The Trials of the Streets
An exploration into the life of a busker, CATCH speaks to Ken Loh, a well-known busker who frequently entertained shoppers along Orchard Road. From a nuisance to a performance piece, he speaks out on the ups and downs of being a busker
Words by Serena | Photos Courtesy of Ken Loh
In Singapore, buskers have been carefully selected by the National Arts Council (NAC). Many youths have been taking it up to earn some money whilst showcasing their talents. Ken Loh, 22, is a regular along the streets of Singapore.
Busking for most would be considered a hobby. Yet for Ken, who played three to four times a week, five to six hours a time, it was more than just a side thing. It was his full-time job after his tenure in National Service. Blessed with a strong work ethic, he managed to keep a good routine going over the years. “During then, I definitely identified it as my profession and job,” Ken recalled.
Unlike what many think, the income that Ken received during his time busking was more than enough to sustain him as a working adult. All his additional funds were constantly channelled back into buying new equipment for a better busking setup. “You need to have something that’s constantly improving and changing while doing busking, or a profession similar to busking where things get monotonous after a while,“ said Ken.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. All potential buskers in Singapore must go through a strict screening and audition held by the NAC in order to obtain a license to officially busk. The entire process takes months, and the audition ended up like a “discount American Idol” as described by Ken, with the possibility of playing three seconds of a song to a panel of judges. According to Ken, performers like circus acts have an even harder time with the auditions, since it’s hard to judge acts such as fire-breathing. “It’s a necessary evil but there is definitely room for improvement,” he said.
To Ken, it’s the license that’s the biggest issue plaguing buskers, especially when unlicensed buskers come and take over regular spots. He recounted how little power the NAC actually had, that the police would have to be involved in order to fully chase someone away. “That's the biggest hurdle that a lot of licensed buskers face, especially in festive seasons where people from overseas and people who just want to do it for the money come, and it gets in the way of your regular schedule,” Ken explained.
In Singapore, there has been a recent increase in youth buskers. Signs saying “Busking to Pay Uni Fees” can be seen all along Orchard Road on the weekends. Ken, who has been playing since 2015, has had first-hand experience seeing this changing and growing culture.
“In mid 2017 we started seeing more and more people coming up, new faces here and there.” He explained that it was polytechnic and junior college kids that he saw the most. “15 years ago, everyone would have thought that's just that old uncle on the street playing just to get money, playing the keyboard, so from then till now it has grown more than I expected it would,” he added.
Recently, Ken released a Full EP titled “Songs About Them”, marking his transition from a street busker to a fully-fledged musician. It was through connections, friends of friends, which made the album come to fruition. He explained: “Looking back at it all, the dots all connected perfectly but I have no explanation as to why, it was all quite serendipitous, if you like.”
Right now, Ken is studying a degree in music in Australia, and the future of busking personally seems uncertain. “I took busking as far as it could go,” said Ken, “I feel like I have reached the point where I need to explore other avenues.” To him, busking was more of a stepping stone, a means to getting to a higher progression as a professional musician, as seen in his transition to becoming a singer songwriter.
As for the future, he has recorded some new songs with talented producers and songwriters. He hopes to release three or four of them within this year.
“Songs About Them” is available on Spotify.