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Cost of living, regulation feed decline of downtown buskers in B.C. capital

Buskers detail change in conditions that are silencing street corner song

One-man band Dave Harris remembers a time when the streets of downtown Victoria were alive with buskers on every street corner.

He refers to this era, during the late-1990s and into the early-2000s, as “the great years,” when the City of Victoria issued more than 600 licences a year and performers would wait for hours to play in the city’s most lucrative spots.

But nearly 30 years later, as he packed up his equipment on a sunny July afternoon — the street bustling at the peak of tourist season — he gazed down Government Street and didn’t see another busker in sight.

“There’s just been a real history of high-calibre musicians playing on the street, and I hate to say it, but not so much anymore,” he said.

Harris and other long-time buskers said they have witnessed the scene go steadily downhill during the past 15 years. So far this year, the city has only issued 270 licenses.

There are a handful of reasons buskers suggest might be behind the decline.

A significant turning point for long-time busker Jaime Nolan was when the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority took ownership of the Inner Harbour roughly 15 years ago. It introduced a separate status for Inner Harbour buskers, dividing them from regular street buskers.

During those 15 years, the Harbour Authority went from licensing its maximum capacity of 28 buskers down to four.

A city-issued busking licence to play on the street currently costs $25 per year and does not require an audition, whereas a Harbour Authority license costs $200 per year and requires performers to audition for their spot.

Inner Harbour buskers additionally have to get liability insurance, which Nolan said can be expensive and hard to obtain.

“That insurance definitely removed a lot of the buskers,” Nolan said. “If you have to pay $200 for the license and then drop another $400 on insurance, you’re paying $600 for this license. If you can only get out on your weekends, you’re never going to get that money back.”

Harris opted to stick to the street when the increased costs and regimentation were introduced. He said “all that extra rigmarole” wasn’t worth it when he found the street to be just as lucrative.

“Busking is a free spirit thing in its ideal form, and having restrictions and rules is counterintuitive to the idea of busking to me,” he said.

But Nolan added performing on the Inner Harbour brings predictability and allows him to work a full-time job on top of busking. The Harbour Authority introduced a booking system where buskers can sign up for time slots and no longer have to wait for spots to become available.

“If it wasn’t for that, I probably wouldn’t have stayed a busker this time because I can’t go down and wait for four hours if I have to be at work at a certain time,” he said.

Nolan’s intimate connection to the Inner Harbour through his 30 years of busking inspired him to name his son Harbour, after the Victoria landmark.

Now 19 and a busker himself, Harbour’s signature spot is right along his very namesake. He started performing with his dad when he was six and then on his own when he was 12.

When he was young, he recalled seeing the Inner Harbour lined with artists underneath umbrellas who worked 10-hour days. He said the bright umbrellas were what encouraged people to come down.

But increased costs of living prevent artists from making enough money to support full days under their umbrellas, and many are forced to get second or third jobs.

“Now, the people who come and take those spots are not down every day. Sometimes I’ll come down on a Saturday night and it’s empty,” Harbour said.

With the artists and their eye-catching umbrellas dwindling, so is foot traffic. Jaime said crowds have since migrated to the newly pedestrian-only Government Street.

“The harbour used to be more lucrative because the street had cars, so the Inner Harbour was busy with foot traffic looking at the artists and buskers to entertain them,” he said. “But now that the foot traffic’s gone, you’re not really entertaining anybody.”

But whereas the Inner Harbour is governed by pre-established time slots and frequented by seasoned buskers, the ability for anyone to obtain a $25 city licence means many people don’t know, or simply don’t adhere to, busking etiquette and loosely enforced bylaws on the street.

Harris said the lack of etiquette is “quite frustrating” and contributes to the decline, as buskers aren’t inspired to come back after another performer sets up too close and interferes with their sound. He added people who sit down right in front of him and “totally absorb themselves in their phones” instead of engaging with the music is another disheartening factor.

Amplification is the main challenge Harris encounters on the street. Despite the bylaw prohibiting it, many performers amplify their sound, consequently drowning out those who choose to follow the rules.

The owner of Munro’s Books banned buskers from playing in front of the shop for several years due to noise incidents from loud buskers. Harris was thrilled when he was able to resume playing there following pandemic restrictions but fears performers with amps will jeopardize the spot once again.

Despite these challenges, Harris and other buskers said “there are a lot of positives” that keep them coming back week after week.

“People smile, little old ladies do little dances, and kids come up to you and look at you in awe, like they can’t imagine what you’re doing.”

During his 12 years busking, Harbour said he’s seen the scene ebb and flow. He is optimistic for a day when the Inner Harbour returns to the glory days his dad and Harris speak of so fondly.

“We’re hoping next year we’ll have more buskers and eventually it’ll get back to what it was,” he said. “It’ll probably still take a while, but we’ll see. I’m very optimistic.”

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