How to Find Your Way Along Busker Alley

Brian Nunes
Director Brian Nunes. All images courtesy Pressler Collaborative.

Recently, Worldtree Films released a new documentary, Find Your Way: A Busker’s Documentary, directed by Brian Nunes. This wonderful film has already won several awards and has been a top pick on iTunes. It explores the music industry from the bottom up, a true glimpse into the trials and tribulations of busking musicians, no matter their success level. Some of the film focuses on musicians struggling for time on their favorite corners, but some also focuses on Joshua Bell, who people pass right by at a subway station, never knowing they’re listening to possibly the best violinist alive.

One of my favorite parts of this documentary are the many moments of pure reality amid incredibly different perceptions of success. Where success to one musician is filling concert halls with thousands of people, to another it’s making enough for a good meal. Who’s to say which is more successful? One can fail at one type of success as easily as another. That is just one of themes that Nunes, who lives in Seattle and filmed there, spoke to me about.

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What is it about buskers and their stories that drove you to make this film? When and how did the idea strike you?
When I was about 24, I was living in Austin, Texas, and working in information technology. I was doing well and had friends, but in my mind I was on a dead-end road. It reached a point when I knew I needed something to change and eventually sold my car to buy a van. I tricked it out for cross-country living and set out with no clear destination in mind. Along the way I met buskers, gutter punks and wanderers, all living life on their own terms. I began to see the world in new ways and realized that painting and doing chalk art in public were not only ways to earn a little money but were vehicles to experience the world in a visceral way — an experience that my middle class, suburban upbringing never afforded me.

Find Your Way Movie Poster

After traveling through Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and the better part of the southwest, I ended up back in California, where I had attended college, and eventually in Seattle. I met a TV producer who commissioned me as an art director on a few projects, and that got me thinking about production — something I had studied in school but never used. After discovering the buskers of Pike Place Market, I put two and two together and realized I wanted to make a film that spoke to the nature of how context affects our perceptions of someone or something’s worth. I wanted people to see the world as I had come to see it while I was on the road.

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There is one shot of a little girl transfixed by an a cappella group that I find very compelling. How much do you think street music plays a role in getting the arts out to children — or others who may not experience art otherwise?
Street music and street art are such simple things but they can be really quite profound. There is something about making one’s art available to people on the street that is very instinctual and genuine — an experience you can’t have in your living room. I think seeing an artist free of framing opens us up to the idea of doing something creative ourselves without getting caught up in whether we can do it to the “level” we think we’d have to if we set about doing anything at all.

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Making a living playing music on the streets
The music of the street.

I think children respond to street art so readily because their minds aren’t filled with judgments yet about their own creativity; they don’t judge someone playing on the street as easily as adults might. If all we do with art is frame it and put it on a wall or record it and romanticize, dramatize and deify the ones who made it, then we’re doing ourselves a great disservice. It’s so important to realize that we’re capable of creating.

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The whole Joshua Bell section brings up so many questions. In my own professional life, when I booked him to play two concerts, I often had to explain to my peers that he was “that famous violinist who played in the subway on YouTube.” What effect do you think, positive or negative, social media has had on the arts?
In a lot of ways social media has cheapened art because it’s made it more accessible, but it has also brought about a sort of renaissance. I think people are waking up and realizing they can contribute creatively to the world and that making music and art aren’t activities reserved for a tiny number of hyper-talented humans. That is a big positive!

The negative side of social media is also about accessibility, because there are so many sources of information available now through the Internet that artists can seem less special. How viral someone goes is our new measurement for specialness, which is a negative because it can devalue someone’s craft. It’s unfortunate that Joshua Bell is known in pop culture for being “that famous violinist who got ignored in the subway” or “that famous violinist with a $15 million violin” instead of his exceptional skill.

Joshua Bell
“That famous violinist who played in the subway on YouTube.”

The other question the Joshua Bell scene brings is up that of perception and location. As a producer and presenter, we often look at other venues as opportunities to perform but have to be very wary of the perception of quality of that venue. The street is lowest common denominator in terms of quality perception. Why do you think that the manner and location in which we are presented with an art form matters to our perception of how good that art is?
I believe we like feeling special. Artists like being appreciated and treated with respect for their work, and consumers of art like to bask in the glow of a celebrated artist. Attending an art event is a social affair and we like the experience to be special, whether it’s going to a concert, ballet, play, art showing, movie — the venue can either heighten or hinder our experience.

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The insidious thing about the pomp and circumstance surrounding the consumption of art is when our opinions form subconsciously — based on our experience of the consumption rather than the art itself. This applies in a more ambiguous way to the consumption of art through media because the “architecture” surrounding the artist becomes more intangible. It’s about what show they were on, who they were seen with, how good-looking they are — their “swoon factor.” Of course there will always be those who care little about the social factors surrounding an artists’ persona and are just focused on the art itself, but I believe a majority of people are too easily swayed by how special an artist seems and the opinion of others before they make up their own mind about the work.

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There was a beauty and passion for craft that really came through in this film, but also a sadness. If you have (or will have) a child, would you support them busking? Or a musician at all for that matter, now that you know how hard that world is?
I support anyone and everyone doing the thing they most want to do in this world. To me it’s a top priority to create because I believe creating leads to an understanding of oneself and the world around you. Looking inside of yourself and truly listening to what your heart is trying to tell you — understanding that message and somehow sending into the world is our only true mission and one that should be pursued at all cost.

Chris Ballew, lead singer of The Presidents of the United States
Chris Ballew of The Presidents of the United States of America, also featured in Find Your Way.

The trick is how to deal with the sea of egos we live in. There are so many thoughts running through our minds, filling us up with judgments and emotions of all kinds and it’s important to learn that other people’s immediate attention is not the goal. The real goal should be finding peace with yourself, listening to yourself and then communicating to others in a responsible and (hopefully) compelling way. Once you can do that, time is your only enemy because it’s only a matter of time before people begin to listen.

As for money, I have found that when I need it to achieve a goal I’ve set out to achieve, it comes. When I don’t need money, it doesn’t come naturally. I think as a true artist it’s important to learn to ebb and flow with the universe and to start with what you have at your disposal. Discouraging my child from pursuing a creative life would be like encouraging them to be miserable.

Everyone is going to experience the world their own way and grow in their own time. There are many full-time street artists who know how to manage their expectations and emotions and live very well. There are also many street artists who get stuck in their own process as an artist and develop a sense of bitter entitlement. I believe the mind is full of traps, whether you are a street performer or anything else. It’s a matter of navigating through them for everyone — not just artists.

How has making this film changed your perspective of the music industry?
It’s made me realize that using a word like “industry” is counterproductive. The term “music industry” conjures imagery of a well-oiled machine producing musicians from a mysterious factory. It’s a big, dark and looming monolith standing in the way of musicians and their fans — a thing they must beg, borrow or steal to be part of.

We’re seeing the deconstruction of this myth right now with social media. Anyone who can create music can be heard, theoretically, by millions (or billions) if they’ve got the “X Factor” that people love to root for. It’s no longer about the judgment of a handful of executives in some office building who have all the money. It’s now about people’s own decisions of what to consume.

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Shane Jewell
Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.