Singing on the streets

5 Nov 2018

By Rachel Chiu

Yang Teo, 25, started busking last December. He was inspired by the jam band members he met while on his exchange programme in Scotland last year.

While travelling solo around Europe last year, Yang Teo, 25, strummed his ukulele and sang Adele’s Make You Feel My Love in an underground station in Italy as he waited for his train to arrive.

Though the crowd was small, several passers-by dropped a few coins onto the cloth laid out in front of him as they walked past.

That was his very first attempt at busking. He was inspired while on his exchange programme in Scotland last year, after meeting some members of the university’s jam band who busked once a month in their free time.

Now, the final-year student from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering has taken his newfound passion for busking to the streets of Singapore, and is among a growing number of youth who are showcasing their talents in public.

According to the National Arts Council (NAC), more than half of the estimated 300 buskers last year were below the age of 35, a jump from just seven per cent of the estimated 140 buskers in 2008.

Strumming to success

Although Teo is still relatively new to busking, he is no stranger to performing. As a member of Hall of Residence 14’s jam band since 2015, Teo often sings and plays the guitar in front of a crowd at various hall events.

After returning to Singapore last year, he decided to pursue busking as it allowed him to earn money while doing something he loved.

He had spent a lot of money while on his exchange programme and was in need of some extra income, but did not want to burden his parents further, he said.

“A friend of mine told me that buskers in Singapore can earn up to $500 per night, and I was naturally really tempted,” he said.

He obtained a busking licence from NAC last December and started busking in high-traffic spots along Somerset and Dhoby Ghaut, belting classics such as Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love and contemporary hits like Vance Joy’s Riptide.

Teo busked at least once a week during the school semester, and twice a week during the school holidays before his internship started in August.

On good days, he could earn up to $200 in two hours, he said.

But money is not his main motivation for busking. He performs even when he cannot find a spot with high foot traffic.

“Sometimes I just want to go out and have fun performing, even if I can’t get a place with good traffic flow. I’d just find a nice, quiet spot and enjoy the feeling of producing music,” he said.

Teo has been approached by members of the public after his busking sessions and offered chances to perform at private functions.

So far, he has accepted offers to sing at cafes, and most recently performed at a National Day function in a condominium. He earns about $200 for each of these performances, he said.

“I feel quite honored because it means that people like my music and they even want to hear it again,” he said.

Hard work

But Teo’s busking experience has not always been smooth sailing.

He has had to share busking spots with other performers, some of whom can be very inconsiderate, he said.

“Once, another busker with a powerful amplifier arrived much later than me, and he set up his equipment very close to mine. His music was so loud that I couldn’t even hear what I was playing, so I just left after half an hour,” said Teo.

Long hours of busking also take a toll on him physically because he stands throughout his performances. Each session usually lasts for four hours, he said.

“After every session, I often just go home to rest. I don’t usually have the energy to do anything else,” he said.

This is why Teo took a break from busking during his semester-long internship, which started in August. He works from 8.30am to 5.30pm on weekdays and said it is “unsustainable” for him to busk during this period.

However, he is looking forward to head to the streets again once his internship ends in December.

Since his current licence will also expire then, he intends to renew it so that he can continue busking in the future even after he graduates from school and gets a full-time job.

“I hope that I will be able to busk at least once a month,” he said. “Even if the frequency is lower, at least I still get to perform once in awhile,” he said.

“Busking lets me pursue my passion for music, and it’s a good feeling when I know that I’m producing the best music that I can.”