Words by Patrick Williams
Local musicians of note performed on the street first
Photo courtesy of Erik Urycki.
When Erik Urycki first started performing live music, he and his friend, James Richardson, would pack Richardson’s upright bass in Urycki’s 1990 Volkswagen Jetta convertible. The Jetta and bass were an odd couple—the back of the bass touched the car’s back window and the head of the bass grazed the rearview mirror.
“We had to stop on I-95—we were driving to Boston,” Urycki, 33, recalls. “We had to stop quick and the mirror just, pheeew, completely fell off and cracked the windshield.”
The Speedbumps frontman wouldn’t allow something like that to happen now, with his career being in music. Urycki, a Kent State graduate, plays gigs nationwide, owns a record label and hosts open mic shows. He also books artists for some of the largest music festivals in Kent, including the ‘Round Town Music Festival, which is second only to Halloween in attracting visitors to the city. And it’s possible that all of this might not have happened if it weren’t for his cramming that bass into his car.
The purpose of Urycki and Richardson’s trips was to play for tips on the streets of major cities—New York City; Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford, Connecticut; Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vermont.
For Urycki and many other musicians, street performing for petty cash, or busking, is the first step in transitioning from solitary playing to polished musicianship and, at least local, renown.
“James and I would go out and busk and then came back and formed a band, which is now called The Speedbumps, and you can attribute a lot of success I’ve had with this band because of busking,” Urycki says.
Urycki says his experiences traveling to different cities and meeting new people contributed greatly to his wanting to make a career out of music. There were some memorable moments in addition to the cracked windshield: Urycki and Richardson narrowly escaped a blackout in New York City, and Richardson bloodied and blistered his fingers from aggressively plucking his bass. Urycki also saw performers who helped lead him to a realization about the musicianship in Northeast Ohio.
“I’ve been a lot of places,” Urycki says. “Maybe I haven’t been there long enough, but I would put this area up against any area as far as the talent.”
According to Stephanie Chou, a saxophonist, singer and composer, the term “busking” originated from the Spanish word “buscar,” which means “to seek or to wander.” But while buskers are seeking money, they have to be equally, if not more, focused on the music.
Urycki says busking is the purest form of music performance. While it’s also been used as a promotional tool, most buskers don’t care about promoting themselves or their shows as much as they simply care about performing.
And audiences often flock to a certain artist in part because of branding and marketing, but they might not think twice if they saw that same artist performing on the street.
Urycki recalls hearing about when, in 2007, Joshua Bell, a world-renowned violinist, played a rare 1713 Stradivarius violin in Washington, D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza Station during rush hour. According to The Washington Post Magazine, which was behind the stunt and documented it in the story “Pearls Before Breakfast,” more than 1,000 passers-by appeared not to pay any attention to Bell.
It’s a well-known story, and while it might be disheartening to some, a couple people did stop to listen to Bell, and 27 people gave him a total of $32.17 for 43 minutes of playing. He was quoted in the story as saying that that would be an “okay living.” The one person who recognized him was responsible for giving him $20 of it, though.
One day in Burlington, Vermont, Urycki and Richardson made enough money to pay for their entire busking trip through multiple east coast cities—not including overnight fees because they stayed with friends. However, Urycki says busking is not a stable source of income. For him, better opportunities came along.
Abby Luri, singer and multi-instrumentalist in The Speedbumps, has never busked and shares a similar sentiment in light of the band’s success. “It’s just not where I need to be focusing my time,” she says.
It’s been years since Urycki gave what he considers an authentic street performance. The Speedbumps, an all-acoustic band, will play on streets and at college campuses, but those are paid gigs. Urycki says he misses busking and is thinking about setting up on the street again.
Johnny Miller, 25, has been busking for the better part of a decade. In fact, for most of that time, it was his main source of income.
It all started for Miller when he ran into a man named Ben Shuber, who was playing guitar and singing at Rockin’ on the River, a summer concert series in Miller’s hometown of Cuyahoga Falls.
“He was just playing,” Miller says of Shuber. “He wasn’t really singing that well, but he was playing charismatic and stuff and making a bunch of money. So I was like, ‘Well I’m going to try that because I can’t sing that well, or I couldn’t then, and so I’m going to try to make some money because I don’t have a job and I don’t want to get a job.”
