Sunday, August 25

Street musicians embrace their passion for music

David Smith wakes up every morning on a single mattress wedged into a white Ford full-size van. Lifting up the bed, Smith pulls out a hefty slew of musical instruments and wheels them down to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. He sets up, plays for a few hours, collects enough for lunch and then goes home. He has been doing this for 10 years.

Smith is far from an anomaly. Musicians, especially during the summer months, flood popular tourist attractions like the Promenade and the Venice Beach boardwalk. It is clearly a profitable occupation for at least a few, evidenced by most choosing to forgo other employment.

Smith doesn’t fit himself into the “successful” category. On a bustling Saturday afternoon, Smith’s tip jar rang a hollow $8.

“I’m not a novelty, I’m a dime a dozen,” Smith said. “And people just don’t like me. They say, you’re white, you’re middle-aged, go get a job. Yet, I love music, and I don’t want to work a day job ever again, and I’m not going to.”

Claire Means worked lunch shifts at a waitressing job, playing two-hour time slots on the Promenade after work. After two years, she quit the job, pursuing music full time. Able to afford rent at her apartment in Echo Park, Means spends five days a week playing in public. She said she makes more than her waitressing job, but not much more.

Even though she is faced with a relatively adequate amount of success in her own eyes as a street performer, she has noted inherent ups and downs. When things proved difficult, she said her love of music and the people she is able to impact keep her coming back.

“Catching someone’s emotions like that in a couple minutes, someone that you don’t know is kind of scary, but kind of cool,” Means said. “I mean that is what you write songs for, that’s your goal, is for people to relate, to feel something.”

Getting that audience reaction equated to a type of game for Means. She said the window for a positive response was very small.

“In five minutes you have to get their attention, and once they are standing there, you have to keep them there, and you want to enjoy it so much that they buy your album,” Means said. “You’re trying to make new fans, and you are also trying to make a living.”

Aside from personal appeal, success depends on following the rules. On the Venice boardwalk, tickets for a long list of violations range from $300 to $400, according to Nathan Pino, a San Francisco native who plays the grand piano in front of the Sidewalk Cafe.

Pino said tickets were often issued for minimal offenses, such as playing too long or too loud. Pino said avoiding tickets was a challenge.

Success is hindered by public perceptions, said Andy Espinola, who plays a worn-out acoustic guitar. Espinola, hiding behind dreadlocks and a hat that partially covered his face, played music at a distance from the crowds, sitting alone against a brick wall.

“People think that those who perform on the street do it because they are homeless or destitute, but no, this is what I do for a living,” Espinola said. “I’m a musician, and I like to perform in public, it’s just a lifestyle choice.”

Sometimes, accepting that alternative lifestyle poses challenges. Smith grew up in Chicago, and said he worked a full-time job from ages 17 to 37. When he first arrived in California, his plan was to break down a Hollywood executive’s door. Now, his perspective has changed.

With beds stacked on top of a pile of speakers, a propane tank for barbecuing food in the passenger seat, and a color TV powered by the cigarette lighter, Smith said the only thing that would make the place perfect would be installing a toilet. He said he didn’t mind living in the long, white van.

“I have to accept that the reality is that this is it for me,” Smith said. “So the biggest challenge for me is to find some sort of peace with that, to feel lucky, because we are all lucky.”

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