Public performers struggle through hard times

By Colin Shively

The economic recession affects everyone and every business in different ways. Whether it is reconstructing business models or going out of business, something always changes. In the performing arts world, street and CTA performers must come up with more creative methods to draw in customers and patrons in order to survive the financial crisis.

In Chicago, the street and CTA artists are facing the same case as they struggle to make ends meet by performing for passers-by who donate money if they feel the artist deserves it. As people tighten their budgets, less money is available for onlookers to donate to the musicians.

CTA singer Oasis performs songs such as “Believe” by Cher and “ABC” by the Jackson 5 to help entertain Blue Line riders at the Jackson and Dearborn Street subway station.

“The economy definitely affects all of us,” Oasis said. “We have to perform longer hours just to make the same amount of money.”

Performing in the Chicago subway stations for more than 20 years, Oasis has seen the times at their best and their worst, he said.

Oasis has had to become more  engaging to the CTA riders to compensate for the loss of donations. He now includes random dance sequences, that he makes up on the spot and some comic relief to help attract more business.

“I have to create new routines and be more creative just to get people to look at me,” Oasis said. “I look at the hourly pay but more of the whole day. The pay fluctuates day to day, but I have noticed a definite decrease in the amount of money people give me. They have other priorities first.”

The economy has not only made moneymaking more difficult for the performers, but also for discovering new material to perform.

“I used to go to a record store and buy my songs from there, but now record stores are going out of business and everything is online,” Oasis said. “I can’t find the songs I want anywhere now.”

Street performing licenses are given through the city of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection and cost a bi-yearly fee of $100.

According to Ephrat Stein, spokeswoman for the BACP, the number of licenses for street performers has actually increased between 2008 and June of 2009 from 493 to 541. This perhaps shows a trend in the growing number of Chicagoans performing to earn some extra money, Stein said.

Likewise, CTA subway performers must file a separate form with CTA and pay a yearly $10 fee in order to perform, despite the slowed income. According to the CTA, they are still only allowed to play at certain train stops including Washington and State, Jackson and State, Washington and Dearborn and Jackson and Dearborn.

Keithen Barks, a guitar-strumming performer in the Jackson and State Red Line subway station has started performing to get more cash flow, but has seen it fluctuate similarly to Oasis.

“The middle of last month and all this month, there has been way less money,” Barks said. “I had to drastically change my style of music to attract more of a crowd.”

Barks started performing musical styles like the Blues, R&B and Southern Rock in the beginning of his CTA performing job, but now he has noticed that the current trend to tune into is more of an alternative rock sound, he said.

“Before, I felt that I was really struggling, but I notice now that more people are paying attention when I play the alternative music,” Barks said. “I play The Beatles a lot now because they have been big lately and they draw a lot of people.”

As the financial crisis fluctuates, there is no doubt that public performers will still feel the constrictions of a weakened economy.  Yet as the recession begins to end, they have hope that those who enjoy their performances will donate more money.