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Refining the concept of Busker Idol

Michelle left a really insightful comment regarding Busker Idol just now – so insightful, in fact, that I’m going to reproduce the comment here and make my response to Michelle in this blog post:

I think the idea is not good – why make it a contest? Buskers are all friends with one another, they are like a family, seeing each other every day, helping each other. Why pit them against one another?!
MSG TV did a “buskers Idol” reality TV show. ALL the buskers on this show said the same thing: they don’t want to compete against one another.
Most buskers I know (and I know many)have a website and MySpace, they sell their music as CDs and downloads – why is this project presenting buskers as technically challenged?

Thanks so much for your comments. They cut straight to a lot of things I have been deliberating about a bit myself.

Let me try and clarify the vision a bit, which is something I (badly!) need to find the time to do and which I want to build in consultation with the musicians and performers.

  1. Why make it a contest? This is something I’ve asked myself the validity of a couple of times. Recall, if you will, that the purpose of Busker Idol for me has been to find an intersection of interests between not one or two but three broadly defined groups:
    1. people who work with technology and who may like building things for people to do things they couldn’t do before;
    2. people who use public spaces as citizens, residents, visitors, etc. and who appreciate what buskers add to the atmosphere in our city; and then
    3. the performers and musicians themselves, with the biggest group being the second, and community-building within that large public as a beneficial side-effect.
  2. In my mind, I treat these three groups as being equal in priority. The contest, frankly, was a mechanism by which to engage the second group, and that’s why for the longest time I referred to “Busker Idol” as an in-progress title – because I’m not at all sure that a contest is the best way to do this, frankly. I want to come up with arrangements that would work better at balancing the interests of all three groups, while still serving to promote interaction among the public as well.

  3. Busker Idol as a concept does not reflect the community kinship that buskers have among themselves. I’m really interested in this observation, and this is why I’ve continually stressed research and more conversations as being the #1 thing this project needs, because honestly, I know I haven’t engaged buskers well enough in finding out what would represent them (keeping in mind, of course, that buskers are a diverse group of people with differing needs and abilities). That said, I think there’s a difference between playing up relationship dynamics (like conflict or competition) for the purposes of a reality TV show (which this would NOT be), and engaging in friendly competition for titles that get people thinking about the creativity that can be found in the communities they live in. I also think that the “voting” measure is much more about audience members giving props and interacting with performers, especially in a way that provides an alternative to immediate financial exchange and which opens the door for an ongoing fan-artist dynamic. For instance, I could imagine voting up an artist, and then receiving a text message that lets me know their website URL or even just their name (which can be a challenge if you have a big crowd or unorthodox spelling).
  4. Is this a slag at buskers’ technical abilities? No. This was never intended to say that musicians don’t know how to promote or market themselves, although some might also seek to interact with either other musicians or people who work with a lot of online tools, in order to learn how to be more effective at it. If they do, more power to them; if they’re happy with what they’re already doing online and connecting with their fanbases well that way, that’s fine too. The beauty of online things is that that stuff can be aggregated, and something like Busker Idol can help them to draw more attention to what they’re already doing – making it pay off even more. This is about amplifying their existing efforts, or helping them build it if they choose to or are interested in doing so.

Michelle didn’t leave an e-mail address, so Michelle, I hope you get a chance to read this and let me know if these address your concerns, or if you still see room for improvement.


  1. Michelle

    Thank you for the detailed answer! I like that you don't want to pit buskers against one another (for the sake of entertaining audiences, like they do in reality TV shows), and I understand the dilema of how to get the general public involved. While I still don't like the idea of a competition, I don't have another idea for getting the general public involved through technology… but –
    I would like to suggest that maybe you might want to consult with the 'Saw Lady' – http://www.sawlady.com/blog – though she is in New York City, she is one of the buskers who were on the MSG TV show. Through her blog you can see how connected all the buskers of her city are. Maybe she would have an idea…
    And yes, I agree – more publicity for any artist could never be a bad thing.

    Posted March 5, 2009 at 1:57 am | Permalink
  2. I think it's unfair to use reality TV as a baseline metric for how competitions work: they are ugly affairs that thrive on controversy and really only serve to generate ad revenue from the viewers. The line-up is usually decided by networks and the presentation of the whole thing is tightly controlled.

    A crowd-powered competition however is more participatory, and lets the network effects between different players happen transparently and spontaneously. In reality TV, if you lose, you're quickly pushed off the show, and viewers will be actively encouraged to forget about you. On the web however, it costs virtually nothing to keep all content online indefinitely.

    In fact, the kinship between players that Michelle is championing happens naturally in online competitions. I've seen it happen up close myself, both from the inside and outside.

    Posted March 5, 2009 at 2:11 am | Permalink
  3. I agree. From what Karen described, this is only superficially similar to American Idol. Perhaps some brainstorming is needed for a new name that does not link it to reality tv but speaks more to public space, interactivity and promotion of street art.

    Posted March 5, 2009 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  4. Internet TV channel promoting street musicians and artists from Ireland and around the world.

    Posted November 13, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

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