Austin Rapper Sees Busking as Steppingstone to Success
By Brandon Jenkins
Each weekend in Austin, tourists, college students and locals go out to have fun at the bars and clubs on Sixth Street. Amid sidewalks flooded with people, Austin rapper Karl Anthony, 32, sees an opportunity for self-promotion.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, Anthony arrives on West Sixth Street around 11:15 p.m. in a silver Jeep Wrangler. He parks alongside the curb, turns his hazard lights on and sets up two amplifiers, lighting equipment and a microphone — all of which are needed to prepare for a three-hour shift rapping to the crowd of revelers, some of whom toss money into a box in front of Anthony. On a good evening, he can make more than $1,200.
Anthony is busking, a practice common in the city’s downtown entertainment district and a potential pathway for up-and-coming artists to make a name for themselves.
Singer Janis Joplin busked in the 1960’s during her time as a student at the University of Texas at Austin. More recently, Eric Burton, lead singer of the American psychedelic soul band the Black Pumas, busked downtown. Burton told Portland Monthly in August that busking helped him remain humble and taught him how to earn the respect of an audience.
Anthony hopes to follow in Burton’s footsteps and says busking is helping him hone his craft.
“You are going to have good and bad experiences, but that does not mean you get to flip out. The job is the job,” Anthony said.
“If I did not show anger towards a rude customer (when I was) serving tables, I treat the busking in the same way,” said Anthony, who had previously worked as a restaurant server and at Gold’s Gym in customer service. “The training I received from every job that I had is why I am comfortable doing this.”
Busking in Austin requires a permit if done in a city park; otherwise, none is required. The city recommends buskers not block sidewalks and always cooperate with police.
In 2019, the city started a Street Performance Program to support local music and art. Funded by Trammell Crow, a real-estate company, the Street Performance Program supports local musicians by paying them an hourly rate of $150 for two-hour sets.
Almost 75 people have participated in the program, said Stephanie Bergara, the program’s coordinator. (The program is inactive due to the pandemic, and Anthony is not affiliated with the program.)
“It has been fantastic for us to watch musicians work in their element,” Bergara said. “Anytime we can help musicians get a fair rate of pay for what their craft is, we are happy to do that.”
Aaron “Fresh” Knight is a radio host on Austin’s KUTX 98.9 and a vocal supporter of the Street Performance Program and busking in general.
“I think it is a great way in Austin to market yourself,” Knight said. “I do not know if it would work anywhere else. But in Austin, it seems to draw attention.”
Like Knight, Anne-Charlotte Patterson, chair of the Austin Music Commission, sees busking as a potential step to a successful career.
“It is very common to see people busking and performing on Sixth Street,” Patterson said. “I do not know how much someone can make in a night, but it is not the easiest or safest way of making money in music, but it can be in the mix for sure.”
Busking is Anthony’s main source of income, he said. He left his job at a Gold’s Gym in 2018.
“I am able to live alone and pay my bills,” Anthony said. “I am making money, I am meeting people, and I am getting better at my craft. I feel like if you can perform in front of strangers to make them look out for you, once you get on a stage, it is a piece of cake because the audience is already there to see me.”
Although busking pays the bills for Anthony, Patterson says street performing is not the most usual destination point for musical artists in their careers.
“Buskers like Karl Anthony should make a plan for their career,” Patterson said. “Do they want to play in clubs later? Do they want to make an album? Or do they want to tour?”
In November, Anthony released an album titled “True & Living” on a small independent record label. Anthony also regularly performs in nightclubs such as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse and Play on West Sixth.
“The main goal for me is to have the strongest following,” Anthony said.
Anthony may achieve his goal, Knight said, because of his busking consistency.
“If you are in the same spot on a regular basis performing outside or performing period, people know where to find you, and artists tend to draw a crowd and build up a fan base that way,” Knight said.
Anthony hopes so and credits busking for building his fan base.
“I have met so many people busking,” Anthony said. “I just think I have a real strong following that is growing. I feel with the solid relationships that I have through that following, that they will lead into great unforeseen opportunities.”