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Playing for tips: Buskers share their experiences entertaining Cleveland

Isaac Rogers sits on a crate, playing drums as people walk to a sporting event.
Malcolm Bamba / Ideastream Public Media
iBTheReal performs outside Progressive Field before a recent Guardians game.

On a recent Saturday night, a musician played on the tops of buckets just outside the entrance to Progressive Field as thousands of people filed in for a sold-out Guardians game.

“It’s just common sense to me,” said Isaac Rogers, a Cleveland musician who performs as iBTheReal. “If it's 40,000 people walking past you, you should go out there and sit.”

You can find street performers like him all throughout Cleveland serving as colorful fixtures around local businesses, public parks and large events. They all offer unique perspectives on the busking experience in Cleveland, which passed an ordinance legalizing busking 10 years ago, inspired by longtime saxophonist Maurice Reedus Jr., better known as “Sax Man.”

Guy Snowdon singing in outdoor venue.
Guy Snowdon
English rock singer Guy Snowdon performs tunes for the community with his band and as a busker.

“I've gone from being asked to busk at the NFL draft in the freezing cold to playing Painesville Party in the Park,” said Guy Snowdon, a rock singer and Cleveland transplant from Birmingham, England.

He plays bigger venues with his band, Guy Snowdon and the Citizens, and also spends time on the streets performing solo for the community.

“It's always an interesting dynamic, because for some gigs you might play in a rockier area and get a bit more of a reaction from the originals. On the other hand, if you play an area which is a bit more relaxed and laid back, the covers might connect better,” he said.

Snowdon discussed a lack of appeal in busking for some artists who are used to the audience engagement seen at traditional venues – particularly for ensembles.

“It's all well and good going out and doing our full band show and then kind of getting that handshake,” Snowdon said. “But it's another thing saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go out and busk?’”

Performance artist Robin VanLear puts on a street show incorporating exotic puppets, butterflies and other alluring visuals. She said it can be difficult to convince people to pay to support non-music acts.

Performer holding a tip jar while wearing a colorful outfit.
Malcolm Bamba / Ideastream Public Media
Robin Van Lear is a visual artist and street performer based in Cleveland. 

While some performers can earn hundreds of dollars for one session of busking, VanLear said buskers can expect a range of income.

“I was doing tips for this performance,” she said about her recent appearance while BorderLight Fringe Festival was in the Playhouse Square district. “I got $3 the first day, $5 on the second day and $30 today. That was a big jump.”

Busker Initiatives

City officials see the value in welcoming busking.

“Street performers and busking in parks, plazas and other public spaces is a naturally occurring activity in many cities that contributes to vibrant and engaging urban street life. This type of artistic expression generally has a positive effect on cities and people through unique and shared experiences.” said Cleveland Press Secretary Marie Zickefoose via a written statement.

Beyond the ordinance established 10 years ago, city programs strive to bring performance into public spaces.

“The busker initiative has booked more than 100 performances in the past year,” said Eileen Cassidy, vice president of Downtown experience for the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. “It’s a mutually beneficial program for both performers and businesses.”

Musicians comprise most of the busking applications seen in the program. Other non-musical talents make up a smaller pool of contributions, according to Brent Kirby, a musician and consultant to the busker initiative.

While acceptance into the initiative is not required to busk, the program offers incentives for performers – which include coaching and a modest stipend. Kirby wouldn’t share the specific dollar amount provided, but he said the stipend is just enough to cover transportation, parking and a meal.

“Performers are asked to submit simple verification of their talent and ability to perform in the application,” Kirby said. “The program does not guarantee specific placement at a performance location.”

The program promotes busking as a low-stakes revenue stream and opportunity to be a part of the community.

“Support the busking. We need more art out on the streets,” he said.

Malcolm Bamba was the 2023 summer intern with Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.