Jan Eli plays her cello on the sidewalk in the Gaslamp
The Yes Team talks about busking and ends with a song
It’s a Friday night at 9:00 in the Gaslamp, and the streets are filled with club-goers. I walk past a street performer on Fifth Avenue. The busker is shirtless and wears a wrestling mask, and he’s pumping a Shake Weight in one of his oversized arms. He poses for a picture with a group of young women. “What a freak,” one of them says with a laugh.
One block over, in front of the Reading Cinemas at the corner of Fifth and G, Jan Eli sits on a metal folding chair, playing her cello. Her posture is perfect. She holds a bow in her right hand, the neck of the cello in her left. At Jan’s feet sits a tip jar stuffed with dollar bills. A neon sign affixed to her music stand says: I have raised $18,500 for my UCSD tuition. Thank you for your support.
Jan wears brown oxford shoes, faded jeans, and a T-shirt. Her hair is pulled into a loose ponytail. Despite her casual dress, the cello gives her an air of classical elegance.
To Jan’s left, a man in a wrinkled pin-striped suit, a burgundy button-down shirt, and a fedora attempts to earn cash by shining shoes. He shouts at pedestrians to stop. On occasion, he curses at those who walk past without making eye contact.
When I stop to admire Jan’s music, the shoe-shiner is irate.
“What’s your problem?” he says. “Do you hate black men? You only like the sisters? Bitch!”
Jan rolls her eyes and lets out a sigh. She looks tired.
A tour bus pulls up, and the driver steps out. He says to Jan, “My passengers would like to know if you could come on the bus and play for them. Ten minutes for $10?”
She makes a face. “I’ll do ten minutes for $30.”
The driver chuckles. He climbs back onto the bus to haggle with his passengers on Jan’s behalf.
“Ten dollars!” she exclaims when he’s out of earshot. “I’ll make more on the street.”
The driver emerges for more haggling, but Jan won’t waver on her price. The bus drives away without leaving a tip.
Jan Eli has raised over $18,500 for her UCSD tuition by busking.
Image by Howie Rosen
For the next hour, I watch Jan perform. People pause to read her sign, and many drop money into the tip jar. Some offer words of encouragement. Others walk past without looking at her. A lanky frat boy slurs, “I saw you here last week. You’re amazing! Keep it up.”
Another man, a stocky guy with a ponytail, drops five dollars in the jar. “This is from me and him,” he says, motioning to his buddy. “I’m a musician, too. Never stop playing, sweetheart.”
A group of Hare Krishnas parade past with drums, chanting: “Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna.”
“I hope they don’t stop in front of me,” Jan says. “Sometimes they do. They usually ask first. It’s hard to get mad at them because they’re doing it for a good cause.”
The Krishnas move on.
A man in pleated dress pants listens as Jan plays “The Swan,” by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the “Sarabande,” from Bach’s Suite No. 3. He stands at a distance. At first, I think he’s waiting for someone, but when he closes his eyes and sways along with the music, it’s evident that he’s sticking around to listen. He drops a ten in Jan’s jar.
Twenty-one-year-old Jan relocated to San Diego from Florida in the summer of 2009 to attend UCSD. She received a small academic scholarship, but still had $9000 of out-of-state tuition to contend with.
“When I first moved here, I had a few ideas on how I would make money. I thought about being a taxi driver or a bartender. But I couldn’t bartend because I was 18, and I wouldn’t make money as a taxi driver because I couldn’t make my own hours. When I was in middle school, my mom would take my sister and me in front of Walgreens [to play]. My sister played the violin, and I played cello. We did it to fund-raise for different trips we took. I thought I could make money doing that out here.”
Jan started playing cello in elementary school. On the first day of third grade, her teacher played all the instruments for the students. Jan fell in love with the sound of the cello and decided to give it a try. After the first year, she considered quitting.
“I thought it was too much pressure. My mom told me to try it for longer, so I continued. The next year I really progressed. I started really practicing. I got better.”
Pulling from the success she had as a child — she’d busked with signs that explained how she was using the money she raised — Jan decided to purchase vibrantly colored poster board and try street performance. On the sign, she wrote: “Help me pay for my UCSD college tuition.”
“Busking paid for my first two years of tuition at UCSD, which was $18,000. That covered school, food, and room and board. Now that my tuition is in-state, the university covers everything except room and board and my supplies. My busking has to cover that.”
When Jan first started out, she busked in downtown La Jolla on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 7:00–9:00 p.m. She made decent money. A year ago, she discovered her spot in the Gaslamp at Fifth and G. She makes more there. She works every weekend, Friday to Sunday, 7:00–9:00 p.m. If she really needs the money, she plays four-hour sets.
“I get anywhere from $50 to $100 an hour on a typical night. People think it’s insane that I make that much money. I don’t think other street musicians make as much. I think it’s because of my sign that explains why I do this.”
Jan has had her share of run-ins with interesting people while busking, including a few people so consumed with emotion over her playing that they cried.
“One night, a homeless guy started crying. I think he was on something, though.”
On multiple occasions, cops have told her to leave or be ticketed. Busking isn’t allowed in the Gaslamp, though the rule is routinely ignored. Evenings, you can find street performers on most corners. Buskers can be territorial about their spots. Shoe-Shine, for instance, isn’t always cool with Jan’s presence.
“Last year was the first time I met him. I had 15 to 30 minutes left before I was going home. He was freaking out and said, ‘This is my spot, you need to leave.’
