Sherbrooke, so I did.
When I got to the sign, Maelstrom was chatting with a recorder player. I asked how I could busk here and what the rules were.
3) The signup sheet is a small piece of paper stuck behind the busking sign. It’s placed there by the first busker to arrive. It starts as a blank schedule with the date and station at the top. If you want to play at a spot, sign up on the schedule.
4)When you sign up, you write your name in the time slot you want. You can pick one time slot a day at each station. But when you do that, it’s reserved for you. Anybody who comes up to hassle you while you’re playing, you tell them “I’m signed up. It’s my spot.”
5) The schedules are filled quickly in busy stations, because the buskers arrive early (like 5:30 am) to get their spots. Buskers work hard. In slower stations, like Cremazie or St-Laurent, there may be no list because no buskers signed up. You can go there and play. Etiquette says to still stick to a two hour set if somebody else wants to play.
6) In busy stations there will be a main piece of paper and also a backup, and maybe a second backup. The backups are stuck behind poster cases and signs. Look around, and make sure you sign up on all of them. This helps in case of dispute, or stolen schedules.
7) The spots labelled Les Etoiles Du Metro are held for members of the MMM who have passed their audition, and time slots there are reserved another way.
Maelstrom and the recorderist told me all this. And then Maelstrom paused, aligned his conversational gunsights and talked for 20 minutes about busking and the MMM.
Who Makes The Busking Rules?
From their website: “The Coalition of Montreal Metro Musicians, also called MusiMétroMontréal is a non-profit organization whose main objective is to represent all the musicians of the Montreal metro and defend their interests.”
The MusiMétroMontréal was formed in 2009. Buskers who had been working before and after its formation will give you their opinions on it. Some think it’s a good thing and others… well. One story I’ve heard is that the STM, fed up with apparent chaos caused by buskers, were ready to close busking spots throughout the Metro, till the MMM stepped in. Other stories are more cynical.
Only ever having busked in unregulated places, I was overjoyed to find Montreal’s system. I am thrilled that I don’t have to fight, argue, negotiate or scare people in order to work. But I have also met buskers who say that the pre-MMM scarcity of regulation made for a more diverse metro music scene, and the rules scare away good musicians who don’t know how to sign up. If you want to know the spectrum of views, talk to buskers- most I’ve met are happy to chat if their set is done.
The schedule was full for the day. I left Sherbrooke, Bach on recorder echoing in the corridor behind me.
St-Laurent was a busy street, I reasoned. Maybe I could find room on the schedule there, though it’d be cramped. I showed up there, accordion in hand, and found a lyre sign, with neither a busker nor a list. Surprised, I opened my case and began to play.
Which Station Should I Play At?
As a starter, I encourage you to play wherever looks the most fun to you. I recommend Mont-Royal station, just outside the doors. There is no sign, but it has immensely uplifting energy and the cops seem to be absolutely fine with unlicensed busking there.
If you want to make money easily, play at the busy stations. If you want to make money and not travel, play harder at the station closest to you. If you want to make money in a place you love, play harder at your favourite Metro station. For a while mine was St-Laurent. Then Cremazie. Then Square-Victoria. People ask me “What station do you play at?” Why would I play at the same place every night?
My friends would ask me how busking was going. My stock answers were “Well, it’s the only job I’ve found where the more fun you have, the better you do.” and “I’m going to learn the whole Amelie soundtrack.”
Strangers would ask what I was doing in Montreal. Every single time I would hesitate and say “I play accordion in the Metro”, and then watch them to see how they’d react. Most people were curious. Some were appreciative. None were ever as judgmental as I expected. Montreal seems to like its buskers.
As time went on, I learned, as you will, which busking stations I loved most.
I also learned the finer points of the rules.
Are Buskers Nice To Each Other?
Well, they’re coworkers.
One day I arrived at dependable Sherbrooke without a reservation and found the spot empty, half an hour past the starting time. I set up and played till Maelstrom came by and inspected the schedule.
“OK,” he said after the song. “OK, I am going to be the hard guy and go by the rulebook on this, and take this spot from you. The rules say that if you are taking an absent spot after 30 minutes, you must write your name in place of the absentee’s.” He looked me in the eye to make sure I understood, and wrote his name down. I nodded and started to pack up.
He said, quite simply, “I am only doing this so you’ll remember, and also because I want this spot to make some money because I got up late this morning. But listen, come back in half an hour and I’ll give it back to you, because I can see that you are very respectful.” He sat down and started to play. My admiration of him increased. I walked off to visit Square-Vic.
Respect between buskers takes this form for me: Go by the rules, and wait till they’ve finished the song.
What’s Busking Like?
If I hugged you, that would be the only way that I can really express how I feel about playing music for people. No, wait. Think about how you feel when someone is playing a song you love. Imagine being that person, seeing that someone loves your music. Imagine playing those songs for 4-6 hours a day. That’s what busking can be like.
And what can busking be like when I don’t enjoy it?
Sometime busking is like a weight. I know I’m signed up for 6 hours today, but I don’t want to play another song. The songs become automatic movements of the fingers while I blankly watch the crowd and am aware of my aching feet.
Thankfully most of my days tended towards the positive. How? An accordionist from the Petrovjic Blasting Company once gave me advice that I use frequently while busking. He said “Playing with great technical skill is fun for you. But it won’t make you more money. Playing with heart will make you more money.”
If you can’t play with heart, then go home, put down your instrument and don’t play until you can make something that you love. When you know you’re playing with heart, go back into the Metro then. You will see the difference on people’s faces.
Busking 6 hours a day is like moving in with your girlfriend. It will test your relationship with your music. When I stopped, it was because I needed a break. I took a job baking bagels, and I’m very happy with it. The bagels don’t require me to bake with heart, though I am always happier when I do.
I told the truth to my friends. Busking is the only job I know where your pay depends on you having fun. I have not yet reached the goal I mentioned, but it would come from having fun if I did, I guarantee.
How much money will I make busking?
How much money is in your pocket right now, and how much attention are you paying to the world around you?
You’d probably say it depends. The wages of busking are calculated according to the following equation: a person feeling good about the music they hear as they walk past X how much money they have in their pocket X the number of people passing through the station you’re playing in.
If that sounds exciting, you should go busk right now, because frankly it is. You will never know how much you’ll make in an hour. Any busker will tell you stories of averages, or legendary days. None of them can tell you how much you can expect to make.
Though I should mention the regulars. These people will give you money just because you’re there, whether you’re playing Shostakovich or Wagon Wheel. They are often sweet old ladies and rushed businessmen. They make up my minimum wage, and I thank them for that. The real reason I busk, though, because I still do now and then, is because when somebody stops and gives me a dollar or just stops to say, “Thank you for playing, because I love that song.” That is when my heart melts and I remember why I am there.
Thanks for reading, because I love writing. Musicians, if you’re curious, go sign up for a spot in the morning. Everybody else, don’t be afraid to stop and listen to a song, tip if you desire.
As Maelstrom said once, “This job has other rewards.”