Stewart, a professional musician who declines to give his last name, is an hour into his set. Seated before a small amp, he warbles through the Sinatra tune “Fly Me to the Moon” on his saxophone. Around him, a horde of commuters listens placidly, packed nearly shoulder-to-shoulder on the platform of this stop of the L, the city’s famous elevated train system. Stewart says he’s been playing on the L platforms off and on for 40 years. He seems to regard his work as routine, as do the commuters.
But by the time the next train pulls in, no one has given him a cent.
Why would an established “busker,” or street performer, go unpaid? While many factors might affect Stewart’s bottom line, one obvious issue is how much cash spectators carry — an amount that is declining day by day.
In 2017, the Federal Reserve system estimated that, month-to-month, 27 percent of transactions in the U.S. are in cash, down from 32 percent the year before and 40 percent three years before. Debit and credit cards combined made up 48 percent of all transactions in 2015, a gain from a combined 42 percent in 2012.
The push toward plastic comes from multiple directions. In 2017, Visa offered $10,000 grants to businesses to go cashless. While it’s no surprise that a card payment processing corporation is interested in a society in which everyone constantly uses their cards, many businesses are making the switch without incentives, citing the relative safety of electronic transactions or customer behavior. Indeed, consumers often lead the charge, so to speak, by favoring credit cards for their rewards, convenience, or safety features.
But the relative absence of cash in the average American wallet can mean a smaller take for those whose businesses depend on it, and entertainers working for spare change may be among the most vulnerable. Will they be able to adapt to cashless societies?
Nick Broad, founder of The Busking Project, had this question in mind when he and a cofounder developed a busking-specific payment app in 2015. On a street performance-focused trip to 40 countries, they found that buskers in many locales called an inability to receive non-cash payments a problem. Their solution, Busk, permitted performers to create a profile that spectators could use to tip them via credit or debit. The app integrated a real-time map of street performances, links to downloadable music, and a way for performers to capture patrons’ contact information.
But facilitating cashless payments to buskers turned out to be tricky. In an interview, Broad describes a “chicken-or-the-egg problem” in which the absence of either performers or spectators on the app made the other group reluctant to download it. He cites a “a finance-led business ecosystem” in which delivering a profit to investors (by including ads, charging fees, or taking a cut of tips) was a poor fit with busking culture.
“A lot of buskers are anti-capitalists … people who intentionally live off the grid and can’t imagine giving up 20 percent of their hat,” he says, referring to performers’ daily take in tips.
Broad also notes buskers’ unease at coexisting with digital ads. “After a couple years, we discontinued [the app],” Broad says. He now doubts that anyone could make a busking-specific payment app work.
Indeed, buskers lack interest in that option.
“I’ve never even thought of that,” busker Quron Jackson, 22, admits. He’s been playing acoustic guitar in Chicago L stations for four months — beginning in the relatively lucrative summer — but says he’s never been asked to process a credit card payment.
Felice Ling, 30, who began working as a street magician while researching street performance for her graduate degree in sociology, says, “I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to use [an app],” even though audience members have told her they can’t tip for lack of cash.
A violinist who goes by Mo Javi says the audience shares the indifference: “Most times, people [watching a street performance] don’t make a big notice of the digital.” Mo Javi, who is 26 and has four years’ experience busking, offers business cards that feature a link to a personal website with his music for purchase. But he says they’re underused by his audience, who tend to want his album on the spot or not at all.
Broad, Jackson, Ling, and Mo Javi all emphasize that street performers are often more motivated by craft than money. Mo Javi describes picking performance locations for their acoustic qualities, not their income potential. Jackson says, “I just like to be heard.”
Street performers’ social closeness to spectators, authenticity as outsider artists, and disconnection from the corporate economy are likely important to their purpose and appeal. Ling’s master’s thesis on street performance calls it “a kind of work where the laborer is not alienated from the product of her labor,” further describing it as an antidote to urban alienation.
That said, the disengagement from financial arrangements might also be related to the exceptional uncertainty in how much a busker might make. Mo Javi cites $40 to $100 per hour as a best-case scenario during the holidays and other peak times. In 2014, an L station guitarist nicknamed Machete Mike was profiled in The Chicago Reader’s “People Issue,” where he described a best-ever one-day draw of $300 during the city’s Lollapalooza festival — a reflection of the same local enthusiasm that landed him in the newspaper.
On the other hand, Mo Javi quotes the low end at just $8 an hour, three-quarters of Chicago’s $12 minimum wage. Machete Mike told The Chicago Reader about a $20 day’s take (likely also below minimum wage) for a day in the dead of winter. After an hour on the job at rush hour, saxophone player Stewart had made just 58 cents.
Whether the barriers are practical, cultural, audience-initiated, or arising from uncertainty, some street performers acknowledge that they do have options for accepting non-cash payments. In fact, some use the same corporate systems now dominating other types of transactions.
Broad (who says he’s working on a new payment mechanism that is “incredibly cheap and incredibly fast,” but not yet ready for a public announcement) notes that the Busking Project’s website currently lets performers set up public-facing profiles with links and QR codes that audiences can use to tip via Apple Pay, Google Wallet, or Paypal.
Mo Javi, like Ling, says that he’s been asked to take plastic’s digital equivalent: “I have Venmo, and there are people who have asked, ‘Can I Venmo you?’ and I say, ‘Yes, you can!’”
M. Sophia Newman is a freelance writer and an editor with a substantial background in global health and health research. She wrote Next City's Health Horizons column from 2015 to 2016 and has reported from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and the United States on a wide range of topics. See more at msophianewman.com.