Michael Hauser has devoted his life to mastering the complex rhythms of flamenco guitar. The Minneapolis man, known as the “father of flamenco in the Midwest,” has played in hundreds of venues across the state and the country.
But lately, gigs have been hard to come by. So, at age 80, Hauser decided to try street performing.
He recently busked on Nicollet Mall for an hour and a half, strumming tunes ranging from “Malagueña” to a Bach prelude on his vintage Spanish guitar. His total haul in tips? $7.
Thanks to the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District (DID), Hauser’s performance actually earned him more than $80.
Street performers are getting a little respect now that the DID (the nonprofit funded by commercial property owners to make the downtown cleaner, safer and more welcoming) is paying dozens of buskers to perform.
“This is something downtown is ready for,” said Joan Vorderbruggen, director of public art and place-making with Hennepin Theatre Trust, which is partnering with the DID to help curate performances. “Who doesn’t want to hear a nice song when you’re waiting for the bus?”
The DID says streets will be more vibrant if the city encourages entertainers rather than shooing them away.
“Why don’t we have a stronger culture of street performance?” wondered Lisa Middag, director of Nicollet activation for the DID.
After testing the concept last fall, the DID launched Street Show this summer. Sidewalk entertainers — musicians, mimes, poets, storytellers, hula hoopers — perform during lunch hour, rush hour and sometimes early evenings on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue.
Street Show pays performers $50 an hour (more if you have a duo or trio act) in addition to whatever they make in tips. When it wraps up at the end of September, the program will have provided about 550 hours of performances on the two streets at a cost of about $55,000.
So far, the reaction from both performers and passersby has been positive.
“I just enjoy walking by, hearing the music. I like the activity out here,” said Tim Haag as he put $2 into the guitar case of singer/songwriter Molly Conrad when she played recently on Nicollet Mall.
“It lends a very positive atmosphere. It’s a welcoming atmosphere,” said “Auntie” Beverly Cottman, a Street Show storyteller who has been retelling African and African-American folk tales and fables to help people pass the time as they wait for the bus on Hennepin.
Before the DID got into the act, street entertainers could be found throughout the city playing for tips outside of the Guthrie or on the Stone Arch Bridge or even in the skyways. But the downtown organization felt that the busking scene could get a boost by offering entertainers a guaranteed payment.
The performers hired by the DID also get to use a wagon (with Street Show signage) to haul their instruments, plus a battery-powered amplifier. There are even busking boot camps, where performers learn about the best busking practices: Don’t smoke or check your phone. Stay hydrated. Use sunscreen. Keep an eye on valuables. Use a piece of chalk to draw the boundaries of an imaginary stage.
In Minneapolis, busking is legal as long as performers are on public property, don’t obstruct traffic and don’t violate noise ordinances. But street performers haven’t always gotten a warm welcome. During the DID’s fall test run, some performers were asked to leave.
“Unfortunately in the U.S., it’s kind of looked down upon,” said singer/guitarist and sometimes busker “Lonesome” Dan Kase. Especially if the performers aren’t very good, “that gives it a bad reputation,” he said. “They’re close to panhandling.”
And even performers understand that it can be a difficult proposition. Buskers essentially are asking, “Hey, give me money for this thing you didn’t ask for,” said Minneapolis cellist Teddy Schumacher.
Still, Schumacher said he has made from $15 to $60 an hour in tips by playing Bach and Dvorák cello suites and concertos on Nicollet Mall, at a light rail train station and at the Mill City Farmer’s Market. That includes getting some tips via smartphone Venmo money transfers.
“Every once in a while someone will drop in a $20,” he said. Once, a massage therapist gave him a quick back rub in exchange for his music.
For some buskers, however, it’s not all about the money.
“I do welcome it in some ways to develop your voice,” Kase said. “It teaches you how to sing loud, how to project.”
Chris Griffith, a puppeteer and juggler, said he likes the “immediacy of the audience” on the street.
“It’s much harder to engage an audience in the street than in a theater,” he said. “You know right away if it’s working because you have a crowd around you, and if there isn’t a crowd, it’s not working.”
But even a great artist can be met with indifference when trying to coax hurried pedestrians to stop, listen and open their wallets.
The most famous example of that occurred when the Washington Post arranged to have world famous violinist Joshua Bell play for 43 minutes in a Washington, D.C., subway station during a morning rush hour in 2007.
Bell played incognito, and he didn’t phone in his performance at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. He poured his heart into six classical pieces while playing on a Stradivari violin worth millions.
The vast majority of the 1,097 people who walked by Bell ignored him, according to the Post. One of the best classical musicians in the world made a total of $32.17 in tips.
Thanks to the payments he’s getting from the DID, Hauser, the flamenco guitarist, makes a better hourly rate as a busker than did Bell.
“It’s kind of like I’m being paid to practice,” Hauser said.
Plus, he feels like he’s exposing a new audience to his beloved flamenco.
“Even if people don’t seem to be listening, they’re hearing it,” he said.