From an article called Why The Streets published in Deadline News October 2019 (Olivia Furness)
As a musician, why would you want to work in the street? In fact – why would you want to work outdoors at all? It’s unpredictable – maybe wet, windy, cold. In Scotland, it’s usually all three. Streets are predominantly used as routes for getting places, not spaces to stop and enjoy. Where is the audience – there isn’t one, right? You could be playing music on a stage in a nice venue, with a big PA, a big crowd, a great atmosphere, a dedicated venue team, and the safety of a backstage area to retreat to. Why not aim for that? Why forfeit that opportunity? Big stages and great venues are what musicians dream of. Aren’t they?
I absolutely love working in the street – as a performer, a producer, an event organiser. And I love it as an audience member too. Street arts are all about audience and performer being close and on the same level – making a connection without the hindrance or distance of stages, lights and effects. Street performance is raw; watching it unfold right in front of your eyes, maybe only a metre or two away, is magical. Artists who are experienced at working in the street have a unique way of captivating and including an audience that is different to the venue or stage experience.
When I first started playing music in the early 2000s, in my early 20s in Edinburgh, it was mostly with groups that performed outdoors. And this led me to work with a small crew creating a performance drumming routine for an outdoor show, which was in development for a 3-night run at Glastonbury Festival’s Theatre & Circus Field. That first run of performances, and the whole Glastonbury experience just blew me away. It opened my eyes to a whole new world, and a whole new way of living through the summer months. It became a big aim of mine to spend the summer months playing the UK festival circuit.
Alongside this, though, the streets were an ever-present part of my story as a musician and performer. In 2007, Orkestra del Sol – a 10-piece brassy rabble of a band describing ourselves as ‘the swagger of a Balkan wedding band with the riotous energy of Latin carnival’ – landed an opportunity to work with a theatre Director to devise a street show for a consortium of UK street events. Mikey Martins (now at the helm of Freedom Festival in Hull) honed our over-excited, frenetic act into a more choreographed affair, drawing out the narrative, character, humour and audience interaction that was in there somewhere, and giving it shape and space to breathe. We learned about gently inviting the audience in, instead of figuratively yelling at them to watch, or dance, or have fun. And we learned a lot about the art of attracting, entertaining and – most importantly – retaining a street audience, when we toured the show around the UK’s main street theatre festivals: Stockton, Winchester, Greenwich & Docklands, Manchester, Brighton, London Thames Festival. And it would have been such a joy if it hadn’t been one of Britain’s wettest summers on record!
We turned up at so many almost-cancelled, scaled-down or barely functioning outdoor events beset by downpours and flooding. And yet somehow, amidst all that sogginess, the (small) audiences came and we had a blast in the streets regardless.
In the subsequent years, Orkestra del Sol notched up some fantastic experiences that I’m forever grateful for – sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, tours of seated art centres and theatres, big festival stages (Cambridge Folk Festival being a highlight) and whole summers of music festival dates. We recorded 3 albums, embarked on madcap driving tours across Europe, and performed in India, China and Australia. Not forgetting what was arguably the pinnacle for us – a live session on Cerys Matthews’ Sunday show on BBC Radio 6 Music!
But underpinning and supporting all of this was our experience of playing on the streets. There is no other training like it. When your audience is on the move, walking past and not planning to stop, you very quickly develop tricks to get noticed. It’s a low pressure space for trying new ideas, and it is different every time. Nothing keeps you on your toes as a performer quite like it.
As we played more and more street events, or just went busking between shows or on in-between days on a tour, I began to learn a hell of a lot about people. This is what I noticed, and love about street performance:
But above all, more than any other reason, I love street performance because it is for everybody. It is about as inclusive as any one thing can be.
The organisation Outdoor Arts UK tells us that outdoor arts audiences are the most representative of wider society out of all the art forms. This is amazing! Audience Development Managers in venues would kill for this statistic. This is culture, music, fun, good times, new experiences, strange experiences and inspiration reaching everyday people – kids, old folk, regular Joes, cultural non participators, cultural snobs, all generations, all social backgrounds, all cultural backgrounds. The power in this moves me beyond words. And I ask myself why there isn’t more of this? Why isn’t every town, village, city centre and suburb filling their streets – drab or otherwise – with inspirational performances and inviting their communities to be part of it? If more kids grew up with this as the norm, I’m convinced the world would be a better place.
So while I’m grateful for all the great music festival experiences I’ve had since the early 2000s, and full of admiration for the excellent small festivals that exist all over the UK who have reinvented and reimagined in order to survive tough times, I feel that there has to be more. More opportunities for people to let go and have a good time, more opportunities to gather together, to connect with each other and to express joy. Maybe even to be able to do this without turning it into a full on, drug or alcohol fuelled weekender?!
It also now bothers me more than it used to that the music festival experience is so limited to those who can afford it. Glastonbury has been a gated community of affluent revellers ever since the Big Fence went up in 2002. And any music festival that costs more than £100 for a family to attend – no matter how amazing the kids’ field is or how diverse the line up – is incapable of being inclusive.
So for me, street festivals are where it’s at. Let’s reclaim our streets and public spaces, let’s reimagine them as stages, parties and circuses and let’s invite more people to the party (punters and performers alike). The money that is generated from increased visitors to a place is important. But the joy and sense of connection that is generated from gathering together in our streets in this particular way is totally unquantifiable – as all the best things in life are.
Last month we finally opened our doors to celebrate our brand new workspace! Here’s a short film of the Launch Party – a small but perfectly formed gathering of friends, colleagues & musicians who came together at Tribe Porty to warm our new home, join in the music and raise a glass to the start of a new chapter for Oi Musica. Thanks to everyone who made it along!
Thanks also to Heather Longwall Films for capturing the evening on film.
We are now permanently based at Tribe Porty, 19-21 Windsor Place, Edinburgh EH15 1DT.
This development has been a complete game changer for us as an organisation, after nearly 4 years of short term leases, 5 studio moves, 7 different lock ups and infinite packing & unpacking. Over the moon doesn’t cover it!
Not only have we found a secure home, but we’ve also joined the exciting wider project that is Tribe Porty. This place is fantastic – please drop by if you’re in the area to see co-working, collaboration & community-building in action! Tribe Porty is a social enterprise, aiming to nurture growth, create connections and support human potential through work, art and quality of life. We’re very happy to be part of it.
The timing was perfect for us, as Oi Musica officially became a social enterprise in June 2018 – a month or two before we got the keys to Tribe! Being based in a building with lots of other social enterprises as well as charities, small business and freelancers continues to provide inspiration, support, practical advice and the kind of solidarity that’s hard to find in a regular office block!
After a visit to Tribe Porty’s newly acquired premises (underneath its existing venue on Windsor Place) early in 2018, we took a leap that felt risky but right, and committed to undertaking a big (for us) build project. The challenge was to create a sound proof creation space and Oi Musica office in the middle of the building, plus outdoor storage big enough for all our equipment and workshop instruments. Thank god for lifelong pals and skilled craftsmen / acoustics geeks Greg Molleson and Ben Seal! Plus a team of skilled helpers including Bob Furness (jobs for the boys!), Fin Loening and Phil Hardie.