Sing a Song of Sixpence

The image of a struggling musician with his guitar strapped around him, strumming for the love of music and hoping to earn enough to eat, certainly is a romantic one. But if you’re a busker in Singapore, you’ll soon learn that romance won’t pay the bills. Even the Singapore Buskers’ Festival, which was last held in 2004, didn’t do much to increase the profile of street performers here. Out of 91 registered buskers in Singapore, there are only a few prominent mainstays in the busking scene along Orchard Road, and newcomers slug it out to earn even change from the passersby.
I-S Arts and Entertainment Writer (and guitarist) Ng Hui Hsien and her vocalist friend Florence Chua went busking for a day, survived the experience (just barely) and learned something about the scene here.
First, there is a prejudice among many Singaporeans that busking is only for people who cannot earn a living in mainstream society. For example, the elderly and handicapped comprise most of the buskers here. This is compounded by the general attitude that performing or making music is not a serious activity, and should remain a hobby rather than become a source of income. And second, they learned that with busking, location is everything.
Here’s their account of what happened …
The Audition
We had initial reservations about the whole busking thing. First, to busk we needed to get a letter of endorsement from the National Arts Council (NAC), and to get that we had to audition. To get an audition, we in turn had to complete an application form and send it to the NAC. Phew.
Auditions are held only once a month—on the first Friday of each month, at a time and place determined by the NAC. We thought there would have been more than one day a month for auditions, so we were quite taken aback by this. Contrary to what we believed, there are obviously not many wannabe buskers out there.
We were told to show up for auditions at 9:40am. The problem was both of us have full-time jobs and were working that Friday morning. We tried to push the auditions back to 9:20am so we could make it to work on time. It took a few phone calls and pleas before we could shift the audition time, and the earliest that the NAC officers in charge could make it was 9:30am. But the audition began at 9:40am anyway, so our multiple phone calls to reschedule it seemed like a waste of time, as something so menial turned out to be so troublesome and pointless (that’s what happens when there’s so much red tape going on). Auditions held this infrequently and during office hours are definitely not very convenient, especially for those who work.
The audition took place in one of the meeting rooms at the MICA (Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts) building. There were four judges, who strolled in one by one. All of them sat on one side of a huge table, and the mood was a bit formal. We were ushered into the room along with a blind guy, who was auditioning too. It felt like we were competing against a disabled person for a busking spot. It was also a bit weird that when we began auditioning, another wannabe busker was in the room with us, listening to our performance.
The NAC officers wanted us to perform three songs, but as we were pressed for time (Florence had to be in the office by 10am), we did only two: Kylie Minogue’s popular “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” and a Mandarin number, Mayday’s “Wen Rou.” Overall, we weren’t very well prepared and were sleepy, and we missed the beat a few times on the guitar. It certainly wasn’t our best performance, but we tried. There was a bell for the officers to ring if they’d heard enough, but thankfully, they rang it only during our second song. They were pretty quiet throughout our audition, and we had the feeling that they just wanted get the audition over and done with.
After our audition, the officers asked us a few questions, such as whether we had jobs, and, if so, what we did, and why we wanted to busk. We simply said we wanted more exposure for our new band, Iris, and an opportunity to sing for the public. The questions about how we earned our living got us thinking that perhaps skill or talent were not the sole criteria for passing the audition. One’s ability to earn one’s keep mattered as well, as we had the feeling that the blind guy would get the license as he needed it more than we did.
So it came as a surprise that after just a few days, NAC’s Festivals Officer Linda Wee called us to say that our letters of endorsement had been approved, with one for each of us so that we could choose to perform individually or as a duo. A receptionist at the NAC later mentioned to us that most people who audition get through, and we reckon that only people who perform really really badly, like the caterwauling Phoebe from TV’s Friends, are rejected.
