Halifax Busker Festival: Interview with Christina Edwards

Gene: Hi, I'm Gene Carr. And I'm here with Leo Hidy, who is an intern from Oberlin College, and I'm delighted to welcome Christina Edwards. Christina is the senior events director for the Premier Entertainment Group, which is the producer of the Halifax Busker Festival. Thank you very much for joining us. 

Christina: Thank you for inviting me. 

Gene: Now, tell us a little bit about the Halifax Busker festival. Give us - set the stage. How long has it been running, and tell us what it's all about.

Christina: So the Halifax Busker Festival has been around since 1986, in one form or another. So, our company, Premier Entertainment Group or PEG has been doing the production of the festival for about 32 of those years. So it runs every Natal Day weekend. So Natal Day weekend is a long weekend between July and August. And it runs for six days along the Halifax waterfront. And, we bring in artists and performers from all over the world - from Europe, Asia , the United States, Canada, and there's everybody -there's acrobats, there's fire-breathers, there's break dancers, there's world music. It's a real variety of artists that come to Halifax.

Gene: And it's over six days - how many performers over that period of time do you generally bring? 
Christina: So we usually contract 17 to 20 performers and we do close to 400 shows over those 6 days. 

Gene: So these performers repeat those shows? 

Christina: Yes, so we have five or six stages depending on the year, because there was construction happening. So sometimes we lose a stage,  sometimes we gain a stage, but we rotate them. So usually, our schedule works - three performers rotate on a schedule on one stage. And then the next day, they go to a different stage and they rotate, and each stage has different performers on it every day, but they rotate every hour from noon until 10:00 PM.

Gene: Okay.  So there are performances going on from noon until 10:00 PM every day?

Christina: On an hourly basis. Yes. 

Gene: Holy smokes. 

Christina: And we used to do it for 11 days. The festival - up until about five years ago - ran for 11 days and then we realized that we didn't need to do 11 days. (laughter) 

Gene: And more or less how many people, you know, do you get in a typical day?

Christina: All right. So over the whole six days - we actually did this study in 2017, we did a study with the province and they did counters and surveys and we estimated about 250,000 people over six days. And our peak, on a Saturday, could be around 80,000 people in one day.

Gene: Holy smokes. So that must drive some incredible economic activity in the area.

Christina: I'm glad you asked, because I actually wrote down that the survey found the visitor spending was attributed to about $2.7 million over those six days. 

Gene: Wow. And,  just to put it in context, what is the budget for the festival?

Christina: Oh, my gosh. It's a few hundred thousand dollars, but that's including our income. That’s our hotel donations and our property donations. So that's in kind as well. It's certainly, what comes out on the other end is certainly well-worth what you put into it.

Gene: You're getting a 10 times return on your investment. That's incredible. 

Christina: And to clarify too, it's also an ungated event, so there's no fee to attend. It's open to the public. Anybody can come and go as they please - it's all along our waterfront. So it's incredibly accessible, both physically and financially for people. And all we ask is that you tip the performers at the end of the shows. 

Gene: Let me ask about that. In the world that we all lived in until about maybe a couple of years ago, you took some paper or coins out of your pocket, but in the world of digital,  how much are the performers getting Venmo or PayPal? Have you seen that change? 

Christina: So, first of all, you'd never ask a performer how much money he makes. Do you want to answer it? How much do you make? Then you don't ask that question!

Actually, we had an artist get asked that question by an interviewer once for a newspaper and his reaction was quite...effusive  about how you do not ask somebody how much money they make. You wouldn't ask anybody else that, but people have no problem asking the busker how much money they make! So it's only been in the last year, of course, where they had to flip to online donations. So if we flip back to how we had to change things, we were used to  33 years of doing things on the ground, with international performers in place. Last year, we had it completely flipped and we did an online version.  

So we had artists that submitted videos that they made only for our Halifax audience. Then, we edited them together and we put them on over three days. We had two hour to two and a half hour shows that we aired on our YouTube page, for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And after each performance, there was a link they could use called busk.co, and that group organizes tipping. So you can pick your currency, you can pick your denomination, and you can pick how much you might want to tip, and it goes to that particular artist. So they did that, and then of course with musicians, they're a little bit easier because they can sell their music. So it was a great way to drop it into their website. 

