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Singapore buskers yearn for return to the streets, despite online options

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Musician Daniel Sidhanand (pic) suggests buskers could undergo regular swab tests to show they are free of Covid-19 if it means a chance to perform live again. — TODAY pic
Musician Daniel Sidhanand (pic) suggests buskers could undergo regular swab tests to show they are free of Covid-19 if it means a chance to perform live again. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Sept 13 — Before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 350 buskers typically enlivened the streets of Singapore with their singing or high-wire performances but now, after months of being denied a live audience, they are anxious to return to the streets.

They argue that malls, eateries and even popular hangout spots have slowly returned to life, and that with appropriate precautions, they could safely add vibrancy to their old haunts again.

Buskers have been barred from performing since the circuit breaker in April that restricted activities and movement.

In the three months since Singapore entered Phase Two of gradually reopening its economy, these street performers, who require the endorsement of the National Arts Council (NAC) to busk, have been waiting to be given the thumbs-up to resume their performances.

While NAC says that fewer than 10 of them identify themselves as full-time buskers, the five buskers interviewed by TODAY said that not being able to perform live has hit them particularly hard since they were dependent on the activity as one of their main sources of income.

To help buskers during this period, youth-centric non-profit organisation *Scape, the Buskers’ Association and NAC have rolled out several initiatives since April to allow them to continue to engage audiences — albeit digitally.

Among them are partnerships with streaming platforms Twitch.tv and BigO, and telco Circles.Life and BigO.

Elaine Ng, NAC’s senior director of engagement and participation, said that depending on the platform, the artists monetise their performances in different ways.

“For instance, viewers have shown appreciation by giving virtual currency that performers can cash out, or make a transfer directly to the performers’ bank account through a QR code,” she said.

For buskers lacking the necessary equipment and facilities to hold a livestreaming session, *Scape provides the space and equipment — a webcam, mixer and microphone — for free.

Shirley Tan, director of programmes and partnerships at *Scape, said one caveat is that they have to be under 35 years of age because that is the youth target group that *Scape programmes support.

Aside from the facilities and the equipment, *Scape also helps with the publicity via social media.

To date, 54 buskers, all musicians, have approached *Scape for help with digital busking, Tan said.

‘Nobody is going to sit and watch’

While the buskers who spoke to TODAY appreciated the efforts to encourage them to go online, they highlighted the impracticalities of this option due to the limitations of the medium.

Singer Muhammad Harith Matin Dewashah said that he has given online busking a shot but the financial returns were just too little for him.

The 24-year-old said that he would earn about S$30 (RM91) in tips for a two- or three-hour online performance.

In comparison, when he was busking on the street, he could easily take home between S$100 and S$200 for the same amount of time.

“On the streets, people sit down with their friends and hang out while listening to music, and then maybe they will drop a bit of money (into the tip box),” Harith said. “But online, nobody is going to sit down and watch.”

Fellow musician Daniel Sidhanand agreed and said that he would typically get under 30 viewers watching whenever he did a livestream.

“This is really not what I am used to,” the 25-year-old said. He had been regularly performing along the bustling Haji Lane near Beach Road for the past three years.

Faizal Bohtiar, an accordion player, said that the energy level when he performs is just not the same online — which means it is harder to retain viewers’ interest.

“Online, you are alone. When you perform (outdoors), there are people watching you and there is a different feeling because you are engaging them,” the 41-year-old said.

The three men said that they are supplementing their income in other ways. Faizal conducts art-related workshops and vocal classes while Sidhanand works as a music producer and Harith as a deliveryman.

Buskers whose acts involve street performances said that going digital is just not feasible for them.

Jonathan Goh, one half of circus act duo The Annoying Brothers, said that he has tried performing some tricks online and the viewers were largely made up of his own followers.

The 24-year-old, who is now a food delivery rider, said he soon realised that there were only so many tricks he could perform before his own followers got tired of the same acts.

Music, however, is something people can keep listening to even if they are the same songs, Goh said.

He added that this audience fatigue would not be a problem if he was performing on the streets, because the bulk of the audience would not have seen his acts before.

Wee Toon Hee, a 59-year-old juggler, said that the nature of his performance — basically playing to a crowd — requires him to tell jokes or give witty speeches to elicit a response from the audience.

“If I were to do it virtually, I won’t get that kind of response and it would feel very empty and I’d feel very stupid.” Before the pandemic hit, Wee was working as a tour guide apart from his street acts.

Safe distancing ‘double standards’

In light of the ongoing health crisis, Wee acknowledges that performing for a crowd and having the kind of audience engagement he was used to cannot be allowed.

He hopes to be given a chance to perform walk-by busking — where passers-by drop tokens into tip boxes put out by buskers and walk away without watching the full performance.

When it comes to safe distancing regulations, he believes that with this method of busking, the chance of spreading the coronavirus is low since there is no interaction between him and the passers-by.

He pointed out that the chances of getting infected in other settings are higher: “In an MRT train, you are sitting next to one another. In a coffee shop, you’re sitting almost next to one another in a small space.”

Sharing his view, Faizal questioned the “double standards” when it comes to physical distancing.

“It’s really affecting all the musicians,” he said. “You can just play on the streets (under the) open air, and just play instrumental (music) and cover our mouths What’s the problem with that?”

Sidhanand suggested that buskers could undergo regular swab tests to show that they are free of Covid-19 if it means a chance to perform live again.

Ng of NAC said that aside from the various government support schemes to help self-employed persons such as buskers, the council has also introduced two schemes as part of the Arts and Culture Resilience Package.

The Capability Development Scheme for the Arts encourages eligible artists, including buskers, to pick up new skills, while the Digital Presentation Grant for the Arts was created to support artists to present their works in digital form or via digital mediums.

The application window for both schemes has been extended to September 14 for projects to be completed by March 31 next year.

Touching on why the authorities have yet to allow buskers to perform in public, Ng said: “Covid-19 is a public health concern, (and) NAC has to prioritise the safety of the buskers and the public as well.”

She said that crowd management is a concern, and it would be a challenge for buskers to ensure that the audience comply with safe distancing rules throughout their live acts. Contact tracing for crowds in open spaces would be an issue as well, she added.

However, Faizal said that busking does not not attract large numbers of people. “Before Covid, we would just have five people standing around to look. So we don’t quite understand (why busking on the streets is still disallowed).” — TODAY

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