The Big Day
With our letters of endorsement, we were free to busk around Orchard Road, Chinatown and along Singapore River—locations we had requested—subject to conditions drawn up by the NAC (see box below). So in true guerilla style, we decided to try out as many spots as possible on a Sunday afternoon.
On the day itself, we accidentally left our letters at home and started busking without them, even though NAC regulations state that buskers need to have their letters of endorsement on display while they are busking. Interestingly, no one noticed or cared, and when a friend later showed up with our letters in hand, we just carried on as if nothing untoward had happened.
We began on Orchard Road, and looked for a quiet spot as we were not going to perform with amplifiers (apart from battery operated ones, amplifiers are not allowed). We initially wanted to perform near the escalators outside Shaw House as traffic flow there is very high, but to our disappointment, harmonica player Loh How Tong had already taken the spot, and according to busking guidelines, buskers performing in the same location should keep a reasonable distance from each other.
Our first spot was near the escalator leading towards the underpass connecting Shaw House to Wheelock Place. As we were performing, we realized that without amplifiers, we were drowned out by the high level of noise from the street. After six songs, we decided to give up as we managed to earn only a miniscule 50 cents. Audience response here was disappointing, as most were more interested in shopping and getting through their day than in listening to us sing.
Our second location, in the underpass linking Shaw House and Wheelock Place, was a much, much better spot to busk in. The area was air-conditioned, and no one had taken the spot, much to our relief. The concave ceiling of the underpass helped to carry our voice and guitar sounds, and we did fine even without a microphone or an amplifier. The underpass was not very crowded, but there were enough passersby and they moved at a more leisurely pace than in our first spot. Some even made an effort to stop for a few minutes to hear us belt out a few songs. A family of three, for example, stayed on for four songs and contributed $5. And later on, a little kid enthusiastically ran towards us and dropped $2 into our humble donation box. All this more than made our day as, in less than half an hour, we had earned more money here than we would earn in all our other spots combined!
After the success with this underpass, we wanted to try our luck at the other underpasses around town, but to no avail. We thought the underpass that connects Lucky Plaza and Ngee Ann City would be a good bet, but the noise and echo levels there were so high we couldn’t even hear ourselves play, and gave up after just two songs. We then proceeded to the space outside Paragon, which was the hottest and noisiest yet, and with too much activity on Orchard Road. It also didn’t help that Ethan Ong, the popular drummer boy, was playing at the other end of Paragon, and drowning out our acoustic guitar and vocals with his heavy drumming!
We almost gave up right here, but decided to try Chinatown. We found a nice spot atop a spacious bridge near Outram MRT station, but the crowd was not very forthcoming and we didn’t earn a single cent even after singing about five songs. On top of that, some of the uncles gave us weird, lewd stares, which made us uncomfortable.
Our last stop for the day was Clarke Quay, which further confirmed our suspicion that life as a busker is really tough! We were not allowed to play along The Riverwalk, Clarke Quay or Boat Quay—because they are private properties. This pretty much left us with just a few isolated spots to choose from. We sang a few songs along the Singapore River near the Asian Civilisations Museum, but the passersby were non-existent, so we stopped.
Overall, we think buskers are much neglected. By the end of the day, we had earned only $8.70—and were very tired and discouraged. And, after all the fuss we went through to get our letters of endorsement from the NAC, no one noticed or cared whether we had a license or not. In fact, no one really noticed or cared, period.
It’s Tough Being a Busker
Busking in Singapore is caught in a vicious circle. Because busking is one of the few means of earning money for those who can’t find “normal” jobs, the standard of busking in Singapore is low. The fact that NAC feels holding auditions during office hours only once a month is sufficient also reflects this—why would any capable or talented person with a full time job want to busk after all. And because the standard of busking is not very high, not many people take buskers seriously. Even the good ones find it hard to get recognition. There’s a preconceived notion that buskers are not talented (otherwise they wouldn’t be busking), too lazy to get a real job, or simply have too much time on their hands.
