Muffled: a city's musical heart

By Rhiannon Marley, Joanna Mathers

Street performers are fighting a proposed Auckland bylaw to crack down on 'nuisance' buskers, saying a bit of music and comedy is good for New Zealand cities - and good for public spirit. Joanna Mathers and Rhiannon Marley report

Performer Edward Harcourt reckons stressed Aucklanders might need a quirky street magician to slow them down. Photo / Michael Craig
Performer Edward Harcourt reckons stressed Aucklanders might need a quirky street magician to slow them down. Photo / Michael Craig

Queen St. Monday afternoon. The weather is performing a capricious autumn dance - fine and windy, cold and hot.

People dressed in drab work clothes are rushing to get coffee or snacks; tourists are wandering up and down Queen St, checking out shops and taking pictures.

At the bottom of Vulcan Lane sits a man dressed in tight black jeans, a purple jacket and a brimmed hat (complete with jaunty feather). He is belting out some killer riffs on an electric "jellybean" guitar and feeding them through a homemade amp.

Ostensibly he's playing John Lee Hooker's Boogie Chillin', but in time-honoured blues style he's made the song his own. A passerby stops to drop a coin in the musician's guitar case.

"Hey, what's the riff you've been playing?" he asks. "I've walked past a few times and heard it. It's really catchy and you play it really well."

Two tall, dark-haired women stand back, watching. "You're really good," they shout, before popping a few coins in the case.

Applauding briefly, they continue their way down Queen St.

Welcome to the world of Auckland busking. The dapper gentleman playing the riff is M. W. Sellwood, a "psychedelic blues guitarist" and full-time Queen St busker. One of the city's most established acts, he's been playing on the streets for 13 years. And he's besotted with his chosen career.

"I love playing on the street. It's where the blues should be played. It is the most liberating thing that I've ever done," he says.

Busking has long been a part of Auckland's street scene. Street performers range from musicians to circus acts. But how do Aucklanders treat these entertainers? Do we love them or loathe them?

The Auckland Council is debating a new bylaw, carrying a fine of up to $20,000, to regulate the "nuisance" use of loud speakers, amplifiers and musical instruments, though a discussion paper says this is potentially a subjective test: "What may be a nuisance for one person may be enjoyable to another."

So, do buskers add colour and vibrancy to the city, or are they pesky noise-polluters who should be shown the door?

"The best thing is when we get people dancing," says Martin Horspool. "It makes the whole experience so much more exciting."

Horspool is an expat Welshman and part of the Auckland world music percussion band AK Samba. The group busks regularly near the Downtown Shopping Centre, collecting money for charities such as the Heart Foundation and SPCA.

The group has about 40 members, and Martin says 80 per cent of the people who encounter the group performing stop to have a look.

"There are a range of different reactions," he says. "Some people watch us and then move on, some people stay for longer. Some people look at us blankly, as though they can't work out what we are doing. And some people dance."

Martin says the group "is loud", but there have been very few complaints from people about their two half-hour sets. "There was one lawyer in Mission Bay who complained that we were too loud," he says. "He was quoting all sorts of bylaws at us, so we stopped."

Ryan, a half-Kiwi half-Canadian circus performer who's been performing in Auckland for two months, says the reaction of Aucklanders to buskers is similar to reactions he's received in other parts of the world. "I'd say that there is one negative reaction to every 1000 positive ones."

Sellwood has had similar experiences. "My act is more suited to the evenings," he says. "I've had crowds of up to 30 people dancing downtown on Friday and Saturday nights when I've played."

Katrina Griffiths lives in the inner city. She thinks the standard of busking in town is extremely high, and has never had a problem with the noise. "I love the buskers on Queen St," she says. "I'm always impressed by the quality of musicianship, especially when comparing them to buskers I have heard overseas.

"Most seem to be career musicians, and to share that talent freely - or cheaply, if you give them a coin or two - is a gift to the city."

Adrian Wilson, team manager of compliance projects, bylaws and street trading at the Auckland Council, says the council encourages street performance in the city. "They can add colour and vibrancy to a CBD."

His team is responsible for regulating busking and issuing licences. "We issue approximately 15 busking licences a week during the summer period and around five per week in the winter months."

These licences are free and need to be on display whenever buskers are performing. Buskers also need to comply with the code of conduct for street performers.

