Busking—the art of performing in public areas for gratuities—is not an uncommon sight in Montreal. While commuters often take for granted that musicians are seen and heard around the city, there was a time when many musicians had to risk fines and arrests in order to play their music for the public.
With the development of Montreal’s metro system throughout the 1970s, musicians had a new outlet to unleash their creativity. However, they had to fight for their right to be heard, starting with a musician by the name of Grégoire Dunlevy, who decided to create the first ‘metro musicians’ association’ along with three other musicians. At that time, TV personality Guy Sanche assisted in Dunlevy’s efforts by speaking in favour of having musicians at the Place-des-Arts station, arguing that musicians were part of Montreal’s culture. Place-des-Arts became the first station where musicians could play freely without getting stopped by security agents and police officials.
However, the hard work did not stop there. It took three more years of continuous effort with a petition of over 10,000 names until musicians could play in the metro regularly in 1983. In 1986, Dunlevy’s organized work continued to improve the system as blue plaques with white lyres designated to reserve spaces for musicians were placed on the walls of metro stations. Dunlevy remained president of the association until 2006, when situations for musicians began deteriorating. As a result, a new organization was built in 2009 for metro musicians.
The Montreal Metro Musician’s Association (MMMA)—a non-profit organization—created the current code of conduct, seeking to provide equal opportunities and defend the interests of all musicians in the Montreal metro. MMMA provides an organizational structure that maintains a considerate environment by respecting the code of conduct, which is aligned with the regulations of the Sociéte de transport de Montreal (STM). Although the current code of conduct was adopted by MMMA, it is largely based off of the street rules that have been in place since Dunlevy’s work in the 1980s.
Josh Spencer, McGill graduate and student busker, highlighted on the unique nature of Montreal’s metro’s busking system and its unconventional way of organizing such an eclectic group of musicians.
“[For] every metro station where you are allowed to busk without a permit, there’s a [lyre] symbol on a blue plaque,” Spencer said. “[The first busker] takes a piece of paper [with time slots] and slips it into [the] crack between the [lyre sign] and the wall. It’s a very democratic [system with a] first come, first serve basis, which is really cool because any day you want to play, you [just] check the list.”
For more popular subway stations like Berri-UQAM, a draw is held every night at 11 p.m. to decide the order of musicians for time slots the next day. Other rules regarding the code of ethics and space regulations can be found on the MMMA’s website.
“You can actually sign up [for a specific time] and know that you have that slot [simply] because you have written down your name,” Spencer said. “I bet there are a lot of people right now in Montreal who are musicians and don’t know about the busking policy and would love to do it.”
For many students, this easy and intuitive busking system in Montreal is a good outlet for creative expression.
“What I always like is the spontaneity,” Spencer said. “I’ll go in the metro and sometimes there will be good music and sometimes there won’t. I love that service, [and] that you can experience that in Montreal.”
However, there is a lack of a strong sense of community between musicians in the busking system, which can be difficult for students interested in the activity. Gareth Dicker, Master’s of Engineering student at McGill, often attends The Yellow Door Coffehouse, a long-standing Montreal acoustic music venue located right by McGill’s downtown campus.
“The Yellow Door Coffeehouse is like a home for many student buskers,” Dicker said. “It’s a great place to meet other talented musicians, form bands or just to make friendships based around music,” Dicker said.
While McGill’s student buskers fell into busking through different channels, they all spoke to the opportunities for creative expression and the lasting impact that it etched in their lives.
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“I do really love how easy it is to just go busking at one of those [lyre] signs in the metro,” he said. “I don’t think the system is disorganized. I think a better word might be ‘unconventional’ because so many other cities require buskers to get licenses. I think because [Montreal’s busking system] is so simple and intuitive, it makes it easy to keep the whole thing running and in theory makes busking accessible to anyone. Had I had to get a license, I probably would have never gone.”
“A lot of buskers get treated like a homeless person on a corner […] but that’s where the people-watching aspect is interesting. You’ve seen viral videos of one of the world’s best violinists playing in the New York metro and no one [was] noticing. So that’s a really powerful message,” he said. “As a busker, I feel like [you become more conscious]. It makes me think a lot and the way I live my life. When I’m in the metro and doing my thing, am I plugging into my smart phone and ignoring what is going on around [me]?”
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“Busking was a creative outlet,” Dicker said. “Obviously the money was fun, but I wanted to try performing without much pressure. When I busk, I mostly improvise [….] I started creating [my own stuff] on the spot.”
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“The difference between busking and most jobs is that whenever somebody drops change […] they’re generally saying ‘I’m supporting you for what you’re doing’,” Pollock continued. “That’s just a really great feeling compared to a minimum wage job where the attitude is, ‘If I could pay you any less, I would.‘”