Why Busking is a “Real Job”
I worked at Odeon in Stafford, UK as a “cinema host” for 3 months. There were some things that I really liked about it. I got along famously with my coworkers. I got to interact with the “guests” (the polite term for customers) and “positively affect their guest experience” (the polite phrase for giving good customer service). One of those guests even went as far as to submit a compliment for little ol’ me, Mac, through their Odeon app.
This is a good thing for the business. It helps keep up certain percentage rankings that help us look good to...a man I’ve never met. I guess I should be proud. Honestly, I’m sincerely glad that I made someone happy that day. I like making people happy. There’s really only one problem...
I’m not Mac. My manager literally had to walk around to all of the newer staff to figure out which one of us "was Mac" so that he could deliver the feedback. The real Mac was someone who worked at Odeon before I got there and turned in his badge when he left. You see, all Odeon employees are required to wear a name badge (which also should have their favourite movie printed on it). It doesn’t matter if it’s actually your name or not, you just have to wear a badge. So, when I was presented with the “temporary” options, I chose “Mac – Fellowship of the Ring.” Good enough name, good enough movie. Good enough for now. An order was placed for my actual badge: “Aaron – Bladerunner.” Sadly, even after three months as “Mac,” I never actually got to be “Aaron” at Odeon. The symbolism of this is not lost on me.
Dutifully, daily, I pinned this misnomer on my Odeon shirt, which was also issued to me on my first day – size, XL. It was the only one they had available for me at my initiation, and the only one I was ever offered. I’ve put on a few pounds now in my middle years, but certainly not enough to warrant an extra large shirt. I felt like I was wearing a tent, made even more ridiculous-looking when combined with the dryer-shrunken pants that I wore for most of my tenure at Odeon. (It was difficult for me to overcome the dissonance of investing in a proper uniform for a job that couldn’t even keep me ahead of the cost of living, but I eventually swallowed my pride at H&M a few weeks before leaving.)
I was also issued a cap and an apron for the shifts where I was assigned to "retail" – the bane of my experience at Odeon. I never quite wrapped my mind around the maze that is their computerised till (...I guess everything is computerised these days), the guacamole containers seemed to be designed by a sadist who had it in for the pre-arthritic, a closing shift on retail meant two solid hours of cleaning, and putting together multiple orders for impatient customers – sorry, "guests" – was a lot of anxiety for me.
But the worst part by far was selling dead animals and their excretions. I am keenly aware of the suffering necessary to provide hungry movie-goers with nacho cheese sauce and cream cheese and mozzarella sticks and coffee with cow milk and hot dogs and chicken (not to mention all the random animal products in just about everything). The sight and smells of these products almost instantly trigger images for me of pigs screaming in cages as they are being cooked from the inside out by carbon dioxide gassing (a preferred killing method by many slaughterhouses these days), and mother cows crying as their children are stolen from them so we can siphon their mother’s milk. I’ve developed a bit of a ritual where I draw a “V” on my chest (nipple-navel-nipple) as a prayer for those who suffer and die for our gastronomic sins, but it doesn’t help me feel much better. In short – nobody like me should be serving the products of this suffering. Nobody at all should be serving the products of this suffering.
Saturday, August 13th, 2022 was my last shift at Odeon, 9:15am to 5pm – 15 minutes short of eight hours. If I had been assigned the full eight hours, I would have been allowed two paid 15-minute breaks and a 45-minute unpaid lunch. Instead, I got only the 30 minutes unpaid break. Scheduling me just shy of eight hours is a clever way of getting as much from employees as possible while giving back as little as possible. Just one of the many ways in which this business is pretty much like any other. I guess that’s what makes it a real job.
Just before 8pm, a few hours after working my final shift at Odeon, I am setting up my guitar/vocals rig for my gig at No. 3. The weather was nice, so I'm playing outside where they have several tables. I’m only expected to play for an hour, but something about the energy started to shift just around 75 minutes in, and so I decided to keep playing. Daylight started to fade, the beer started to flow a little faster, and suddenly there are 20 to 25 people sitting with me, singing along, making requests, etc. A man in the square who I assumed was houseless came over to me, gave me a lovely compliment, and a five-pound note. Before I knew it, three hours had passed, and I really only eventually stopped playing because my voice was starting to give out.