The council team is also responsible for ensuring buskers are aware of the noise limits outlined in the city bylaws.

Some inner-city residents don't think the council is doing a good enough job of enforcing these rules. Forensic IT expert Daniel Ayers has been raging a one-man war against noisy buskers for about three years. "I live on Lorne St and have an office on the corner of Queen and Victoria Sts," he says. "The first time I had a problem with a busker was when one girl was performing at 2 o'clock in the morning."

It's been all downhill since then. Ayers estimates he has made "around 100" phone calls to the council about excessive noise (not all of which was generated by buskers).

He says if the bylaws in the city district plan and the code of conduct for street performers were enforced, there wouldn't be a problem. But he feels they aren't.

The maximum noise level allowed in the central city is 65 A-weighted decibels, or dBA.

"There was recently a bagpiper playing at Aotea Square. He was there for a couple of months. 'Loud' doesn't even begin to describe the level of noise he was making. I called the council and someone asked the bagpiper to move on, but he was back in the same place the next day. I have a noise meter, and I measured the volume at 90 dBA. But nothing significant was ever done about it."

He accepts there will always be noise when living in a city, but says: "When you live in the city you need to find a reasonable compromise and this compromise is found in the various bylaws covering performers. I just want buskers to stick to the rules."

Adrian Wilson says Ayers' experience is not typical. "Noise control gets very few complaints in relation to buskers. Our call centre only receives two to three calls a week in relation to busking issues within Auckland's CBD."

Indeed, it seems New Zealand's cities are more accommodating than American ones - supporting both Ayers' and Wilson's arguments that we are tolerant of buskers.

"I want to show my gratitude to Auckland," says New York-born street magician Edward Harcourt. "I love its opportunities, and the generosity of its people and tourists. In San Francisco, you can make money but all the street performers are swept on to Jefferson St, and the cops harass the hell out of you, going out of their way to be predators. The cops in Auckland are great; they don't bother you."

A Wellington resident, Harcourt has been entertaining in New Zealand since 2008 and claims Auckland's diversity gives street talent more freedom. "It's very fast-paced in American cities; everyone's hassling you, from buskers and beggars to cheap souvenir-sellers and even seagulls.

"In Auckland, people walk fast but certainly not as fast as in San Francisco or New York. Here, I'm a smaller fish in a bigger pond. I can cruise up and down Queen St, go to the waterfront if it's a sunny day, to Ponsonby or K Rd if I want to stay out late - I have different options."

Wisdom from fellow street performers has also helped Harcourt increase his resilience.

"The one-armed Maori guy who stands on Queen St told me, 'Other people who come out here busking can't last as long as us because they can't handle the rejection'."

As the Auckland Council considers a new bylaw to regulate "nuisance" street performers, Harcourt is adamant busking is good for business, good for the city and good for community spirit.

"Everyone is stressed out in their lives, drinking energy drinks and coffee; they have to pay the mortgage and pay off the bills and the car. They need the quirky street magician to stop them and slow them down.

"As long as people aren't doing injury, damage, harm or theft, they should be free to be on the street. At the end of the day, I might make someone happier out there."

Yet the "epoch age of plastic money", as Harcourt calls it, means those who earn their crust in loose change through public generosity are feeling the strain.

"We don't know how much longer we can do this," he says. "Busking in the 80s was different: everyone had money. Nowadays, there are paper casinos; money is not backed up by anything. I've been talking to other buskers, and we've said that we'd better busk while we can. We're wondering whether we need to get into something new, because we don't know what the future holds."

Meanwhile, Sellwood is back on the street sitting on a homemade box, playing another riff. He has set his volume at a considerate level, and passersby seem delighted as he expertly interprets another classic blues number.

As a veteran of the busking scene, he's philosophical about people's reaction to what he does. "You're putting yourself out there in front of the public, so you can't control what people will think of you," he says.

"You just have to accept it. It's all part of life on the street."

Street performer facts

• There are 450 registered buskers in Auckland, 439 in Wellington and 20 in Hamilton.

• To perform, buskers need to apply for a licence and follow the code of conduct for street performers.

• In Auckland, buskers cannot play in any one spot for more than an hour.

• The volume at which they play must not exceed the background noise when heard from 30m away.

- NZ Herald

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