They could see their other music options and they could download and purchase music as well. Buskers are an inventive little crew and they always are on the cusp of whatever is new out there. They were really quick to flip to online performances and donations long before we did it on our end, they held a World Busker Festival and it went on for 24 hours and it was done in time zones. So they had hosts that would do it all across the world. And the host changed depending on the time of day that they were doing it. And anybody can log on anywhere between one o'clock in the afternoon at four o'clock in the morning and see a performer somewhere in the world, doing a bit.

They were incredibly quick to grab onto this online and it was long before anybody else did, when the pandemic hit, they just jumped on it. So they are an inventive little crew, those busker performers. 

Gene: Let me ask you about your involvement. How many years have you been involved in this event?

Christina: I've been doing it for 12 years now. And like I said, Kim the owner of the PEG entertainment she's been doing... she was doing it, I think the third or fourth year that it was on. She came on as an assistant and then eventually took over the rights to the name, and we worked with our board of directors, and she's been producing it ever since.

Gene: And how big is your staff for this event that you just described? 

Christina: Well, there's Kim and I. And we do the backend pre-planning, and then we have a regular crew that, for the last, I'd say about seven years, we've had the same crew that we contract. We have a teacher who comes every summer to do our volunteer recruitment and organizing, and we have 150 volunteers that help us over those six days that she has to schedule and organize. We have another gentleman who's been doing our vendor management.And so he helps plan where the vendors are going to go and how they're going to be situated and schedule them in and make sure that during those six days they are following all the rules and keeping their space clean. We have another woman, Kelley McKeegan from BC, who flys in every year.

She's been working with Kim for over 25 years as the performer director. And she does all the scheduling of the artists and wrangles all the performers together to make sure they are on the pitch at the right time. And then we have other people that we'd bring on just that week - maintenance people or whoever else. But there's about six of us that are actually on-the-ground staff people during that week. And a lot of volunteers. 

Gene: Leo, do you have some questions? 

Leo: I do. So, I think you touched on how the buskers and yourself have been able to adapt to COVID-19, but I was curious to know, maybe more specifically, how COVID-19 has impacted the operations of your festival and if you see any of these changes being permanent?

Christina: I’d say, we were really pleased with how well received the online busker festival was, and it was really touching to see the ingenuity and the time that the artists took to make the videos just for our audience, because a lot of them, like Victor Rubilar, who was in Spain - He's one of the fan favorites. He is like a huge fan favorite. He comes every few years, because the crowd absolutely loves him. He's such an engaging young man, and he took the time to go to this old ruined castle, overlooking these, this Valley in Spain and did his show. 

And then, Flame Oz - they're five of them, and they were all over the world. One was in Paraguay. Two of them were in the UK, but different parts of the UK, one was in Canada, and other ones were from somewhere else and they all did their own little video then they edited it together for us. They were a massive fire performance group and  their crowds in Halifax are thousands of people who come to see one show. They appreciate the crowds in Halifax and how well received they are. So, they made sure that everybody gets to see all members of Flame Oz, even though they weren't together during the pandemic, they were all over the world. 

I saw that the buskers are willing to do things online and are really good at it. But at the same time, there's nothing to replace that feeling you get with the crush of the people. And the OOHS and the AAHS and the jumps and the flips and the flames and all that stuff. There's something that can't be replaced online. So we hope that we could eventually go back to the way things were. We don't see that happening in the next year, for sure. Certainly not in 2021. We plan on doing live shows this year. We're lucky, as you may know, in the Nova Scotia and Atlantic region of Canada, we have, we were early on with the masking and the distancing and the rules, and we've managed to keep our numbers incredibly low.

And recently they've announced they're going to open our - we call it the bubble. So that's our provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, our little Lennick region, our bubble. And if we can keep that maintained and going for the summer, maybe people can come in and go and travel though.

Right now, if you come from outside of those four provinces, you've got to quarantine for two whole weeks. You cannot leave your home or a hotel room or whatever it is for two whole weeks. You have to pass two tests for COVID screening before you're allowed out. So, we have taken this very seriously and it's benefiting us in the long run.

So we are hoping that if everything still stays, knock on wood, and our bubble stays good that we can have a scaled down version with more musicians, mainly because there are very few buskers who live in Halifax. There's a handful and we'll certainly bring them, but usually they've already left to go to Toronto, the United States somewhere else to work.