Miller ended up starting a band, Johnny and The Apple Stompers, with Shuber and a couple others. They busked all around the city of Kent and a favorite spot in Cuyahoga Falls—a theater alcove where they would make $40 to $50 playing a couple hours a week. Once, Miller was accused by a police officer there of panhandling and soliciting. (Miller had already received permission from the store owner to play there, and when the owner heard about the incident with the officer, he called the mayor in Miller’s defense.) But Miller says he hasn’t had any problems with police or businesses in Kent.
“Back when we started the band, we didn’t really have a lot of gigs,” Miller says. “And that’s how we got most of our gigs is from playing on the street, and someone would be like, ‘Do you want to play our wedding?’ or ‘Do you want to play our party?’ or ‘Do you want to play here?’ and we’d just give them a price and they’d usually pay because we didn’t ask for a lot.”
The members of Johnny and The Apple Stompers are also in another band, Rodney and the Regulars, led by Rodney DeWalt. Miller says The Apple Stompers play more bluegrass and jazz than the Regulars, who play more honky-tonk. With combined material, he says the musicians can play three hours without repeating a song.
Although the musicians play venues, have considerable fan bases and receive income, they still busk if they’re not busy and the weather’s nice. Miller often plays by himself or with Cory Grinder, a multi-instrumentalist and singer in both bands.
There are intricacies to busking, Miller says, such as positioning oneself so audiences can remain entertained but also so new audiences can come through and tip more.
“You gotta position yourself somewhere where there’s going to be a lot of cross traffic or a lot of people, preferably near bars because the drunker people are, the more money they’re going to throw into your case,” Miller says.
At the behest of an ex-girlfriend who explained to him that they were broke, Miller did begin working steady jobs about a year and a half ago. Still, he stresses the importance of busking, claiming it improves musicianship and stage presence and is just generally a good time.
“I’m gonna go until the good Lord tells me not to, until he makes it impossible for me not to play anymore,” Miller says. “I’m gonna keep going so long as I can physically play and perform.”
John Patrick Halling
John Patrick Halling learned how to draw in audiences and make his voice project from Johnny and The Apple Stompers. From Stow—an area with a less distinct downtown atmosphere than Kent or Cuyahoga Falls—Halling would, up until that point, attempt to perform in front of Target and Giant Eagle, only to be chased out. Now the senior anthropology major strums his guitar in Kent, often in front of Smokin’ Tattooz.
“It’s right next to the Stone [Tavern], too, so you get people wandering in and out of there for music,” Halling says. “It’s the busiest intersection. You get a lot of traffic, people driving by and seeing. Maybe they’re like, ‘Oh, let’s stop and check that guy out,’ or whatever.”
Halling says he’ll perform when the bars close, but he’ll also go out during the day to appeal to families. Near the Stone Tavern, Zephyr Pub and The Loft is good for nighttime, but near Tree City Coffee & Pastry is better for during the day because that area hosts more restaurants. On average, Halling says he will make $15 to $30 for a couple hours of performing.
Busking isn’t his main source of income, though. He works at Wal-Mart and, for $5, is selling copies of his new album “Boy in the Water,” which he released March 31. Produced in Kent by Shawn Cline of local band Hive Robbers and featuring Cline, Miller, Grinder and others, the album naturally nods to both buskers and the city of Kent.
Luri, who lives in Kent and feels a deep connection to its music scene, says she has seen Halling’s growth as a performer.
“Just from hearing him from when I first met him to when I hear him now, he just seems a lot more confident in the way he holds himself onstage,” Luri says.
Halling hasn’t been busking as much as he used to, playing shows as well as weekly open mics at the Venice Cafe on Wednesdays and Baxter’s Bar in Akron on Mondays, both of which Urycki hosts (“That’s like the step up from the busk,” Urycki says of open mics).
Now that he’s graduated, Halling plans to tour the country, through West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas, Montana, Utah and Arizona, playing venues, open mics and public plazas.
At an open mic at the Venice Cafe, Urycki mentions how he made a significant amount of money playing in Burlington. Upon hearing this, Halling, who just played an authentic and original set for dozens of people and is eager to do it for hundreds more, considers altering his travel itinerary. He wants to make a career out of this as well.