Hier Is(s)t Künst(ler)
What does it mean to be a street artist, temporarily focusing on music in a realm that doesn’t really compare with other vantage points? If you are making your money from music in the street that means you’re spending a lot of time in the street. But what kind of experience is that? If you are granted the peace of mind to hone in on the music you are playing and be creative, to reach the truth behind the emotional experience of a song and improvise, it lifts you to a very cathartic and adrenaline induced buzz.
That sounds great, how do you arrive there? Well. Let’s take a trip to the street to play together. You take your equipment with you on the train, and yes it’s heavy, and people are mostly going to be courteous with your oversized baggage, mostly. You arrive at, let’s say, Warschauer because it is a rather safe area for playing music (between residential complaints, police politely adhering to policy, and people that want to take the money they see you earning). It’s sunny today, lordy Hallelujah, and you are happy to take in the scent of warm concrete as you have a sip of beer. You begin tuning and assembling your equipment, creating a space to feel whole. At the first strum of your guitar you realise that many people don’t think of you as their friend or aren’t impressed with the snippet they have heard so far, which can place a certain amount of pressure on you to be on point when you step on stage. Excuse me while I labour over these social elements before we move to the actual art. The competition of egos in the street is palpable and since I have been playing there for over eight years now, I have come to see a lot of reoccurring behavioural themes and their related facial expressions. The male strut while holding a beer and picking coins from his wallet, while joking with his friends (competing with his reception of the music) is not going to feel like the male walking with a potential mate and/or a group of bros, who just found an unpaid Sherpa for his social Everest. It’s not just men that feel overly entitled, but let’s not belabour the point. The public at large is actually quite friendly and some of their kids have amusing reactions to music coming from a stranger and when I ask if they play music they are coyly happy to share that they dabble in guitar. But some are complete fucks. After playing for an hour at Schlesisches Tor, I packed up my equipment and passed a Döner imbiss where a muscular bad ass, with his dodgy looking friends awaiting my reaction, said, “Deine musik ist voll Scheiße, voll scheiße!”
Anyone who has set themselves before the public eye has learnt to take everything with a grain from the whole meal. I find it healthy to even take compliments in stride, to thank and consider that one might not know the full picture of their reactions. On the other side of the doggy park, if someone is pissing on your leg, you remember that their caregivers might not have set the greatest examples and that dribbly dog may have taken the brunt of unimaginable possibilities. It might sting some synapses, but they’re not going to put you in the ground. I was jumped at Kottbusser Tor because I played very late at night on my own in a roughly edged location. Lessons aren’t always cheap, but I keep my head up and my paranoia at bay.
If you are playing with the summer sun, you have much more pleasant and peaceful minded people to encounter, and it is a real treat to enjoy the easy warmth with them. People gathered and sitting let you know that they are able to put aside their plans because something about the environment you are a part of is blissful. This is spine tingling. It doesn’t matter if they are tourists or local Berliners, to see people slowing their day to kick up their feet gives you the kicks to continue as an artist venerable enough to become vulnerable in public.
The police in Berlin have been lovely, in the way they approach telling me I need a card showing permission from the Bezirksamt. Fair enough and they have important things to take care of, so I thank them and pack up politely, every time, because, yes, I am continuously the ignorant foreigner. At the city hall they have rules about what you can play in the streets; one of the rules is no amplification. If you have ever tried to strum an acoustic guitar and sing against the backdrop of a few lanes of traffic, passing conversations, and let’s say – drunks, trains or unrestrained punks then you have broken strings, strained vocal chords and not appeared professional. Most of all, that form of street play is very tiring.
When you play at a show you severely refine the prospective audience to people that like music and are interested in hearing some right now. Reserving music for those lovely people is a real treasure, however, non-transferable. I need to pay rent in euros. The pavement platform is a sanctuary, especially for those expats on a Künstler Visum who are required to work free from a boss (as freelancer) and subsist entirely from art. I quit my kitchen job last year when I received my new visa, and it is a penny pinching party for certain!
Being around new musicians you get to have one off encounters with people you don’t know and explore other sounds, personally and culturally variant in surprising or familiar ways to inspire your creative framework. Improvising with other people is a tremendous rush, and they can move and articulate new melodies and transition into different rhythms, which you may be able to do with the best and biggest digital loop boards, but the human element is what elevates that shared space. Refining what you play, how you deliver cadence and what your intentions are in reaching a prospective audience, is a way to explore musical ideas in this hot and excited terrain. Do I play fast and aggressive to snare the unsuspecting pedestrian or to let some anger out? Do I change the finger picking to allow myself a renewed song and build a different vocal melody? Am I connecting with the emotional tone or lyrical content? Here I am in the street and it is wonderful, constantly dynamic and socially very rich. While playing here you hold a sign that screams ‘come talk to me’, and if you are relatively unguarded you will find more surprises than you would have imagined in your flat or office. People are living very differently from you. The varieties of lifestyles contradict each other in values, but remain completely valid and purposeful.