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November 1st, 2006 Jason Simms | Featured Stories
 

Down On The Corner, Out In The Street

How street performing earned one local man spare change—and an unwanted part in Rent.

     
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"You got a dollar?" If this ubiquitous question were more often replaced with beautiful music, I'd have a lot fewer dollars. The Portland Police Department estimates that at least four street musicians perform downtown during the lunch rush and end of the workday. If you figure there's one or two more asphalt crooners staking out each trendy district, from the Pearl District to Southeast Hawthorne, there may be as many as two dozen buskers taking their tunes to the streets for tips in P-town daily. These performers range from drunk beggars to folks who enjoy playing in public for extra cash. Some fluctuate between the two: One local you might recognize from your recent foot travels is "Magpie Ratt." The 24-year-old Maryland native has played his "drunken-pirate routine," in which he accompanies lyrics and gibberish with his accordion, throughout North America and Europe in the last five years. Now he "pays rent, squats and couch-surfs in equal proportion" around Portland. After spotting him at this fall's First and Last Thursdays, WW tracked Magpie down to hear about the opportunistic photographers, generous toddlers and deceitful major motion-picture crews that busking has brought his way.

WW: What's the best spot you've found to busk around Portland? What's the worst?

Magpie Ratt: In Portland, nothing really competes with downtown. I've played a fair amount on Hawthorne and a bit on Belmont and Alberta, but Powell's downtown is my favorite place at the moment. I tend to play for a walk-by crowd (as compared to buskers who prefer a captive audience [like a line outside a movie theater]), and I like to be pretty low-stress about it. First Thursday is usually pretty good, but Last Thursday is no better than any other day of the month. There's more competition, less free booze—drunk people tip more.

How does Portland compare with other towns, in terms of street performing?

I've done a bit of busking a few towns and cities, but there is nowhere I've done better in than Amsterdam. Just playing for a walk-by crowd, I could make 15 Euro in an hour easily. Of course, competition was fierce and the police often ran me off. New York is pretty good too, despite the competition. Asheville, N.C., is also nice, despite the fact that the tiny downtown is crawling with musicians. Portland has the distinct advantage of being friendly. I don't really make more money here than anywhere else [between $2 and $15 per hour], but encouraging smiles and an absence of verbal abuse really help keep me going.

Have you ever had a turf dispute?

Although I've heard about turf disputes between buskers, I've never had it turn unfriendly. Sometimes people lay claim to certain places for certain hours, and usually that is respected, but for the most part busking is first-come, first-served.

When is it appropriate to tip a busker? Like, what's expected?

I would say that it is appropriate to tip change, or a dollar, if you're walking by and appreciate the music. From someone who sticks around to listen to a song, a dollar or two is nice. Please try and avoid throwing pennies in unless you're just giving me a handful of loose change—it's insulting. If you don't have any money, don't be afraid to smile. Refusing to make eye contact is worse. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people photograph me without tipping. It's professional photographers who are the worst with this, and they are the ones who will presumably be making money off of my image. I would suggest at least 50 cents to a dollar for taking my picture, and I would say that professional photographers ought to speak to me about their project first.

Has busking led you to any notable adventures?

Well, I ended up quite accidentally in the Sony Pictures adaptation of Rent, much to my dismay. I was playing my old melodica in NYC one day when the film crew approached me. They lied, claiming to be a student film, and only gave me two dollars after I signed the waiver. The Washington Post picked up the story, the Screen Actors Guild of Maryland read about it, and they represented me to Sony. Eventually Sony had to pay me SAG wages as an extra. I would never have known if it hadn't been for the dozen or so people from across the country and Canada who recognized me and let me know they had seen me.

What's the best part about busking?

A family will walk by in a hurry, the parents keeping their eyes straight ahead, when the little kid behind them will lag and tug on their parent's hand. After moving forward a few paces to consult, the kid comes back shyly clutching a coin or bill, they will toss it into the case from as far away as possible and run away smiling. I joke you not, this happens all the time, and it never ceases to make my day.


Starting this week, Jason Simms will post a Q&A with a different street musician every Thursday on WW's LocalCut.com.
 
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