When you’re getting an underground train, do you ever stop to listen to the buskers?
Nope, me neither.
The reason you’re in the underground is to get a train.
You’re not down there to listen to live performances by street musicians.
You’ve got something else on your mind.
And that’s not just in London.
It’s pretty much the same the world over.
I’ve used underground transit systems in New York, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.
I’ve never noticed anyone standing around listening to buskers.
People are too busy getting on with their lives.
Going where they’re going.
The Washington Post recently filmed people walking past a busker.
He was playing classical violin in the DC Metro station, at quarter to eight on a cold winter morning.
About two thousand people walked past him.
Only six actually stopped to listen for a few minutes.
Several young children tried to stop and listen.
But their parents pulled them away.
The busker played for an hour.
Out of 2,000 people who walked past him, 20 dropped money in his violin case.
That’s 1%.
About the return you’d expect for direct mail.
So far no surprises.
The interesting part is the part that isn’t obvious.
The Washington Post had set up the experiment using the concert violinist Joshua Bell as the busker.
The previous week he had sold out a concert hall in Boston, with seats averaging $100 each.
The violin he was playing in that Metro station was worth $3.5 million.
He was playing six pieces by Bach.
The same six pieces he’d played the previous week.
Amongst the most beautiful and intricate music ever written.
The box office receipts at the concert hall were $2 million to hear that music.
Here it was free.
And no one wanted it.
The point is, it’s all about context.
The people who went to see Joshua Bell in concert had prepared themselves for weeks for the experience.
They sat in a hushed hall and concentrated on Joshua Bell on stage.
They stopped whatever else they were doing for that hour.
The people in the Metro didn’t do any of that.
This was just something happening as they went by.
At best an irrelevance, at worst an annoyance.
Now we all know it was actually a beautiful piece of art.
But only in the right place.
In this context it was the wrong thing in the wrong place.
That’s what a lot of people currently working in advertising don’t understand.
They think we’re just here to make a work of art.
An interesting technique, a stunning piece of film, full of delicate nuances, something everyone who’s worked on it can be proud of.
The director, the musicians, the sound engineer, the editor, the digital graphics guys.
They think we’re here to make a brilliant piece of craft.
But where it has to work isn’t a concert hall.
Or an art gallery.
Where it has to work is in people’s lives.
On TV, on posters, in magazines, on radios, on laptop screens.
On the street, in the living room, in the car, at the office.
And yes, even on the underground.
We have to think about this.
Think about the context.
Beautiful pieces of art work in art galleries, and in museums, and in concert halls.
Anywhere where people are expecting them.
Now take a look at the places were advertising has to work.
The other night on TV I saw a commercial that had some terrific animation.
My wife and children all work in advertising.
I told them all about it.
The lighting, the framing, the camera angles, the editing.
They said let’s see it, let’s look it up on YouTube.
The trouble was I couldn’t remember who it was for.
It was a terrific piece of craft, I remembered every single detail.
I just couldn’t remember who it was for.
And I work in advertising.
If I can’t remember it, what chance have the punters got?

I’m not saying don’t do art.
I’m saying do art that works in the context it’s supposed to work in.

  • Phil Adams

    A long time ago, at Hammersmith, some buskers jumped into my carriage on the tube to Heathrow.

    The “lead singer” told a quick story about how they kept getting evicted from the airport toilets, when all they were doing was trying to wash and shave.

    Then they performed a self-written song called “If You Can’t Have A Shave In A Toilet, Where Can You Have A Shave?”

    It was very funny. It broke the ice on the carriage. And they collected quite a bit of money before they changed carriages at Acton Town.

    Content and context in perfect harmony.

  • Eoghan Nolan

    Gardeners say that a weed is simply a flower growing in the wrong place. Too often as creatives we’re unaware of the context for the flowers we cultivate, so they become weeds without our even realising it. With media planners (and others) increasingly having a different view of the garden altogether and planting in whole new areas, we may be going to see more and more weeds.


    Earlier this month I was in Moscow. A string quartet was playing in the Metro, not brilliant but competent and enthusiastic. A lot of people stopped to listen and it became quite crowded.
    They too probably wanted to get on with their lives. But maybe for those Muscovites, Life included joyously played Vivaldi

  • Grilla Login

    Nicely put, Dave. It’s not always easy 2 gauge when different people r receptive 2 different things tho – aside from generalizations.

  • Daniel Pianesi

    Nice story, had heard it before. I must be one of the only people who actually stop to listen buskers every time I can (maybe because I used to busk and I know how annoying it can be to play for yourself for hours..) Most of the times, just by making eye contact they already feel valued, appreciated. I think it is just a weird context.. you got music, art, sounds that deserve to be enjoyed.. listened.. in a place where people are running to catch the next train.. always rushing.. not enough time (imagine some buskers playing in an airport.. they would make no money at all!). A good performance is when the performer creates a connection with the audience and that is not so possible in a metro station.. it makes sense from a financial point of view because of the amount of people that walk past them every minute.. more people=more chances of making more money but in this case more people does not equal more or better exposure (as 70% of the people walking by are wearing headphones too!)

  • Mike Cobb

    Nice story.

    I once stopped to listen to two buskers at Chancery Lane tube station. They were between the two escalators, so you could hear them from the top of the first escalator, all the way down to the bottom of the second – but not on the platform.

    They were pretty good. They played Norwegian Wood – two guitars, harmonised vocals – loads of energy – really good.

    So I stood and listened to the first verse, then the chorus, then the second verse and chorus … first verse again, chorus, second verse, chorus first…

    And they just kept looping over and over again!

    To me, that’s perfect context. No one would hear them for longer than the escalator journey, so they just kept playing that one perfectly practiced song.

  • Dave Trott

    Very funny Mike, nice use of media too.

  • Mark Palman

    Good shout Dave. Reminds me of my outing to the Opera last week. Heavy concentrating on the story etc. Returning home on the Underground I saw the whole escalator wall showing the same bright red image from bottom to top. What was it for? Considering it was a long one, when I got to the top I had no idea what the product or the message was. Too clever for me, back to basics I think.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Yep. Advertising is advertising, not entertainment.

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