Metro musicians

An underground exploration of Montreal's musical landscape

By Emma Avery, Managing Editor -- February 27, 2018
(Tristan Surman/ McGill Tribune)

Walking through the metro is not something that we often spend much time thinking about. Public transportation is, as its name implies, inherently transitory. The sole point of any transit system is to carry people as efficiently as possible from point A to B. Such a system is successful when its design allows us to spend less time in the metro—not more.

Yet, people find ways to creatively use metro stations for more than just transportation. In Montreal, buskers have become a regular and expected part of daily travel, but the Societé de transport de Montréal (STM) [Montreal Transit Corporation], then called the Commission de transport de la Communauté urbaine de Montréal (CTCUM) [Commission for Montreal Urban Community Transit], only legalized busking in the Montreal metro in 1983, in response to a concerted effort by buskers to achieve recognition.

“It was basically just a handful of buskers who fought [to play in the metro], some of whom would get arrested and get tickets repeatedly, to the point where there was an arrest warrant out for one guy, until they finally forced it to become a public issue and circulated a petition and eventually things began to change,” Nick Wees, a current doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, said.

In 2016, for his master’s thesis at the University of Victoria, Wees spent four months in the Montreal metro studying and interacting with buskers. His inspiration for the research project came partially from his own experience as a Montreal busker, beginning in the late 1980s.

“[I chose to study busking in the metro] in part because of my interest specifically in sound, [and] the sound is very interesting in the metro,” Wees said. “But also my interest in what I would call marginal urban spaces, or in-between spaces. Places that aren’t really meant to be inhabited but just kind of passed through.”

Busking in Montreal is unique because while it is heavily regulated above ground, in the metro buskers do not require a permit. Instead, musicians can set up at any of the designated spots marked by a colourful sign depicting a lyre. In Montreal, the weather makes the metro a more desirable stage, as it is often too cold to busk outside in the winter, or too hot or rainy in the summer. Since the CTCUM installed the lyre plaques in 1986, the signup system for performance spots has remained largely unchanged, operating on an honour system regulated by the musicians themselves.

“Basically, whoever gets to the spot first in the morning makes a little list on a scrap of paper with two-hour slots,” Wees said. “You pick the spot you want, fold it up, and tuck it behind the sign, and then the next person comes along and they sign up. And for the most part, it works.”

Competition for these spots is tough: The lack of a mandatory permit process means that there are an endless number of potential performers, for a limited number of spots.

Juliana Just Costa, who plays in the band Juliana & Jesse with her brother, started busking in 2012. She explained the challenges of having to sign up early in the morning, with no guarantee as to whether or not there will be a spot available, especially during the most popular and lucrative rush hour slots.

“You need to catch the rush,” Just Costa said. “[Spots at] Guy-Concordia [are] super competitive. The list starts like at four in the morning at the Tim Hortons across the street [....] Then [sometimes] you show up and someone else put their own list in there, or someone else took the spot.”

Just Costa, like Wees, nonetheless highlighted how impressive it is that such an honour system works overall.

For a practice so commonplace, the experiences and backgrounds of buskers are relatively mysterious to those who are not a part of the community. Most people travelling through the metro pay little attention to what’s going on around them, or give little thought as to why. With headphones on and shoulders hunched, commuters look down and continue onwards, distracted and removed from their physical surroundings.

Andre Costopoulos, vice-provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta, and former anthropology professor and dean of students at McGill, busked between 1989 and 1995 while he was a student in Montreal, both above and below ground. He described most of the designated metro spots as “corridor spaces,” as opposed to “theatre spaces” such as a public square.

“If you go into Peel [Station] at the corner of de Maisonneuve, there’s a long corridor there [with] a music station,” Costopoulos said. “In a corridor space, people [walk by and] have 30 seconds to decide if they’re gonna put their hand in their pocket and put some change in your case. In a theatre space, people are there, they listen to you as long as they want or as long as they can, and then once they’re done listening, they make a decision about whether they’re going to give you something or not.”

In the early 1900s, as urbanization took off in North American cities, urban theorists speculated about the ways in which packing into cities affected interpersonal relationships and the human psyche. Georg Simmel, a German sociologist, published The Metropolis and Mental Life in 1903, in which he claimed that the intensification of stimuli in urban environments led residents to become more detached, rational, and calculating, ultimately developing a blasé attitude. Robert Park, a Chicago School urban sociologist, argued in his 1915 essay, "The City", that urban environments made relationships more transitory and unstable. In cities, people “establish moral distances which make the city a mosaic of little worlds which touch but do not interpenetrate.” Louis Wirth, another Chicago urban sociologist, attributed the increasingly anonymous and superficial nature of human relationships to the city’s large size.

Moving through corridor spaces, like metro tunnels, mirrors many of the ideas of early 20th century urban theorists. These spaces embody the feeling of detachment, of being physically close but not interacting, of trying to avoid making eye contact at all costs for fear of being drawn into unwanted conversation. Yet, despite their dramatic concerns, many of these theorists simultaneously saw the city as a place of unprecedented freedom. The experiences of buskers in the metro confirm that even in these ephemeral, marginal urban spaces, some level of human interaction occurs.

“[When I play in the metro,] everybody’s distracted and in a rush and I get it, in the morning we’re all like that, [...] half asleep and just trying to get to wherever you’re going,” Just Costa said. “But when people do stop, [it’s] really really gratifying [....] You don’t even think anybody’s listening and then [someone tells] you how you’ve changed their day.”

