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Taking business to the street

While some people continue to frantically search online job postings for a steady and comfortable career, others decide to forego the typical desk job and take their own business to the streets.

‘ Full-time street performer Scott O’Brien said being a musician is so fulfilling for him, he decided to make it his career. O’Brien makes up half of Cahill, a rock duo that has performed in areas such as Harvard Square and Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

‘I started two years ago,’ O’Brien said. ‘We were at Harvard Square and we saw people doing it and we thought it might be fun. We kind of just kept going from there, and it became more and more of a full-time thing.’

In addition to busy tourist areas like Harvard Square and Faneuil Hall, some street performers, such as Berklee College of Music senior Sam Espinosa-Setchko, prefer to play in busy subway stations.

Espinosa-Setchko, who said he sings mostly Beatles songs, said he got into street performing after he saw a friend of his performing. He continues to perform and enjoys it because he is ‘getting tons of practice and getting paid for it.’

Stephen Baird, executive director of Community Arts Advocates, Inc., the organization that runs Street Arts and Buskers Advocates, a program that works with street performers, said there are a wide variety of performers in the city.

‘People play saxophones, they play guitars, they juggle, they do magic. You’ll see student groups out there. You’ll see people playing banjos,’ he said. ‘Then there are the professional artists hoping people will contribute to them, and hire them for weddings.’


Though street performers in places such as Fanueil Hall may seem commonplace to passing pedestrians and tourists, aspiring performers have to go through an extensive application process to earn their spots on the street, according to Faneuil Hall Marketing Intern Jen Crowley.

Crowley said anyone who wants to perform at the marketplace has to first fill out an application with their name, phone number, address and a brief description of their act.

Performers must also include their resume, a headshot, a letter of recommendation from the past three places’ they have performed and a CD or DVD of their music or act.’

Applicants would then have to audition for their spots, Crowly said.

‘You audition in front of judges,’ she said. ‘People who have been in our [street performer] program five years don’t have to audition. They’re automatically grandfathered into the program.’

Crowley said the judges are usually made up of either past or current street performers, or marketing department employees.

Less competitive performance places such as Harvard Square and subway stations, however, only require performers to pay for a permit to publicly display their talents in the area.

According to the Cambridge Arts Council website, performers have to pay $40 for a year-long permit to perform Harvard Square.

Espinosa-Setchko said in order to play in the subway, he had to fill out a form from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, provide two forms of I.D. and then pay $25 for a permit.


Although some performers such as O’Brien are able to turn their passions into full-time occupations, building a career out of street performing is challenging, Baird said.

‘It’s a difficult living to be a full-time street performer. Most are students or professional musicians, and they use street performing to supplement their income,’ he said. ‘There are some people who try to make a full-time living from their performances. They travel with their stuff.’

Baird said the ‘visual acts,’ such as jugglers, tend to attract crowds of hundreds of people and can make a good living. He said the average income for all street-performing artists is around $20,000 a year.

As his full-time job, however, O’Brien said he can make from $100-$200 in a two hour period. He said in addition to Faneuil Hall, his band also performs at colleges, including Boston University.

Espinosa-Setchko said he finds the key to actually making money as a street performer is to pay attention to the crowd around you.

‘You’ve got to be energetic and you’ve got to make eye contact with people.’ he said. ‘I look at the crowd and I see what kind of people they are. I sort of analyze what they’re wearing, what age group they are and try to base it on that for my repertoire.’

Cheryl Engelhardt, a musician from Manhattan who comes into Boston twice a month to play the keyboard and sing at Faneuil Hall, said the money she takes in during her performance varies randomly.

Unlike O’Brien, Engelhardt said street performing is not her full-time job. She also writes music for films and commercials and has began a music supervision website to help directors find music for films.


Though the industry of street performing continues to attract many people ‘-‘- especially during the current economic crisis, when many people are looking for supplemental forms of income –many of these performers said they are feeling the effects of a worsening economy.

O’Brien said he was faced with slow business last summer, and expects similar results this year as well.

‘I imagine that this summer will be really slow because people won’t be shopping,’ he said.

Brian Bergeron, a professional musician who works part-time at Northeastern University, also said the economy made his last year of street performing ‘stressful.’

Although Baird said the economy is less likely to impact low-end musicians, who ‘make the same amount of money regardless of the economy,’ he said professional street performers would be seeing a drop in their income.

‘There are more professional street performers who have come back to the street to supplement their incomes, so it becomes a little more competitive,’ he said. ‘People will be dispersing money over more people, so that means lower income probably for the majority of people.’

In addition, Baird said closures of stores and marketplaces will dislocate the shoppers who watch the street performers.

Other performers, such as Englelhardt, said it is hard to tell the exact effects the economy has on their revenue.

‘It’s hard for me to answer because over the past three years I’ve been doing this, I’ve gotten better as a musician,’ she said. ‘I really can’t tell if it’s the economy getting worse and I’m coming out even or if I’m getting better and counteracting the economy.”


Besides worrying about the effects the bad economy may have on street performing, performers also have to deal with other factors that can prevent them from performing.

Bergeron said one of the cons of street performing is that ‘you’re at the mercy of the weather.’

Engelhardt said the weather dictates how often she comes to Boston to play. She said she has not played in the city since October because it has been too cold.

Street performers can also run into challenges with shop owners, who can complain about them. ‘The main complaints we hear are from our merchants, store managers about being too loud,’ Crowley said.

Elizabeth Haskell, the assistant manager at Local Charm, a jewelry store in Faneuil Hall, said the street performers sometimes get too loud and it hurts business at the store.

‘A lot of the times when we’re trying to speak with a customer and there’s a street performer outside, we have to shut the door and that cuts off the customer flow,’ she said.

Haskell said last summer, a performer was so loud that many shop owners complained and the performer was asked to stop playing at the market.

As part of regulations, performers at Faneuil Hall also cannot be offensive or ask for certain amounts of money, Crowley said.

‘They need to be family friendly,’ she said. ‘If they were to ever be offensive in any way, they would automatically get a warning.’


While Engelhardt said it takes some bravery to show up and start playing for strangers, she finds that performing has its advantages.

‘You get to see a lot of people without having to organize a show,’ she said. ‘It’s good to try out new songs to see what people respond to, what they don’t respond to.’

Though Baird said people decide to get into street performing for a variety of reasons, many see the experience as a form of self-expression.

‘Each performance is unique and street performing is part of our cultural heritage. You reach all class levels, all social and economic levels at the same time,’ he said. ‘It’s kind of the ultimate form of freedom.’

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