Culture  Sing out

Buskers start to organize at Berri-UQAM

“Meet here tonight at 11 o’clock,” said Gerry, a busker at Berri-UQAM metro station, echoing a suggestion I’d heard from another performer just a little while earlier at Place des Arts. Having watched too many movies in my day, I felt as though I were in the midst of discovering an underground secret society – an eclectic collective of artists who gather nightly at Berri-UQAM. Jumping on my bike, I anxiously sped down to Berri-UQAM through the cold autumn night. Inside, I saw Gerry and began talking to him about this new organization. Gerry called over and introduced me to Dino, a middle-aged man with a grey mullet and a flip of hair swept to the side of his forehead. Dino is the secretary of this newly-founded collective of musicians. He performs regularly at Berri-UQAM, playing guitar and singing popular songs by Radiohead, David Bowie, and Joe Cocker. Before I knew it, Dino and I were deep in conversation.

Then, with a few pats on the back and quick departing words, the meeting was over. There was no secret society. In fact, there were only seven people present at the meeting. It was more reminiscent of a group of friends determining the order of their fantasy football draft than of the Knights Templar. But this was the grassroots beginning of le Regroupement des musiciens du métro de Montreal. As of 3:17 p.m. on October 14th, 2009, the Regroupement became an official non-profit organization. Its aim? To represent and fight for the rights of Montreal’s metro buskers.

The new group had held its first meeting on September 12, 2009, with the simple goal of supporting and promoting metro musicians’ needs. “We want to be recognized by the public,” said Dino. “We want to be recognized as musicians and not just beggars.”

“We want to be organized to continue,” added Gerry, “and for that we have to be together.”

A busker is a performer whose stage is public space. According to Dino, there are nearly 300 metro performers in Montreal. Around Christmas time, that number doubles. Buskers perform all over the city – on the street, in parks, and in the metro. But contrary to perception, busking is more complicated than just finding a spot and setting up shop. Buskers have to deal with permits if they’re performing on the streets, STM regulations if they’re working in the metro, and arguments over turf.

The Regroupement isn’t the first organization that was founded to represent the interests of metro buskers in Montreal – l’Association des musiciens indépendants du métro was established in 1983. I tried to find out if they’re still around, but their contact number isn’t active anymore. According to Dino, however, its cavalier attitude of people looking out for themselves was a big shortcoming.

While at some metro stations the buskers who show up first are the ones who get to play, every night the Berri-UQAM performers gather together at 11:00 p.m. to determine who will play the following day, and to assign timeslots. The little group has big plans. They hope to bring new standards of ethics and fairness to metro musicians. But most of all, the Regroupement is built on respect. As Dino said, members of the group want to be seen as artists and not beggars, but they also recognize that they must have respect for people in the metro. As they gathered together to decide when each would perform the next day, they all took two-hour blocks out of respect for other musicians and the general public. “So the STM employees don’t get sick of us,” Dino notes.

Additionally, they hope to begin holding auditions this upcoming February and establishing membership in March, as part of an effort to ensure the quality of the musicians who play in the metro.

“If someone only plays the same three songs, the people who work in the metro will go crazy and that will give us a bad reputation,” says Dino. The hope is to have the best musicians possible in the metro, so that in general, buskers will be seen in a more positive light and be given more respect.

After spending over an hour talking to Gerry and Dino, though, I was beginning to be a little skeptical. Montreal has a reputation for very liberal and lenient laws regarding metro performers. Though a busker has to pay for a permit to play on the street, anyone can play in the metro. The only restrictions are that the busker must play in a designated area, marked by a blue sign with a lyre on it, between 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. Given all this, would establishing a membership system where performers are required to audition undermine the spirit of Montreal busking? Would it create an elitist hierarchy?
With my misgivings in mind, I went back to Berri-UQAM the following night to ask some follow-up questions. I arrived at 10:40 and walked around a little bit. I saw a young, long-haired guitarist with a beard and round John Lennon spectacles playing – appropriately – “Glass Onion” by the Beatles. As he switched to the first few notes of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” I apologized for interrupting and began to ask him a few questions. Nick, an aspiring musician who recently moved to Montreal from Moncton, New Brunswick, helped me see the efforts of the Regroupement through a less cynical lens.

“If you busk in Moncton, people look at you like you’re a bum,” Nick told me. “[In Montreal], there are people who look at [buskers] as musicians who are just trying to get a start, but there are still people who look at you like you’re a bum.”

“Having an organization will bring respect to musicians that play in the metro,” Nick continued. “[With auditions implemented] there would be a certain standard that would weed out the few people that think by picking up a guitar, it would be another way to squeeze money out of people.”

Though I never questioned the motives or intentions behind the Regroupement, I began to see that implementing auditions was not a method of exclusion that defied the freedom and liberal reputation of Montreal’s metro performing. Nick didn’t know about the organization until I told him about it, but he understood the Regroupement’s goals immediately. It’s a way of ensuring the reputation of and establishing a level of respect for the artists.

As my conversation with Nick wound down, I looked over and saw Gerry, Dino, and others gathering at the same spot as before, writing their names on 8×8 centimetre slips of paper, folding them, and sticking them into a hat. I walked toward them and also noticed the opera singer/guitarist I’d seen at Place des Arts the day before, who first advised me to come to Berri-UQAM. The group was already starting to grow.

After spending some time with them, I realized that the Regroupement is not a secret society or an exclusive club of elitist metro performers. It’s a group that has the interests of artists in mind. Since it is a brand new organization, members are still working out the details of what they’re going to do, but they know that they want to present a unified front to represent and support these talented metro musicians. Dino mentioned plans to distinguish Regroupement members from independent performers, but when asked to elaborate on them, he said with a wry smile, “It’s a secret. You’ll see.”

“There was an organization since 1983 and they weren’t able to do much,” he continued. “How will I be able to do more? I don’t even know!” With that and a grin, Dino walked through the turnstiles and left. Maybe the Regroupement’s got a little bit of that underground mystique after all.