Outside the food tent at the CNE last Friday, a slightly nervous woman in a long black dress sang “Something to Talk About” on a makeshift band shell, stiffly facing rows of green plastic benches. Jaime Lopez, wearing a black hat, black bandana, and black sunglasses, swung his guitar case off his shoulder and sat down. “She’s gotta move, you know?” he said, wiggling in his seat to demonstrate.
Lopez was among the 195 performers vying for one of the 75 licences the TTC hands out to musicians.
In a nearby warm-up tent, a host of hopefuls practiced on a variety of instruments, including xylophones, accordions, pan flutes, and banjos. The TTC’s 13 judges—musicians, teachers, festival organizers, and DJs— prefer unique instruments, since they’re considered more attention-grabbing. Lopez’s guitar didn’t qualify, but he had something else: seniority.
Lopez got his first TTC-musician license in 1994, 12 years after coming to Toronto from Guatemala. “We used to make a lot of money,” he said. “It was ridiculous.” He recalled friends from South America coming to Toronto for the summer to busk, then heading home with pockets full of cash. Now, the TTC keeps a more watchful eye over performers. For the first time since the commission started licensing performers in 1979, new licences were being granted for three years instead of one. The idea is that it affords the musicians some stability (and saves money).
“They give you a schedule, so you have three days here, three days there,” Lopez explained.
The TTC assigns performers to 25 stations, but in the old days, said Lopez, almost everyone tried to busk in heavily trafficked stations like Bloor, Eglinton, and Finch. “They wouldn’t move,” he said. “People started to complain, ‘Why is it always the same music?’ Even the collectors were like, ‘Come on, I don’t speak Spanish and even I can sing ‘La Bamba!’”