In 2012, in order to further promote busking in the metro, the STM launched the “Étoiles du métro" program, in partnership with the Regroupement des musiciens du métro de Montréal (MusiMétroMontréal or Montreal metro musicians collective). Every year, musicians audition for the “Étoiles” series in order to gain access to seven designated performance locations at the Berri-UQAM, Henri-Bourassa, Jean-Talon, Laurier, McGill, Place-des-Arts, and Villa-Maria stations. These musicians can sign up two weeks in advance online, rather than having to arrive early each morning to claim a spot.

For Just Costa, this added security was the initial motivation for auditioning for the “Étoiles” program, but she also appreciates the sense of community since she was accepted.

“I think [there is more of a community] with the ‘Étoiles,’ just because we’re not competing directly for spots,” Just Costa said. “I hate to say it, [and] I’d like to tell you that [it was] all good when I was not in the program, but I’ve had some pretty hard times where [...other buskers] see this young girl coming and [...] you know you’re gonna get some pushback right away.”

While there are benefits for those in the “Étoiles” program, some wonder whether it creates a divide between the select group of musicians who are accepted into it and those who play in the regular spots. At the same time, some musicians feel no need to participate, or decide that it doesn’t suit their purposes. As long as there are still enough other spots that are open to anyone, most see the program as posing little threat.

“Most of the ‘Étoiles’ have done the other side also and they’ve just made a conscious choice to not do that anymore,” Just Costa said. “It allows a lot of musicians to treat it [...] more professionally [...] and not be scrounging around looking for a spot at five in the morning.”

Although joining the “Étoiles” requires one to pay a fee to audition and become a member of MusiMétro, it’s not an unreasonable demand relative to the income a busker can make.

However, this opportunity is no longer currently available to Montreal’s buskers. According to Clément Courtois, a board member of MusiMétro who is responsible for communications and booking artists, the organization was not able to reach a new contract with the STM for the coming year for the “Étoiles du métro” program.

“The STM wants to see the program grow and for there to be more ‘Étoiles’ lyres in the metro,” Courtois said. “But the problem is that a lot of the musicians who play in the metro don’t want to be an ‘Étoile,’ and we need to make room for everyone, because there are a lot of people who play in the metro, and some of them even make a living off of it.”

Indeed, the reasons people turn to busking are varied and diverse—not everyone wants to participate in a high-visibility subsidized project like the “Étoiles” program. Some use it to supplement their day jobs, some are students, some are aspiring musicians who find the metro a good place to practice, and others do it just because they can. But, ultimately, they all share a love of music.

“I think everyone would agree that you can’t just do it for the money,” Wees said. “You gotta love doing it because it is a lot of hard work and sometimes the pay you make is lousy.”

Busking is often only one part of a person’s life or career. Nonetheless, it’s a great way to practice performing in public, and it’s more enjoyable than the average minimum-wage job. Philippe Mius d’Entremont has been busking in the metro and above ground since 2001 and has been a part of the “Étoiles” program since 2012. He also organizes the draw for the “Étoiles” schedule.

“I started busking when I was a music student in Quebec City,” Mius d’Entremont wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “It was a good way to make money during the summer instead of getting a summer job [....] I still enjoy the schedule flexibility it offers which is really important when you have musical projects going on. It is also a good way to make sure you stay in shape on the instrument.”

What listeners might not realize, however, is that busking can be exhausting—not only in terms of having to scramble to find a spot, but also due to the emotional labour that goes into the performance. At the same time, it is very much a two-way exchange between the performer and their audience.

“For most people there was really a strong sense of like, ‘I’m giving something [to the public, I’m] beautifying spaces that are not very pleasant,’” Wees said. “Often it creates this little interchange [where] people stop and will talk [....] Quite a few people talked about how that was a really important aspect, [...] that sense of ‘I give something and I see the result because I see someone [...] smile or stop’ [....The] reciprocation is that you gave something nice to somebody.”

Busking and music have become integrated into the fabric of Montreal, particularly in the metro, because it’s such a universally accessible place. Not everyone goes to concerts, but nearly everyone takes the metro.

“I feel like there’s death, taxes, and then the metro,” Just Costa said. “It’s like this great equalizer [....] Everybody [...] takes the metro so it’s just like this big meeting point.”

As a result, metro buskers are an integral part of the urban landscape.

“It’s normal for us to [be seen],” Just Costa said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh! There’s a busker.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s not a busker today?’ And all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s really quiet in here,’ you know?”

From their experiences, Wees and Just Costa have seen some diversification and growth in the range of buskers and musical styles over the years. However, the practice of busking and performing in a public space for an audience is something that doesn’t change.

“I don’t see a lot of change over time,” Costopoulos said. “You could probably ask the same thing [of] some medieval person, or some ancient Roman who’ll tell you ‘well yeah it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been.’ It’s a niche [....] Maybe the shape [or] the content of busking changes over time, but the niche is pretty much what it’s always been. It’s [people saying] ‘I have something that I can do [...] and some people are gonna make a small gift because they enjoy what [I] do,’ and I don’t think that changes.”

Although municipal support is important, the reality is that busking and music will find ways to exist regardless. For Courtois, more institutional support for performers would be nice, but it is not the only necessary factor.

“[Busking is] a part of the culture, of the city’s heritage,” Courtois said. “It’s living art, really an integral part of the cultural heritage of the City of Montreal.”

While the “Étoiles” program is on a temporary hiatus, the spots open to all buskers in the metro remain. Metro busking in Montreal is special because of its openness, its self-regulation, and the resulting sense of trust. It’s seen by many as a public good, worth supporting and worth paying for. The only risk is that if metro busking becomes further regulated, it might lose some of its accessibility and diversity.

“If there’s an acceptance by the public then I think there’ll be an acceptance at the administrative level as well, and I think in general [in Montreal] there is acceptance,” Costopoulos said. “There are places where there isn’t, and those must be slightly sadder places.”