Street Musicians: The Other Side of the Art Festival

Wednesday, May 25, 2016, 11:44 am
By: 
Samuel Sprague

Downtown East Lansing’s summer festivals are a great opportunity for local and traveling street performers to bring their talent to the streets of East Lansing. Perhaps the Art Festival’s most renowned street performer is Crazy Richard, who performs his fire and knife juggling routine every year near Hopcat. While a few erected stages featured musical acts officially booked for last weekend’s festival, alleyways and corners play host to all the other musicians looking to join in on the fun.   

Though Crazy Richard is certainly a veteran busker (my dad remembers seeing him at Art Fest when he was a kid), many of this year’s younger street performers also have a lot of experience with busking. It becomes a profession of sorts. I spoke to a local busker by the name of Finn who got downtown early on Friday to secure what he consider “the most coveted busking spot downtown” at the alleyway opening just outside of Twichells Dry Cleaners.

Finn played for tips, with a colorful and charming “thank you” sign placed under a jar full of donations from passersby. A few other musicians Finn had met that day joined in with acoustic guitars.

The Folk Festival sets up a designated busking area, but according to Finn, the Art Festival encourages street musicians to play anywhere downtown. Finn’s performances are not restricted to East Lansing’s festivals, however. “I travel and hit all the best festivals,” says Finn. “Mostly in Michigan, sometimes Indiana or Ohio. Every once in a while I go out to Baltimore for the Flower Festival because you make really good money there, but this is one of the best ones in Michigan.”

Simon Sprague is another young yet seasoned musician who played under the CVS parking ramp on Friday and Sunday during the town’s festivities. He began playing for tips in downtown East Lansing at the age of nine. He is turning eighteen in July.

Heat Pipes busk downtown Traverse City. Photo Credit Abigail Barbara Klingelsmith

Simon spent last summer in Traverse City as a member of the Heat Pipes, an East Lansing-based rock band. “We were camping all summer at a free campsite, which took us a while to find. Every morning we’d wake up at our campsite and drive into town and start playing around noon, sometimes ten at the earliest. We’d sometimes go until midnight and make around $200 on a given day. We would busk by this place called Pangea’s pizza, and a couple times they came out with water and some breadsticks, which was really nice of them.”

When I went up to Traverse City to stay with the Heat Pipes last July, I gave myself a tight budget that I thought would be just enough to cover my needs for the week-long stay. I ended up earning more money daily from busking than I had planned to spend in the whole week. I sat in on a makeshift drum kit with the Heat Pipes every day and they even learned some of my songs. Since they played for hours on end, songs would get repeated countless times in one day, so I figured they’d be happy to temporarily add a few of mine to their repertoire.

The best part of busking for Simon is “when people like it and actually stop and listen. We’d be playing and people would just stop and start dancing, and it would basically turn into a street show. That was extremely gratifying, almost just as much as the cash.” At the same time, Simon thinks it’s important to consider that “it can be pretty physically straining. You’re singing your lungs out and beating on a drum for eight hours a day, especially if you’re doing it like that, to its extreme, and living off the money you make.”

Editor’s note: Simon Sprague, interviewed in this article, is the brother of reporter Samuel Sprague.

Editor's Note: This article was corrected to reflect the fact that Crazy Richard is a not a "busker;" he is specifically invited to perform by the Festival Board and is paid a stipend for his performances out of the Festival's performance budget.