Busking in Berlin: Diving in a Fragile Ecosystem
When I first arrived in Berlin last summer, I thought becoming a street musician would be my best shot at earning a reasonable income. I had heard stories of musicians who had accumulated ninety euros an hour, and I believed I’d hit the same spot after half a day, then walk away with my share of wealth.
But I soon learned this was far from the case. At times, the musicians of the city worked like clockwork mechanisms; it was possible to calculate who would be where and at what time and how long I had in-between to take advantage of their absence. This didn’t last long. The street music scene, I realized, was an organism effected by weather, time, volume of musicians flowing into the city and, of course, talent.
When I began, my skill set was, for lack of a better word, shit (though skill doesn’t always matter, especially if no one can hear a damn note you play.) Amongst the trains and foot-traffic without amplification any stringed instrument is just a dull hum in the maelstrom of sound carried down the tunnels.
Some musicians found ways around the lack of volume and in some cases a lack of talent. There’s a group of gentlemen that ride the S-bahn between Warschauer Straße and Zoologischer Garten with a trumpet, tambourine and a speaker linked up to an iPod that to my knowledge only plays the song “When the Saints Go Marching in,” to which they play along very little. Few take up the pots and pans drumming routine just creating abstract noise, yet the fact that they wear a mask brings in tourists and, in extension, the money —something I only understood after working my way through Yorckstraße and finding a man dressed in a three-piece suit made completely of newspaper with a matching top hat and newspaper marionettes which bounced about the flag stones on strings while he hyperventilated through a harmonica. Fortunately, this is an exception. The talentless make up only 5-7% of all the musicians in the capital. The rest are truly talented artists; this city is a beacon for them.
There are only few cities I know of where you can survive solely on busking. If I were to have attempted such a thing in London, for example, I would have been homeless in a week. But there is a freedom about this city. Though Berlin is small compared to some other capitals, it has an extraordinary amount of growing room. Like the watermelons in Japan grown in Perspex boxes in order to become perfect cubes made easier to stack, cities like London only allows you to grow in one direction, while Berlin allows for free change and expansion. Whether it be the soft spoken guitarists who jump on the S1 in the south of Berlin at 8-10 in the morning, the Russian blues musician who arrives randomly outside Dussman on Fredrichstraße with a bottle of beer and a chicken drumstick, or the bagpiper who is the most dedicated of all in the city, seemingly playing every waking hour in Alex. Then, of course, there are the veterans of Warschauer Straße and Mauerpark — bands, drummers, flute players, sometimes coming together at the end of a long day in front of a Späti with a döner and a few bottles, improvising a version of “Summertime” or any other jazz classic — and it is this I love most about Berlin.
When I first started, I would sometimes accidentally take spots at the wrong times in places I didn’t belong. When this happened, I wasn’t turned away, there were no arguments, just explanations about where I did and didn’t need permits and how to get them. One time when I tried to leave, I was actually verbally forced to stay and share the spot, allowing for a strange contrast in style on the same street. These experiences led to me develop a style I would have never found if I didn’t have the space to grow, if Berlin was just another city telling me how to live.
And so as October drew to a close, I played four times a week, seven hours a day into the middle of winter until finally felt like a part of this fragile eco-system, though eventually the cold began to wear me down. Soon the hardened skin on my fingertips stung, when I could feel them, the people kept to cafés and bar instead of the streets and eventually the weather and emotional exhaustion forced me into a corner and gave me no choice but to do what every broke musician in Berlin has to do — join a start-up. So for now, I work during the week and head out on Saturdays to get my seven hours of belonging and watch the skies. But already, the snow has melted and spring will be here soon. After that, summer will come, and with it, my space in the city.
By Joe Mullings