Why the streets? – How the street beat brings audiences and musicians alive

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BY OLIVIA FURNESS

Olivia Furness is Co-Director of The Encontro Street Band Festival in Glasgow, and co-founder of Edinburgh-based social enterprise Oi Musica. 

The Encontro Street Band Festival attracts huge international crowds to Glasgow streets, offering a valuable alternative to often prohibitively pricey ticketed gatherings like Glastonbury. Olivia Furness discusses how the street beat brings audiences and musicians alive:

As a musician, why would you want to work in the street? In fact – why would you want to work outdoors at all? It’s unpredictable – maybe wet, windy, cold. In Scotland, it’s usually all three.

Streets are predominantly used as routes for getting places, not spaces to stop and enjoy. Where is the audience – there isn’t one, right? You could be playing music on a stage in a nice venue, with a big PA, a big crowd, a great atmosphere, a dedicated venue team, and the safety of a backstage area to retreat to. Why not aim for that? Why forfeit that opportunity? Big stages and great venues are what musicians dream of. Aren’t they?

Photo: C Werrett

I absolutely love working in the street – as a performer, a producer, an event organiser. And I love it as an audience member too. Street arts are all about audience and performer being close and on the same level – making a connection without the hindrance or distance of stages, lights and effects.

Street performance is raw; watching it unfold right in front of your eyes, maybe only a metre or two away, is magical. Artists who are experienced at working in the street have a unique way of captivating and including an audience that is different to the venue or stage experience.

When I first started playing music in the early 2000s, in my early 20s in Edinburgh, it was mostly with groups that performed outdoors. And this led me to work with a small crew creating a performance drumming routine for an outdoor show, which was in development for a 3-night run at Glastonbury Festival’s Theatre & Circus Field.

That first run of performances, and the whole Glastonbury experience just blew me away. It opened my eyes to a whole new world, and a whole new way of living through the summer months. It became a big aim of mine to spend the summer months playing the UK festival circuit.

Encontro Street Band Festival-credit C
Photo: C Werrett

Alongside this, though, the streets were an ever-present part of my story as a musician and performer. In 2007, Orkestra del Sol – a 10-piece brassy rabble of a band describing ourselves as ‘the swagger of a Balkan wedding band with the riotous energy of Latin carnival’ – landed an opportunity to work with a theatre Director to devise a street show for a consortium of UK street events.

He honed our over-excited, frenetic act into a more choreographed affair, drawing out the narrative, character, humour and audience interaction that was in there somewhere, and giving it shape and space to breathe.

We learned about gently inviting the audience in, instead of figuratively yelling at them to watch, or dance, or have fun. And we learned a lot about the art of attracting, entertaining and – most importantly – retaining a street audience, when we toured the show around the UK’s main street theatre festivals: Stockton, Winchester, Greenwich & Docklands, Manchester, Brighton, London Thames Festival. And it would have been such a joy if it hadn’t been one of Britain’s wettest summers on record!

Encontro Street Band Festival-credit C
Photo: C Werrett

We turned up at so many almost-cancelled, scaled-down or barely functioning outdoor events beset by downpours and flooding. And yet somehow, amidst all that sogginess, the (small) audiences came and we had a blast in the streets regardless.

In the subsequent years, Orkestra del Sol notched up some fantastic experiences that I’m forever grateful for – sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, tours of seated art centres and theatres, big festival stages (Cambridge Folk Festival being a highlight) and whole summers of music festival dates. We recorded 3 albums, embarked on madcap driving tours across Europe, and performed in India, China and Australia. Not forgetting what was arguably the pinnacle for us – a live session on Cerys Matthews’ Sunday show on BBC Radio 6 Music!

But underpinning and supporting all of this was our experience of playing on the streets. There is no other training like it. When your audience is on the move, walking past and not planning to stop, you very quickly develop tricks to get noticed. It’s a low pressure space for trying new ideas, and it is different every time. Nothing keeps you on your toes as a performer quite like it.

