It’s late on Saturday night in Edinburgh’s city centre. I’ve been watching Leon play guitar for the last three hours. He stands in his usual spot in front of an old church building on the corner of the Grassmarket area of the city. His audience is the passing late night drinkers who stop to request songs on their way to the next pub. Leon plays their requests, sometimes they sing along, and mostly they drop a few coins into Leon’s beaten up guitar case. For the most part they are pretty drunk and rowdy but good natured with it.
Tonight one guy feigning sincerity requested Leon to sing “Nessun Dorma” then walked off laughing with his friends. A little later, an older man tells Leon as he passes that “[he] might have given [him] some change if [he] wasn’t playing such an expensive guitar and wearing a leather jacket.” Leon’s a bit embarrassed by this and explains to me that he gets guys like this every so often. He also points out that he got his jacket (and his boots!) in a charity shop. However he does admit that his guitar is worth around £500.
Insults and wise cracks included, this has been Leon’s nightly routine for the last 6 months since he moved to Edinburgh from his hometown of Aberdeen. Leon is 27 years old and acutely aware of getting further from 20 and closer to 30. That is part of the reason he decided to start busking. He wanted to have a go at making a living from music. He had “normal” jobs in the past doing office and bar work but always found them dull and unsatisfying. He wanted more. He especially wanted a creative angle to his work so he enrolled to study at a film school in Australia. He had saved some money before heading out to Brisbane but after paying school fees it didn’t last very long and he was forced to drop out after his first year.
It was during this year away that Leon turned to busking the streets of Brisbane to make a little extra cash. However on returning to Aberdeen he found himself working in yet another bar job. He felt defeated. He knew that he really wanted to get out of Aberdeen and concentrate on writing and music full time. “I had just signed a six month lease on a flat in Aberdeen and had a job in a bar. But I wasn’t happy. I was tired of living hand to mouth doing something I hated just to survive. It was then I decided that I may as well try to survive doing something I love. I phoned the landlord of the flat I just moved into and got out of the lease. I ended up losing my deposit but it felt like the right thing to do. Then I quit my job. I didn’t care. I just had to get out of Aberdeen so I got on a bus to Edinburgh and found a hostel to stay in.”
This restlessness and search for meaning characterises Leon’s music and inspired him to write an album’s worth of material since arriving in Edinburgh. He doesn’t regret leaving his friends and the security of his hometown. “I’ve written more stuff in Edinburgh than ever before because I’ve had the time to focus on my music which is all I’ve ever wanted to do. The only difference is now I’ve admitted that to myself and in a small way I am actually living it. As hard as that can be.”
Despite his increase in creativity Leon rarely plays his own songs on the street. Tonight he is playing crowd pleaser cover versions of Brit pop era bands like Oasis and the American rock of King’s of Leon. The Oasis song ‘Wonderwall’ is the most requested song Leon plays. It is also his biggest money spinner and is often requested 4 or 5 times a night. As Leon tells me this he starts to laugh because ‘Wonderwall’ was the first song he learned to play on the guitar and used to be one of his favourites. Now it is definitely not because he has to play it so often. “One of the downsides to busking is that to make money I have to play the same 10 songs over and over again. It kind of makes me hate these songs – but I really don’t hate them otherwise I wouldn’t have learned them.”
There is a slight irony about Leon coming to Edinburgh to escape the mundane nature of his work in bars, only to find himself suffering a similar fate working as a busker. Leon is aware of the irony and smiles as he explains. “I came to Edinburgh to get away from the crappy jobs I had. I wanted to start a musical journey and write an album. I’ve done that. But I’ve had to realise that to earn money I need to be prepared to work hard. And if that means playing the same songs for drunk people to sing along to that’s fine. It’s not perfect but its a start and it beats what I was doing before.”
Aside from nagging at Leon’s musical integrity, playing sing along anthems has caused him some more practical problems. The residents of the block of flats and the youth hostel that surround the spot where he busks have complained about the noise caused by choruses of people singing along. This resulted in the police informing Leon that they would move him on if they found him playing beyond 11pm: making it more difficult to earn mony. There was a bit more leniency in August during the Edinburgh festival when the city’s bars stay open late til 6am. Nevertheless the festival brought problems equally as challenging as an 11pm curfew. Hundreds of buskers and street performers come to Edinburgh during this time meaning the city’s streets fill up with free entertainment.
Leon’s earnings dropped dramatically during this time. He fell behind on his rent and had to move around different hostels and sleep on friends’ couches. Despite the increased competition Leon is full of admiration for other buskers. “There is a kind of mutual respect between us. It’s funny cause in the same way that bus drivers give each other a wave, buskers do the same thing. When another busker sees me with my guitar case they’ll give me a nod or a “hey”. It’s kind of cool.” The buskers also look out for each other as Leon found when he first arrived in Edinburgh. “It was difficult when I first came here, but Graeme (another busker) helped me find a good spot. Since then we’ve helped each other out. There was one time a group of drunk guys tried to take my guitar off me to mess around with it. It was getting out of hand so it was good to have Graeme just down the street to help me out. It’s also good for small things, like if a guitar string breaks, and I don’t have a spare, I can go ask Graeme.”
It’s now just passed midnight and the police have told Leon that he has to move on so he decides to call it a night. Before packing up he kneels down to empty the coins out of his guitar case into a plastic bag. He then spends a few minutes counting them before looking up at me and smiling once again. “It’s been a good night. I made 70 quid in a little over 4 hours.” The most Leon’s ever made in one night was £150. On that night one woman gave him £30 because he played a Nick Drake song for her. At first she gave him £10 but when Leon told her that £10 was the most anyone had ever given him she gave him another £20. How much Leon earns is the question he gets asked most when people find out he is a busker. This question – normally considered impolite and never asked of Leon when he worked in a bar – makes Leon laugh. “I find it funny because people always ask it and I’m not really sure why. I like to tell myself it’s because maybe they wish that they could survive like me and not have to go to a real job… but I know that’s not true!”
There is a certain romanticism in the idea of leaving a job you hate and getting on the road to follow your dream. It is not however a romantic notion that is left entirely intact from what I have found after spending a few nights chatting with and watching Leon perform. It is true that he has no boss to answer to. It is also true that he is making a life doing the thing he loves. There is no denying however that it is difficult to survive without a guaranteed income from a “normal” job to rely on. And getting by living in an 8 bunk room in a hostel is not something most people would want to do for more than a few days. Then again, maybe Leon is right when he sings his lyric – “Sometimes you have to get lost to find the right way”.
by David Paterson