So we will do a scaled-down version. You think musicians probably won't do it as many hours in a day, and we'll probably make sure there's longer breaks across; we could disperse and then come back again. It certainly made us pivot - and I hate using that word, I've used that word so many times in the last 18 months! - but really think outside the box and how we can do things differently. 

It's going to mean training our volunteers to keep an eye on crowds, to actually disperse them properly - all of those things. It'll mean more signage for us because we'll actually have on the stage links or  signs for where to go, [for tippers] to find the links to donate online rather than in cash.
It's going to change the way we promote it. It's going to make sure people are aware that yes, we're happening, but we're not going to be the busker festival that you're used to seeing for 2021. And here's how you support the artists:  Don't throw a toonie in, don't throw a $10 bill in, but you can go online and donate your fives and tens [there]. 

Gene: Got it! Other questions, Leo? 

Leo: So I was wondering year after year - and I know you’ve been doing this for a long time - but is there a specific aspect of the festival that consistently remains your favorite? 

Christina: It was funny,  when you asked me that question, I thought, Oh God, what am I going to say?!
And it immediately came to me what it was. And I shared this with Kim: She's been doing this for 30 years. And I was about year 2 into it. And, we were 11 days long and I was on our second Saturday. And the crowds were crushed and I was hot and I was tired and I'm there from eight in the morning until midnight, almost every single day.

And she could tell I needed a pick-me-up. And she took me by the hand and she dragged me to the middle of the festival. And there's one section where it's at the crossroads and  you're in between two big stages and all the vendors are selling their food and their crafts and things.

And she stood me in the middle of the crowd and she said, “Stop. What do you hear?”  And I heard music and I heard laughter and I heard children giggling. And I heard people talking and I heard performances and I heard microphones, lapping speakers, and laughter. I get goosebumps thinking about it. And she said - “You did this, you brought this joy, this excitement to this city. Enjoy it.” Because you get so caught up in all the minutiae of who's where, what to do and the lost children and everything else. You tend to lose. What that machine is, is it's a machine! 

So, my point is to this day, 12 years later, I will - on my hottest craziest busiest day,  I'll take a few minutes to take off my headphones, set down my walkie-talkie and I'll walk into that middle of that crowd and I'll just stand there and I'll take it in.

And I'll let myself enjoy the fact that our small but mighty team created this amazing festival that brings so much joy to so many people every single year. That's my favorite part of it.  I'm glad you asked the question, because I wouldn't have thought about it, it brought back a really good memory that I kind of forgot about. 

Gene: That's a beautiful answer. Is there anything that we haven't talked about? For people that don't know your festival, we're going to put a link to the festival, but is there anything that we should have asked you or you want to tell people that encourage them to come up to Halifax and participate when the world opens up again? 

Christina: Really, it's something to be proud of. And it's the little things -  like, one year we were mentioned in the Bangkok Times as one of the top five outdoor festivals in the world. The Bangkok Times knows about the Halifax Busker festival! And, National Geographic wrote us as one of the top places to visit in August in their travelers guide. So, it always blows my mind, because we see ourselves as a small little province in Eastern Canada that no one really knows about, unless you know about us, and we're doing really cool things here. 

There are people who we've met from a lot of cruise ship industries that come through - Gotta love the cruise ship industry - And people who've just happened upon us because they've come to port that weekend now come back every year because of the festival -  we're into three generations. We have grandmothers with their children and then their grandchildren coming because they took their kids and now their kids are taking their kids. 

As overwhelming as it can be for us as the organizers and how easy it is to get caught up in all that, it's really cool to know that we can pull off something of this caliber, and we get it with an amazing, beautiful waterfront. Gosh, if you could come to Halifax, you would see a little bit of new and a little bit of old in there. I love our city, and I love what we can do every year.

Gene: Listen, you're giving us a lot of motivation because as you know, our festival is in its first year, so we're about to go figure it all out, but we're really delighted to talk to folks that have been in this industry who can help us understand how to do it and really give us something to aim for.
So I want to thank you for your time and for your generosity. And we look forward to sharing how we do and we'll keep in touch with you  and wish you all the best this year!

Christina: Thank you so much. I do want to do it, and show it to the artists too. They are the hardest working performers I've ever met in my life. These guys are amazing, and they work hard and they make my life a whole lot easier because of the talent they bring to the pitch every year. So, shout out to all the street performers out there that are making it work for them right now, and hopefully you can see them again back on our waterfront in 2022.

Gene: Thank you so very much.