Buskers — entertainers who perform on the street for money — use these small gigs as an opportunity to forward their music.
Chapel Hill resident Matt Phillips is a professional singer-songwriter who got his start playing in front of Spanky’s Restaurant & Bar at age 18.
“I went out on the street and just waited for people to give me money,” he said. “I’d think to myself what I was doing when they gave me money. A lot of that was playing ‘Wagon Wheel,’ a thousand times.”
Phillips said he didn’t depend on busking to live back then, but it helped him tune his sound and perfect his skills that led to a professional career. He said that on a good night busking in Chapel Hill, he’s made as much as $350.
“Playing what people like is the most gratifying feeling in the world,” he said. “Looking at someone’s face and watching it light up because of what you’re doing, especially when it’s by you and you’re just playing guitar.”
On the opposite side of Franklin Street, J. Alphonse Nicholson beats buckets outside the Ackland Museum Store.
“I started drumming on the street about two years ago,” Nicholson said. “It was something I was always interested in and tried in Chapel Hill first, and I got an overwhelming response from students and people here.”
When he’s not playing buckets, Nicholson is a professional actor who has performed four times with PlayMakers Repertory Company and in New York City. Wherever he goes, he takes his buckets with him.
“When I first got (to New York), I went to a hardware store, bought two buckets and a bowl and started playing out on the street. That first day I made $600, and it was nuts.”
But Nicholson doesn’t do it for the money.
“It’s all about entertaining people, about making someone’s day better just with the sound of music,” he said. “I think this area deserves good artists, and it’s awesome they give us the privilege to hang out and play music.”
Jeffrey York, the Public and Cultural Arts Administrator of Chapel Hill, said he supports street musicians and hopes they come to the 140 W. Franklin Plaza.
“I think street musicians add to the ambiance of the town,” he said.
The Ackland Museum Store has noticed artists like Nicholson outside the store, and they’re not upset about the noise.
“It’s just kind of a fun community thing, and I don’t think it’s a deterrent to our customers or anything like that,” assistant manager Melinda Rittenhouse said.
“It just sort of livens up the corner. I’ve seen people dancing or talking to the musicians, so it’s probably a good corner for them. I think it’s kind of fun.”