Down on the Corner: Busking the Streets of Ottawa

Ottawa has had a long tradition of great street performers, but in recent years the number of acts hitting the streets has been declining and we have Big Brother Business to blame.

Busking used to be a great way for struggling musicians and performers to make a buck and maybe get yourself noticed, but now businesses want to take a cut. City of Ottawa requires buskers to cough up $200 a year for a buskers license in order to work the Byward Market… but it doesn’t stop there, each financial district has it’s own Business Association that can levy it’s own fee for buskers… you want to work the streets in front of Parliament, that’s another license… you want to work Elgin… popped again… Bank St pull out your wallet boys and girls.

When I came to Ottawa for University in ’99 the Market was full of amazing buskers from all over the world. Acts from Europe and Australia especially loved coming to the Capital, ten years later I walk around the market and in a good week I see one fresh face I haven’t seen before. Mostly it’s the same half dozen acts that to be honest, have gotten lazy. Those that can afford the license now seem to think they own the place and don’t really have to try anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there are still quite a few quality performers out there, the ones that really put on a show… engage the audience and really seem like they’re serious about it, Stunt Double Circus comes to mind. But you can tell there’s a lot of buskers that are pretty much just phoning it in now… it’s not enough to show up in dirty jeans and a t-shirt and bang out the same three songs all day if you want people to cough up their pocket change in a time where pocket change is getting harder to hang on to. And out of town acts are virtually non-existent so far this year, some struggle to just break even between room, board and travel expenses to tour different countries, being popped for a license on top of all that just doesn’t make Ottawa a financially attractive place to set up shop.

Busking has been integral to making the Market what it is today, and now business and industry is turning it’s backs on part of the reason the Market is so successful. Many great Canadian acts got their start busking, we wouldn’t have the Barenaked Ladies without it, but now it seems quality buskers might be a dying breed in this corner of the country. Be warned Ottawa, if this continues street theater will be gone from this town and it may never come back.

You can see more shots of Ottawa Street Music on my Flickr. If you see someone there, they’re worth checking out… throw them an extra buck or two. You may have seen my Stunt Double Circus pics already, but they’re definitely worth checking out in person if you get the chance.


    My friend Marco on the picture, the dark green guitar with duct tape sounds great, I tried it!


    I got both licenses in Montreal and Ottawa Byward. I have way much better service for my buck in Ottawa, and the initial fea of 50$ plus 10$ for the first day ( the daily permit is 50$, then after 15 days of 10$ a day you are granted the full annual license, worth 206$ precisely ) was quite easy to pay, then everyday the 1rst 10$ were always back within 30 minutes… now I played those 15 days, I have the full license and greatly appreciate the generous public of Ottawa, they sure recognize when they see a real act, I put all my heart at what I do and the income is the best I had in my life! 2 days ago a man throwed a 100$ bill, first time I see that! I go back in Montreal often, then it is so hard there, I greatly appreciate when I come back to Ottawa. The signup at Byward is reliable, and they are quite tolerant as we are supposed to play just an hour by spot, but they let us continue if nobody shows after us… I like much the Byward staff, they always smile at me, merchants pass the hat between them and add very good tips! I am the only alto sax player those days, and I treat them with some electric mandolin or fiddle. “Good job” is the most common thing I hear all the time playin and it is much simpler now with a daily friendly schedule than three years ago when I never knew if I could get another spot after I left one…