Interview :: Josh Harper ‘Downtown Tracks’
July 29th 2013
“There is a spontaneity in playing to people on their way to work. You have 20 seconds to draw their attention in, make them smile, and if you don’t, you’re not eating tonight.”
Josh Harper is the ideas man behind Downtown Tracks, a social media project that celebrates busking culture around the world by sharing free, high quality video and sound recordings. The Flog’s Jessica Hamilton spoke to him about trashcans, subways and the musicians he’s met and filmed on the streets from New York to Sydney.
Jessica Hamilton :: How did Downtown Tracks get started?
Josh Harper :: Downtown Tracks was first conceived mid 2012, walking down a street in Manhattan, NYC. A homeless man who had collected an arrangement of trashcans, buckets, and frying pans was in a haze smashing away into what was a pretty complex beat. His old hat filled with dollar bills, a bunch of people with their iPhones and cameras, filming poor quality videos with bad audio, I thought if it hadn’t been done already, I wanted to document it.
Shortly after, I got a team together in Brooklyn – Slane Hatch, Julien Melendez, and myself, and we went and shot our first video on St Patricks day at the Williamsburg subway station Bedford Ave:
A few months passed and I relocated to Sydney, where I started collaborating with Lee Mitchell and Lauren Ziegler, amongst others, who are amazing writers, camera operators and soundies.
What is the appeal of filming buskers as opposed to gigs?
While we do also film live gigs in professional venues, we find the raw energy of musicians performing on the street different – If you find the right musician, they’ll have an endless supply of quirks and the ability to draw a crowd in. Bands spend months putting together the perfect set list, with intermissions and scripted stories. What happened to encores being begged from the fans? There is a spontaneity in playing to the people on their way to work. You have 20 seconds to draw their attention in, make them smile, and if you don’t, you’re not eating tonight.
We’ve all heard the story of Joshua Bell – one of the world’s greatest violinists, who once played a 3.5 million dollar violin, ignored in a Washington subway station. There is obviously a little more to it than skill.
Is the street scene different in New York and Australia? Or Melbourne and Sydney?
There is a monopoly on spots in NYC. In the major subway stations, where millions of people pass through every day, you’ll find the law is maintained by the performers – more of a sign of respect from one musician to another. The barbershop quartet is always at Union Square during the evening peak hour. The same cellist on the connection between the L and the A,C line on 14th street. One of our shoots started with money changing hands so we could have the spot to film in Brooklyn. But there is an underlying theme of Musicians in New York. They’re all unbelievable.
Sydney is very different to this. You’ll never find a musician playing on a subway platform, or it’s equivalent. We have such amazing talent we should be boasting, but instead our local councils are forcing permits and fines upon musicians. It’s slowly changing, and some areas are more lenient than others – the inner west over the eastern suburbs. But I think we’ll find that if there isn’t a change, we will start to lose our culture, instead of nurturing it – the Annandale and Sando are both hurting, and the Hopetoun is gone!
I’ve recently been spending more time in Melbourne, and am happy to see the welcome these musicians get. I made a friend from Switzerland who I met playing tenor sax near Flinders Street Station. He travels up and down the coast of Australia from the money he earns from playing on the streets here. Melbourne really embraces this culture, and it is evident when you take a walk around.
You’ve filmed some great musicians in Sydney. How can we find them if we want to see more?
These musicians are amazing, and they’re there to find if you spend 2 minutes on the internet. While social media can become a little tedious at times, and let’s face it – we all spend way too much time on it – it does give us this opportunity which wasn’t available in previous generations. We encourage people to like the band’s pages, and we have links to all external websites and iTunes when available. They constantly tour around Sydney and Melbourne, using the sidewalk to practice.
What are the audience reactions you’ve received since launching the project online?
A good busker is a good conversation. Take JackmanFriday – he has 5000 people following him on Facebook since launching in early 2011. You’ll find him in the Pitt street mall, with a guitar, his vocals and a bunch of loop pedals. Every day I speak to someone new about this project, their eyes lighting up – “Oh have you seen Kallidad play in Bondi?”, “Have you ever seen Ease the Squeeze in Newtown?”. Imagine how many people tie nostalgia with Sydney to Jackman. You’ve all seen him:
What does the future look like for Downtown Tracks?
A few exciting things are in place for Downtown Tracks. We are on our way to launching a monthly live streaming platform ‘Downtown Tracks Live’, where we’ll be broadcasting from various venues around Sydney and Melbourne. We’ll also be having a monthly special from the original crew back in New York. We’re always looking to get people involved with us, whether it be camera operators, audio or stills. Everything we do is for the love of it, so at the end of the day, watching the views tick over on a video you can be happy with, I think we’re heading in the right direction.