Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why do I street-sing? Reflections from CNA show

Well, it's a topic that I've written several times before (see here, here, here, here, and for a comic version, see here). Few weeks back, I got an email from the producers of the Channel News Asia program "iJournalist" (btw, the series is actually produced by student interns working in CNA, which I think is a cool arrangement). Apparently, they've selected to do an episode on "busking vs begging" and came across this blog. I'm glad to participate as I see it as another channel to spread my message/hope, which is that more folks like me who enjoy music or other crafts like magic or juggling etc, will use the streets as a platform to showcase and share their crafts. Of course, journalists being what they are or what they have to be (ie. to deliver a few key points in easy-to-relate punchlines and in the process over-simplify or worse, imply the most explanable but ultimately wrong diagnosis of the issue; on this I agree whole-heartedly with Nassim Taleb) and also of the fact that I don't think I made my points clearly during the interview (especially under the pressure of the camera), I feel compelled to reiterate some of my point of view on the subject of busking, especially when the episode tried to link "busking" and "begging" together (Don't get me wrong, the producers, interviewer and the TV crew were really nice folks and I had a great time hanging out with them, but the problem with journalism I describe above is a systemic issue that I suppose "comes with the job").

First of all, I never thought of busking as begging. In fact, this concept would have seemed rather absurd if you were to ask someone from US, Europe, Australia etc if busking is a form of begging. Then again, I don't think anyone can fault some Singaporeans for making the generalized observation that a substantial proportion of the buskers here are handicapped or disadvantaged in some ways. For these buskers, what they do on the streets is probably their primary means of earning an income, and for that I have the utmost respect for them. Essentially, they're offering a service of sort, and payment is completely voluntary. Sometimes, when there is money transactions involved, the immediate instinct for most people is to assume the conditions surrounding a typical market economy. But in fact, what is truly going on here is a gift economy. I highly doubt that anyone actually has a fixed budget each week under the item "expenses for the entertainment service provided by buskers". In fact, the exchange is much more spontaneous than that.

Which is why I disagree with my mom's contention that I'm taking away "business" from those who really needs it (presumably the disadvantaged ones). Most people would start out with the assumption that the "market size" of the busking "industry" (or you can think of the total earnings by every buskers) is a constant. So my busking "revenue" would have been some other buskers' "revenue". I think of it quite differently. Firstly, I don't think of the entire busking community as functioning as a single market providing the same commodity. On the contrary, each of us operate in separate markets that have minimal correlation with the each other. Being someone working in real estate, I tend to think in terms of space. As a matter of fact, busking is a lot like real estate. Depending on the kind of craft you're doing (be it music, magic, juggling etc), your addressable "market" is really just about 20-30m radius from where you are (ie. location matters). In other words, if you were to busk some 100 m away from another busker, arguably it can be said that you're competing in a different market. Of course, each of these micro-markets are still dependent in each other in some ways. After all, if a passer-by give his $$ to a busker and then 100 m down the road he comes across another busker, his willingness to give this other busker $$ could be contingent on whether he gave or how much he gave the previous buskers (ie. his "busking expense" is path-dependent). But I do see where my mom is coming from, so I always made it a point to busk at a location that's not anywhere near another busker (really, out of basic courtesy that's the only way to do it regardless of whether the "competing" buskers are handicapped or not) and given that this is a gift economy (to the extent that no one has a fixed "busking expense" budget), I believe doing so would not deprive another busker of his/her fair share of space/attention/"revenue" in a significant way.

Ok, so what if you're not "robbing" some other needy buskers of potential "revenue"; why do you even bother taking $$ if truly you're doing this purely out of your passion for music? This is, to me, a much tougher question to answer. When I first started out, I actually did not put any money box in front of me, and yet some passers-by were still giving me $$. As I was doing in the States, where the potential moral dilemma of taking "business" away from some other needy buskers didi not really exist, I thought why not, since every busker in the Bay Area were taking doing the same, and I'm sure many of them weren't doing it purely for the $$ either.

Sometime after, I came across an interview with Li ka-shing, the Hong Kong tycoon. He was describing an anecdote when he accidentally dropped a coin underneath his car. He took some effort to bend down and search for his missing coin. So why would someone whose net worth counts by the billions care about a missing coin? His response: "If I were to just ignore that coin, 50 cents may disappear from the earth forever. It may never be used. But if I get back that coin, I can invest it, donate to someone else or at least make some good use of it." That made a deep impression on me. I've come to the conclusion (for now) that I should attempt to be financially responsible in all my actions. Busking is no exception. There's real costs involved; two-way taxi rides, beverages I consume during the session and the sunk cost of my equipments. If there's a chance for me to recover some of these costs, I thought I should not deny myself that opportunity, regardless of how wealthy or poor I am. Earning $$ and how to use that $$ (either spending it for myself, my family or donate to others) can rightfully be separated into 2 distinct decision-making processes.

Then again, all the talk and focus above on $$ really misses the point. I actually hate addressing busking in such an economic way, though I admit this is one of the ways one can look at it. Indeed I still had my reservation about the approach of the iJournalist program, in their attempt to link busking and begging together. I'm not sure if it's right framework to approach busking, though I concur perhaps some Singaporeans (including my mom) view busking this way and it certainly makes for a more sensational headline. The producers actually asked me to do an experiment whereby I'd busk as per normal and then pretend to be a blind busker, and to see if my "revenue" differs under the two scenarios. On first thought it sounds like an interesting experiment but after some consideration, I declined. Besides not being comfortable with pretending to be someone I'm not, I'm also uncertain if any constructive conclusion can be arrived from such an experiment.

At the end of the day, my wish is to convince more aspiring artists to go on the streets and share their crafts. Below is a picture which Tammy took when I was street-singing in Berkeley. I was singing "over the rainbow" when this couple started dancing along the music. I mean, how can you even put a dollar sign to a moment like this? I think this picture says it all, why I do what I do.


shirozen said...

Cool! I was on the show.. The later part.. yeah.. A busker wannabe here! Will be going for the auditions again this friday. Hope I make it this time though I'm ill again.. =.=

Anyway, felt great being able to see you in person, sadly I never got a chance to talk to you though. Take care always!


knackeredhack said...

Thanks for the shout out.

I like the idea that busking expense is "path-dependent".