Paparo, who also runs Four Door Studios from his Reservoir home, has turned to recording to “keep busy and find income in other ways”. “My business is under by much more than 30 per cent this year [compared to] last year,” he said of seeking JobKeeper payments. “It’s been a huge hit for us.”
Rising musician Shirina Holmatova, 18, had initially hoped her regular busking gig outside Sydney’s Town Hall station would sustain her after a stream of booked gigs were cancelled in the early stages of the coronavirus response. But, even before the city’s official ban on busking, crowds had dwindled.
“Generally, I would play at least five times a week – on weekdays for two hours, and on weekends for four hours. On weekdays I could make up to $250, and on Fridays and Saturdays I could make up to $350,” she explained.
With workers already at home and people reluctant to go out, that quickly dropped to “like, $20”. “I think anyone who works as a musician right now feels completely wiped out. There’s just nothing.”
While largely indifferent to fees lost on their pre-paid busking permits – “premium” permits for Melbourne’s top pedestrian site Bourke Street Mall cost $70 per year, and a further $100 for those wanting to sell CDs or merchandise; Sydney’s more streamlined permits cost $47 per year – performers remain eager to return to the streets.
UK musician Poppy Waterman-Smith, 26, who had been busking full-time in Melbourne since September before moving to the Sunshine Coast as coronavirus restrictions were being introduced, said beyond being “my most reliable source of money”, busking offers satisfaction that can’t be replicated in other performances.
“You know how you just walk past people in the city every day, and everyone’s going about their own business? Busking breaks that barrier,” she said. “You form these little connections, tiny moments with people that you never would have usually. It’s incredible, that feeling.”
Councils say they’re sympathetic to buskers’ lost work and their contributions to a city’s cultural life.
“Our city streets wouldn’t be the same without buskers playing songs, dancing or performing,” said City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. “My personal favourites are the jazz musicians and people on acoustic instruments, and it can be captivating seeing a new busker play for an audience for the first time.”
She acknowledged the period had been “exceptionally difficult” for buskers and vowed to advocate for “increased support for the arts sector, to ensure no one slips through the cracks in federal and state financial relief”.
“We will recommence issuing permits after the state and federal governments lift their restrictions. When the crisis passes and our buskers next come to renew their permits, we will extend them free of charge, to make up for the time they’ve been unable to busk,” Moore said.
Melbourne councillor Rohan Leppert, chair of the city’s arts, culture and heritage portfolio, said the council was “exploring options to help buskers whose permits have been affected by COVID-19 restrictions and helping them to plan their return”.
“We know this is a difficult time for buskers but we must continue to follow the best health advice. Until the restrictions are lifted or altered, performers need to stay off the streets,” he said.
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age