Which is why we are having second thoughts about busking again, and haven’t busked since that day. We do not want to be perceived as people who are busking because we have no other choice in life. Besides, we have full-time jobs, and play regularly with our own band. And the kind of money (what money?!) that we earned from this busking experience was not worth it, considering that most people were unappreciative of our music to begin with.
But if you don’t really care about what others think of you, and just want to get your music out there, busking may be a way to do it—if you have no other option. Just remember to find a comfortable and lucrative spot to perform in, and stick to it.
Busking conditions as drawn up by NAC (taken from
1. A Letter of Endorsement should be obtained from NAC and clearly displayed during performances.
2. Buskers should perform at designated spaces and times.
3. Busking at outdoor spaces of private properties is permitted only if prior permission of the property owners has been sought.
4. Busking hours are generally from 10am to 11pm daily, unless otherwise stated.
5. Buskers do not have exclusivity over busking sites.
6. Buskers performing along the same location should keep reasonable distance from each other for safety reasons.
7. Buskers should not sell any items or merchandise.
8. The sound level generated from busking activities should not exceed 70dBA.
9. Buskers shall indemnify the NAC against any claims.
10. The NAC shall not be liable for comments and opinions expressed by the buskers.
11. The NAC reserves the right to amend the conditions of the scheme from time to time.
12. The NAC reserves the right not to disclose reasons for approving or rejecting an application.
Busking rules and regulations as stated on the letter of endorsement:
During busking, the person should not:
1. Obstruct, or cause obstruction to, pedestrian or vehicular traffic.
2. Actively solicit any donation.
3. Use any sound amplification device, other than those that are battery operated.
4. Make any vulgar or obscene gesture or remark.
5. Sell any items or merchandises.
We sent the NAC some queries after our grueling experience. Below are its replies.
Auditions are only held once a month. Why is that so? Do you think this decreases the number of wannabe buskers?
The monthly auditions sufficiently meet the demand of people who want to busk. The consistent frequency also gives applicants sufficient time to plan and prepare for their auditions. The audition cycle does not impact the number of buskers. In fact, the number of buskers has increased over the years as more and more people busk out of their interest to perform.
How are applicants assessed during auditions?
Applicants are assessed on various criteria which include the standard of performance, creativity and originality, as well as the suitability of the auditioned item for busking. Everyone, whether young or old, able-bodied or disabled, will be given the opportunity to be auditioned. NAC will award the letter of endorsement to applicants who meet the artistic standard and maintain their quality of performance.
The letter of endorsement is free of charge. Have we seen an increase in the number of buskers over the years?
The free audition process and letter of endorsement have certainly encouraged more people to busk. The busking scheme was first introduced in 1997 to enliven our streets, encourage Singaporeans to exhibit their artistic talents and make the arts more accessible to the public. Since then, the number of endorsed buskers has risen from 14 in 1997, to 137 in 2005. We also see more professionally trained talents taking a strong interest in busking to hone their craft, or simply out of passion for street performance. As of June 2006, we have 91 endorsed buskers.
How are the busking spots determined? Are there plans to increase the number of busking spots?
The National Arts Council works closely with various agencies and site owners to identify suitable venues for busking. Factors such as suitability of spaces for busking, safety and flow of pedestrian traffic are taken into consideration to determine appropriate sites for busking. Approved busking locations include both outdoor venues and sheltered spaces such as covered walkways and pedestrian malls. The list of busking locations is reviewed regularly and updated whenever appropriate. (see for full busking spots)
We busked for a couple of hours without displaying our letters of endorsement. Are there patrolling officers that go around to inspect that buskers display their letters of endorsement all the time?
The police and busking site owners may carry out random checks and are in the position to stop a person from busking if he or she is not able to produce the letter of endorsement.
Even though busking hasn’t exactly catch on here in Singapore, but that doesn’t mean we do not have some diamonds in the rough as far as talent goes. Click here as we uncover some of the best (and worst) buskers on this tinnie winnie island.