More young buskers staking their claim on Singapore streets

Reena Devi
Lifestyle Reporter

(PHOTO: Lai Zi Jie)

Challenging the notion that busking is a pursuit of the down and out, more young people in Singapore are taking up the profession.

Despite the unpredictable weather, space constraints and licensing issues, they are taking to the streets to express themselves creatively while earning some money at the same time. Performing mostly in Orchard Road and Clarke Quay, their acts range from playing music to dancing – and even knife throwing.

According to the National Arts Council (NAC), which oversees the licensing of buskers in Singapore, over half of the estimated 300 buskers here are below the age of 35. By comparison, only one in 10 of the estimated 140 buskers around in 2008 were similarly aged.

Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore spoke with several young buskers to find out what drew them to the profession.

Jonathan Goh Cheng Leong, 21, who had been performings stunts on a circus stage since he was 10, tried busking in 2013 in Clarke Quay and along Orchard Road as part of the “Annoying Brothers” double-act.

“I was actually inspired by the buskers performing at the Sentosa Buskers Festival because of the way they interacted with the crowd. There is a huge difference between performing on stage and busking,” he said.

(PHOTO: The Annoying Brothers/Orchard Road Business Association)

Ahead of his university studies, 23-year-old singer-guitarist Jason Yu said he started busking in May and loves the challenge of it. “What better way to prove yourself than to show that you have the ability to pull the attention of random strangers on a noisy, busy street?” he asked.

Ken Loh, 21, started singing and playing his guitar in 2015 as a way to pass the time and to help ease the financial burden of his college education on his parents. Having become more serious about the job, he will be releasing an EP titled “Songs About Them” next month and will be attending university to study music.

The young buskers spoken to said they have seen more of their peers take up street performing in recent years.

“When I started busking in 2016, there were not really many buskers as compared to 2017. (But) the audition for this year had to be limited to 70 participants per audition session,” said 23-year-old student and musician Muhammad Firdaus Osman.

Similarly, Goh noted, “Four years ago when I started out, there were maybe like two to three buskers who were my age performing at Orchard Road. But today, on Orchard Road at least 70 per cent of the buskers are around my age.”

Self-expression and employment

For Firdaus, busking today is a “form of expression” through which the performers and show off their talents and attract potential employers.

“During our parents’ era, busking was looked down upon and it was (perceived) as similar to begging,” he said. 

Another young busker, 21-year-old Lai Zi Jie, agreed that the higher profile of young street performers is gradually dispelling negative connotations to busking.

“Busking is now not viewed as street peddling or begging anymore. Instead, it is a platform to showcase talent and you would be surprised by the amount of talent you can find on the streets of Singapore,” he said.

Goh believes that most of his peers busk because they enjoy performing, while some do it to raise funds for their studies. It has also become trendy to busk now and the influx of young buskers has much to do with an increased awareness of local music, said Loh.

“Also, it is an extremely easy way for an individual to express him or herself; busking has almost zero barriers of entry,” he added.

(Photo: Jason Yu)

Fighting for space

Still, several challenges remain for street performers in Singapore. For one, the growing appeal of busking has led to fiercer competition for performance spaces. 

Goh, who started the Singapore Busker Facebook page in 2016, said, “We have very few spaces to busk, and with more and more buskers auditioning, sometimes it gets a bit too crowded.”

Also, when shopping centres set up temporary spaces, they sometimes overtake a busker’s performance spot. Firdaus, who performs at various places such as 313 Somerset, Mandarin Gallery, Haji Lane and Marina Bay Sands, said buskers who have only one spot will fight for it as the system works on a first-come-first-served basis.

Another major concern raised was unlicensed buskers, along with those who continue to busk even after their licenses have expired. The blatant disregard for licensing is unacceptable in my opinion. Be kind to others and do the right thing, not what’s convenient,” said Loh.

As a busker, one’s earnings are largely dependent on the day, time and weather. The time of year, and whether it is a festive season or not, also plays a part in one’s income.

“On a good day, earnings can be a three-digit figure. On a bad day, earnings can be a two-digit figure. If you are lucky, you may even get a $1,000 note in the busking hat,” said Firdaus. 

For Goh, earnings can be between below a hundred to a few hundred dollars. “However, I think the most important thing that affects your earnings is how well you perform. Singaporeans do pay more when they feel that it’s a good show,” said Goh.

Yu agreed, “If you put in the hours, and a uphold a certain level of professionalism while busking, you can make a pretty decent living out of it.”

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