The Decline of Street Performance in Boston

Busking is the age-old tradition of street performance, in which an entertainer takes his or her spontaneous theatrical act or music directly to the public. It is an art form that hinges upon the culture and attitude of the passerby—the capacity to halt a wandering stranger, to form a crowd, to carry them along with a narrative (in the case of a theatrical performer), and finally, after the product has been consumed without an agreement to its price, get them to pay up. The busker and his craft are entirely at the mercy of the immediate environ and audience, and as such, it is the perfect indicator of the state of social interaction, economic unease, and general attention capacities.

I spoke with Jim McCombe of The Jim Show, an established and professional multi-faceted act and founder of, about his perception of the changing face of busking. Jim discussed with me how in his own experience and those of his colleagues, there are increasing obstacles in their audience. “After September 11th, everything changed: the money, the mood. The money just dropped off. $5 or $10 feels good to give someone on the street when you are ‘wowed.’ But in times of economic insecurity, the big tips are not out there. We do not have the luxury of having a large fee. We say: pay what you think it was worth with the subtext of what you can afford.”

This assumes that a performer is even able to form an audience. Jim also has found that it is harder to get one, and when one does form, the audience is restless. “In the ’90s you could grab someone’s attention, and they would give you fifteen minutes to get your show going. Only then did they judge your show and whether or not they would be interested in remaining. Now they do it at 60 seconds. They don’t seem to have the time, the patience, or the attention span. And sometimes they are on the phone…” According to Jim, what Goethe called the “natural amphitheater” of the spontaneous audience ceased to form roughly back in 2003: “I even noticed people stopped sitting down to watch the show. In the past, the first two rows of people always sat down. Now, people want an ‘exit strategy.’ It is like they are saying, ‘I am watching you but have not made a commitment to watching you—when you turn your back I might bolt.’ This then affects the show’s tempo. The old rhythm was a routine every five minutes for a thirty- to forty-five-minute show; now it is ten-seconds-and-something-new. There is little patience for suspense and buildup. The shows must be faster and snappier.”

Is this due to the economic downturn? Or perhaps to an overuse of the Internet with its fast-click, fast-download of free information, often in the form of streaming videos no longer than a couple of minutes, with the freedom to let one’s boredom and disinterest cut off the entertainment at any moment? I grew up watching a vibrant Harvard Square performing scene dwindle to the occasional bold street musician of today. I feel the loss, as anyone would in places where busking has vanished. Research has shown that street performing eases social tension, creates foot traffic, and hence improves the local economy. But an appreciator of the arts does not need such justification to be concerned at the imminent loss of this art form, one whose tradition shaped such acts as The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Jimmy Buffett, and the great Marcel Marceau.