Monday, April 09, 2007

He was playing real good for free....

Libby Spencer

Updated below.

Being a long time fan of street musicians and having done some busking in my day for friends trying to pick up a few bucks by playing on a street corner, I found this tale in the Washington Post just fascinating. The WaPo conducted a little experiment in public perception and sent world renowned violin virtuoso, Joshua Bell, into a Metro station to play his million dollar instrument for the commuter crowd in DC and almost nobody listened.

While I love classical music, it's not a particular passion and I often don't remember the name of even famous compositions, so I'm not embarrassed to admit I've never heard of him. But I feel certain I would have stopped. I would have been almost the only one.
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
An interesting experiment to be sure but it feels kind of like a set-up to get a predetermined result to me. They sent him in during commuter rush hour, when people were heading into work. I think a fairer gauge of the sociological response could have been obtained by having him play at an off hour for people who aren't so bound to schedules. No matter how good he was, I wouldn't have been able to stay for more than a couple of minutes under those circumstances either, but if I had no pressing appointment, I certainly wouldn't have left until it was over. I've often lingered on a street corner listening to an especially good musician.

Yet even under better circumstances, I feel certain young Mr. Bell would not have fared all that much better. Such is the shallowness of our consumer-driven society that too many people judge value by cost and status, rather than quality and talent. The same people who might well have shelled out a couple of hundred bucks to see him in a concert hall, would pass Bell by because -- well -- I'll let Joni Mitchell tell you...

UPDATE: I posted on this before I read any reactions and I was surprised at how negatively it was received. But it did remind of the time I witnessed a miracle moment in the art of busking. I posted my reminiscences at Newshog.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

32 dollars in 45 minutes is pretty good. isn't it?

7:31:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

Not really. The band I used to busk for once in a while, would have made at least 150 in that time.

8:28:00 PM  
Blogger Praguetwin said...

Wow, that is great money! 32 or 150.

I often roll right by the buskers in the Prague metro, throwing some change in the box without stopping. I support street music, but rarely have the time to stop and listen.

10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

Thanks for the link anon, that was interesting and she's right. He also didn't do his part to interact with the audience.

Prague twin, I've always thought it was pretty cool that musicians could a living on the street. It's much easier in Europe. Europeans seem to appreciate it more, but I understand the problem of time. I often also have to throw in a buck and keep walking because of time constraints, even when I'd really like to stop and listen. But I only tip out the ones I think are good.

11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you on this one Libby, it was rigged for a specific outcome. He should have balanced the study, by having the artist also play somewhere like in a park or a street with good acoustics or SOMEWHERE that the conditions would be optimal instead of the opposite.

1:09:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

It would have been a better story without the predetermined outcome but that would have required actual work on the part of the reporter. The WaPo doesn't have the work ethic it once did anon.

1:53:00 PM  

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