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Tanya George on the next step for Melbourne’s busking scene

At age 15, Tanya George packed up her things and went out for the Caulfield Cup – not to bet, but to busk. At Caulfield Railway Station, George strummed away while tipsy racing enthusiasts competed to see who could toss the most money into her guitar case. Since then, she’s been making bank as one of Melbourne’s relatively few female buskers.

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“Financially, I think it’s great,” says George. “You gain followers, you make some money, you get to express yourself, you get to play the music that you love. You get to be seen by so many people walking past. Financially, you’re satisfied, but it’s way more than that for me. I couldn’t care less about money, to be honest. I just love being out there in that atmosphere, and connecting with everyone that walks past, or people that want to listen. But, financially, it’s a great way to make some cash.”

Like many buskers, George appreciates the lack of gatekeepers on Melbourne’s sidewalks – there’s no record label to mollify, no manager taking 15 per cent. For buskers, the risk and the reward are entirely their own. And, though YouTube is teeming with aspiring musicians who struggle to pull a few hundred viewers, anyone playing in Melbourne’s CBD is guaranteed several thousand “views” per day.

“If someone comes up to you and buys a CD, they’re buying it directly from you,” says George. “There’s no publisher or distributor fees that you have to have in between that … You can be yourself entirely and just produce what you want to produce out there for people to hear. There’s no one coming through and telling you what to do or telling you what you should wear or how you should look. It’s just simple freedom in music and expression.”

But Melbourne’s busking community is not wholly without gatekeepers – few Melburnians are aware that every busker in the city’s CBD has had to pass a panel audition to obtain a permit. Only the cream of Melbourne buskers win a permit to play in Bourke Street Mall, one of Melbourne’s busiest thoroughfares.

George, who has been quickly making a name for herself in Bourke Street Mall, believes that the audition process helps maintain Melbourne’s reputation as the busking capital of Australia by keeping standards high.

“It makes Bourke Street strong,” says George. “It makes it a strong spot for people to come to to check people out, which I really like ... You’ve got to have a lot of balls to be out on Bourke Street, honestly. You’ve got to have a lot of guts.”

For George, while playing in the very nucleus of Melbourne’s CBD has been a spiritual experience, it can also be a trying one. George has experienced many moments of warmth and fraternity with listeners and other buskers throughout the years, but performing alone in the city also brings inevitable risks.

“Busking isn’t for everyone and, maybe, there is an intimidation there, because there are a lot of males,” says George. “There’s lots of different characters in the city, and sometimes they can come up to you and be a bit scary, and you don’t have security. You don’t have anyone to turn to. That can be quite scary for a female.”

George acknowledges the work the City of Melbourne has done regulating the busking scene without stifling it, but is always advocating for greater support for musicians. She is also protective over the purity of the busking craft and hopes it remains unadulterated to an extent.

“What I would hate to change with busking is how raw it is,” says George. “I wouldn’t want to change the form it’s in, ever, because it’s going to take away that freedom, all that street vibe. I think it’s such a beautiful, beautiful way of expression that I’d hate if we came in and tried to make it fancy in any way.”

Busking has allowed George to turn a profit while getting closer to her audience than a venue stage allows. She shrugs off the common perception that street performers are necessarily more amateurish than venue performers.

“You can go and put your music out on the internet and wish or hope that 100 people are going to listen to it, or I can just drag my stuff out on Bourke Street today and know that 100 people are going to listen to it,” says George. “I like that stigma, though, because it makes us the underdogs, which is cool with me.”

This article is proudly sponsored by City of Melbourne in partnership with Beat Magazine. Read out editorial policy here.