As we played more and more street events, or just went busking between shows or on in-between days on a tour, I began to learn a hell of a lot about people. This is what I noticed, and love about street performance:

  • It challenges people’s learned behaviours. At a concert, everybody’s role is clear – audience watches, band performs. But in the street people have to reimagine their role – do they lurk? Do they leg it? Do they venture forward, maybe even participate by tapping a toe, or dancing?
  • It gently shines a light on human traits and archetypes. When you perform at street level, at audience level, with no defined space belonging to musician and to audience, body language becomes very telling. Some personalities absolutely love this, and embrace it visibly – it’s liberating! Others are hugely challenged by the whole notion, and can’t hide that they are uncomfortable. Both reactions (and everything in between) are valid and real, and I love observing this play out – at any given show, in crowds of every size.
  • It challenges people’s perceptions – of themselves as well as others. A surprising proportion of people don’t like the lack of definition – they want to know where they are ‘supposed’ to stand, what they are ‘supposed’ to do. And in not knowing how to behave, they also go through a process, maybe a mini self-discovery.
  • People can be really surprised and wrong footed by enjoying a band that isn’t famous, that they’ve never heard of, don’t know any of their songs, or don’t even have any songs because there is no singer. Good quality street performance changes perceptions of what is ‘good’ – and this small thing in itself has huge connotations for society, for the music industry, for humans. Perhaps playing music is not just the preserve of the rich & famous?
  • Street performance is subversive – are we supposed to be doing this? Who do our streets belong to anyway? Are we allowed to dance just here in the middle of the shopping precinct?
  • It is surprising – hey, I’m yelling ‘oi’ and pogoing outside my local Costcutter, and I recognise that guy dancing over there from the counter at Boots.
  • It is liberating – hey, I’m dancing and having fun at two in the afternoon, and I’ve not even had a drink.
  • It is honest. There is nothing to hide behind – no stage lights, dry ice, PA, effects. Audiences will stay if they love it and go if they don’t. It’s an accurate measure of how engaging your act is, in a way that no ticketed gig ever could be.

But above all, more than any other reason, I love street performance because it is for everybody. It is about as inclusive as any one thing can be.

Encontro Street Band Festival-credit C
Photo: G Wynn

The organisation Outdoor Arts UK tells us that outdoor arts audiences are the most representative of wider society out of all the art forms. This is amazing! Audience Development Managers in venues would kill for this statistic.

This is culture, music, fun, good times, new experiences, strange experiences and inspiration reaching everyday people – kids, old folk, regular Joes, cultural non participators, cultural snobs, all generations, all social backgrounds, all cultural backgrounds. The power in this moves me beyond words. And I ask myself why there isn’t more of this? Why isn’t every town, village, city centre and suburb filling their streets – drab or otherwise – with inspirational performances and inviting their communities to be part of it? If more kids grew up with this as the norm, I’m convinced the world would be a better place.

So while I’m grateful for all the great music festival experiences I’ve had since the early 2000s, and full of admiration for the excellent small festivals that exist all over the UK who have reinvented and reimagined in order to survive tough times, I feel that there has to be more. More opportunities for people to let go and have a good time, more opportunities to gather together, to connect with each other and to express joy. Maybe even to be able to do this without turning it into a full on, drug or alcohol fuelled weekender?!

 “Let’s reclaim our streets and public spaces, let’s reimagine them as stages…”

It also now bothers me more than it used to that the music festival experience is so limited to those who can afford it. Glastonbury has been a gated community of affluent revellers ever since the Big Fence went up in 2002. And any music festival that costs more than £100 for a family to attend – no matter how amazing the kids’ field is or how diverse the line up – is incapable of being inclusive.

So for me, street festivals are where it’s at. Let’s reclaim our streets and public spaces, let’s reimagine them as stages, parties and circuses and let’s invite more people to the party (punters and performers alike).

The money that is generated from increased visitors to a place is important. But the joy and sense of connection that is generated from gathering together in our streets in this particular way is totally unquantifiable – as all the best things in life are.

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