So many nice words from so many people there. Such nice words from Beks and Mark (the owners of No. 3). They didn’t have to, but they paid me twice as much as we’d agreed on. And, perhaps even more noteworthy, that amount was significantly more than I’d made at my 7.75-hour shift earlier that day...at my real job.
In addition to usage for gigs at No. 3 (and hopefully soon at other pubs around town), it was always my intention for my new guitar/voice rig to be extra motivation to get back out there and busk more, like I used to do back in Seattle on a regular basis. Even though I could feel the inner resistance as I began to pack up my rig to head to the centre, I knew that I must go. I always feel this call to get out and do what I do, but often I find ways to ignore it.
Some people simply don't approve of busking. They see it as begging. Something to be embarrassed about. Not a "real job." I am reminded of this brilliant TED Talk by Amanda Palmer called "The Art of Asking" where she recounts experiences from her job as a human statue:
After scoring a few extra batteries for my amp from Home Bargains, I wheeled into the Market Square, scouting for an appropriate place to set up “shop.” I headed a bit down Greengate to see if Ruby or Scott (two other amazing resident buskers) were setting up so as not to cramp their style. Scott wasn't to be seen, but I spotted Ruby having a coffee at Starbucks, so I headed back into the square proper.
What’s a good spot for a busker? Somewhere with a lot of foot traffic, naturally, but not in the way. In the square, locals have claimed benches already and I am hesitant to intrude on their Monday morning calm. As if I am challenging myself, I opt for the most prominent, exposed, and centralised location in the square – right in front of the steps of a now-defunct municipal building. I nod to one of the bench dwellers, she nods back – a good start. There is a slight drizzle of rain, so I take that opportunity to ease into (what is essentially) my first time busking in Stafford. Sitting on the steps, I play through a guitar arrangement I am working on for Charles Bradley’s version of “Changes” by Ozzy Osborne.
The sky seems like it’s going to hold, so I finish setting up and begin to play and sing. As I warm to the centre, the centre warms to me. Not unlike many, many busking experiences, I begin to have delightful interactions with random folks. This guy stops to hear me play “Optimistic” and is very pleased to have been graced with some “Radiohead in Stafford.” His favourite song by them is “Weird Fishes.” I can’t play it, but I share with him how much I love that album “In Rainbows” and how important it was for me when it came out. How it reaffirmed my belief that good music was still possible and that Radiohead was still making it. I play “Bulletproof” as he walks away and he looks back to give a thumbs up.
A young woman is giving me more attention than she is giving her boyfriend as they pass while I’m playing “She Will Be Loved.” The woman who nodded to me earlier eventually gets up and puts some coins in my case. A mother dips her toddler over my case and assists her as she deposits a few coins. “You’re the most generous baby I’ve ever met!” I jest.
A father and his two boys are sitting on benches on the other side of me, and the boys are clapping every time I finish a song. The three depart for a bit and eventually return to contribute as well. Many parents put coins in their children's hands to give to me – God bless them! A 5-year-old counts out four twenty-p coins and one penny into my hand and I say, “I hope you didn’t just give me ALL of your money!” I wink, nod, and smile to the parents. Some older people who have been watching and listening from the benches across the square walk all the way over to me just to contribute. Two men who have been sitting where the “nodding woman” sat get up and contribute. One of them doubles back to lean in and say, very sincerely, “You’re really good.” Another woman in a bright summer dress drops a few coins in and says, “It’s so nice to hear your lovely voice!”
So many random, magical interactions. Sure, some just drop coins as they pass – God bless them, too. But by and large, people are just happy to have a little sunshine on this overcast day. And that’s me. That’s why I’m here. Providing a little happiness with the magic that is music, expecting exactly nothing in return.
Of course, it’s nice to make a few quid. And I did. For just two hours of work – and yes, it is work – I made a better rate than my days at Odeon, and better even than my new job will pay. If it were only for the money, I'd have to say that busking is, at least potentially, much more profitable than any “real job” available to an old college dropout like me. But the high – the exquisite JOY of sharing this magic with anyone who will listen...the LOVE that flows effortlessly back to me…being out in the real world with real people having real interactions...doing what I do, on my terms, wearing whatever clothes I want to wear, wearing clothes that FIT (LOL), completely in my element, being Aaron - being ME...this is why I busk.
What could possibly be more real than that?