Occupying Space in the Soundtrack of the City:
Study of San Francisco Street Musicians
Music is an integral part of human existence, whether individuals recognize it or not. From natural organic sounds like chirping birds, wind, rain, and even speaking, to man-made noises like electric guitars and screeching brakes, the world around us creates and embraces music. A clash of the phenomenon of organic sound, man-made noise, and articulated music bleeds together in a very spatial way on the streets of cities. Street musicians add to the natural sound of the world around them with their own music, forming an entirely new “Soundtrack to the City.” The culture to which street musicians belong is diverse and individualized with each performer’s style, but it is also unified through the city itself and nomadic nature of the trade. These musicians truly occupy the space physically, musically, and in many cases emotionally as they play for a mobile audience that often barely realizes the integral role the music and musicians play into their daily lives.
This project began as an open-ended analysis of street musicians, with a slight focus on what similar factors lead these people to play where and how they play. I started out with the idea that street musicians help create a “soundtrack to the city.” After my first interview, y interviewee almost used my exact words, and agreed with my phrase when I suggested it. After that I tried to observe the way performers portrayed themselves and the way the audience reacted, getting candid explanations from both parties when I could. More and more, the concept of space rose into the foreground of my research and observations. Audience members experience the music in a very unique was depending on the acoustics and background street noise of the environment as well as the visual and special reality of the setting. While those factors can contribute to and detract from the music, they set street music apart from more formalized concert or club settings to produce this very unique musical culture and climate.
My findings greatly reflect this idea of occupying musical and physical space as well as my original semi-psychological analysis of the people involved. Performers that I talked with all seemed to have at least some form of formal training and quite a history of musical experience, but their reasons for playing in the street and future ambitions took various routes. Some of the musicians (particularly the older ones) have made this art form their (quite successful) life and primary source of income. Others try to use the street as a transitional point and means of advertisement to get their name out or continue making money and playing music while they are in between bands. Audience members fell into more similar categories.
Most of the audience members I talked to admitted they stop for street musicians only when they are “good enough.” Many of them commented on how the music adds to the city experience but is sometimes lost in the fray if it does not stand out enough. As a few of my subjects mentioned, the street is sort of a competition for space and recognition in which performers must fight for their audience. Different performers use various methods to accomplish this. Some try to incorporate people into their set and give them reason to stay, like Jordan B. Wilson, the one-man-band, who draws an audience and then performs a specific show. Others paly with all of their might and talent and hope people enjoy the music enough to come to them. Still others combine street music with a club setting by basically booking gigs and playing at certain events or placed such as Fisherman’s Wharf or the Palo Alto Farmer’s Market. But even despite these different methodologies, street musicians share a genre and space in life’s soundtrack.
That space must in many cases be protected and claimed by performers, which brings to light a hidden network and social rhetoric within the street musician community. Interactions vary between cooperatively supportive of one another and territorially protective of each musician’s own space, right to play, and profit. In my experience, some of the older musicians who have been playing for a while foster a more collaborative environment between themselves. However, in other instances, newcomers face the challenge of territorial claims based on unofficial timetables developed through repetition.
At the end of this project, my main takeaway has been the idea of occupation and use of space that is so unique and vital to the art of street musicians. I focus on how the space in which musicians play influences their interactions with each other and the rest of the world as well as how their own motivations and backgrounds contribute to their use of space. Overall, I argue for the importance of occupying space – physical, mentally, and musically – to create a “soundtrack to the city” that plays an integral role in shaping the environment of a city and therefore its residents as well.