“I said, ‘Excuse me, none of us is paying to be here. I’m going to finish my job. I only have 15 minutes left.’ He called me a bitch. ‘Do you know who the fuck I am?’ he said. ‘Get the hell out of here!’ I just ignored him.”
During the exchange, Jan recalled, a nearby graffiti artist had defended her, calmly telling the other guy to back off. “The shoe-shiner pulled out a big blade and threatened to stab both of us. I packed up my stuff. He was drunk. When he’s drunk, he gets angry.” When the artist stepped in front of Jan to shield her, the shoe-shiner put his knife against the artist’s stomach. They yelled at each other.
Jan went into a nearby Subway. “I saw two cops and told them what had happened. They said, ‘Wait, wait, where was this?’ I said, ‘Fifth and G,’ and they said, ‘Oh, that’s not our jurisdiction. We only take care of the Metrolink.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was, like, Are you effing kidding me? After that I called 911. I don’t know if they came. I left.”
Despite that exchange, Jan returns every weekend and sets up next to Shoe-Shine, whose name she has yet to learn.
Over the summer, she played her cello during Comic-Con. She wore her normal jeans and T-shirt. The street performer with the Shake Weight and wrestler’s mask dressed up that week as Captain America.
“He was jumping into trees and swinging around. People thought it was an act for Comic-Con, and I was, like, ‘He’s crazy. He’s not just doing it for Comic-Con. He does this all the time.’
“Comic-Con was a good week for me. I made $650 in three days.”
Over Jan’s four-year busking career, she has made three big tips. In downtown La Jolla, a guy watched her play for an hour and a half. Jan was so creeped out, she packed up 20 minutes early.
“I got really weird vibes from him. While I was packing up, he came over to me and said, ‘I really enjoyed your music.’ He handed me a hundred-dollar bill!”
Another night in the Gaslamp, a guy out with a group of friends approached Jan and told her he would give her a tip if she could name her school’s mascot. “I said, ‘Go Tritons!’ and he handed me a hundred bucks.”
Not long after that night, a drunken man out with his girlfriend approached Jan. He also handed over $100.
“I’m not sure if he meant to give me that much. His girlfriend definitely wasn’t happy. He gave me a hug and told me he thought what I was doing was great.”
In June, Jan will graduate from UCSD with a Bachelor of Arts in linguistics and music. She will give up performing in the Gaslamp.
“I plan on traveling for four or five years. I’m going to South America first because I want to learn Spanish. I’m teaching English in Mexico. I plan to street perform while I’m there, but I doubt I’ll make money. It’s a really poor country.”
Three blocks away, 27-year-old Charlie Rae sings and plays her guitar in front of the Sam Goody outside Horton Plaza. I can hear her from a block’s distance: she sounds like a mix of Ray LaMontagne and Ani DiFranco.
A young couple walking in front of me speeds up.
“We have to stop and listen,” the guy says to his girlfriend. “I heard this girl down here a few weeks ago. She’s really good.”
More than 20 people gather in front of Charlie. Many take video recordings with their phones. A homeless man on a bench scolds someone for obstructing his view. A woman in a black leather jacket with shopping bags at her feet listens with a hand placed over her heart.
“I made a name for myself in Phoenix,” says 27-year-old Charlie Rae. “I worked really hard. When I came here, no one cared.”
A guy dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt (he has a rolling backpack with him) sprawls on the ground in front of Charlie. Though she tries to ignore his bizarre behavior, an amused smile slips across her face. He disappears during the next song, only to return with a single white rose and what appears to be a teriyaki bowl from a takeout diner. He drops his gifts at Charlie’s feet and bows. Charlie remains unfazed.
Her girlfriend, Lauren, works the crowd, selling CDs.
“Charlie Rae recorded this in our apartment. It’s super professional,” Lauren tells me.
Charlie taught herself the guitar at 17. Before that, she played the piano; she took lessons for a year when she was 5. At 6, she was writing symphonies.
“My parents aren’t supportive of my music,” she says. “They’ve only come to maybe three of my shows. They told me music was a waste of time. After hearing the first song I ever wrote, my dad said, ‘Follow your checkbook, not your heart.’ They’re very type A. They didn’t know what to do with me. I moved out at 17 and did my own thing. I don’t talk to them anymore.”
As a kid, Charlie would secretly listen to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, musicians her parents disapproved of. She tried to copy all their notes.
“My parents took my boom box away from me because they didn’t want me listening to the radio. It wasn’t an easy childhood. I think it made me a better musician.”
On the street, a large black man whose neck is as thick as my waist stands a few feet from Charlie.
“We hired him for the night,” Lauren says. “Last weekend, a homeless man tried to punch Charlie. It’s getting really unsafe down here.”
In March, Charlie and Lauren moved to San Diego from Phoenix. They needed a change. Charlie was growing bored with the music scene in Arizona.
“When I got here,” she says, “I started doing open mics everywhere. I played at Patrick’s Gaslamp Pub on F every Tuesday. I had a tiny bit of a following there. A saxophone player named Walter told me to start playing on the street downtown. That was completely out of my comfort zone.”
By early June, Charlie was desperate. Open mics were getting her nowhere. She tried to arrange bookings at different clubs, but most were looking for cover bands, not blues musicians who play original music. She sent her bio out to multiple venues but didn’t hear back from anyone.
“It was an ego hit. For nine years, I’ve been playing professionally. I made a name for myself in Phoenix. I worked really hard. When I came here, no one cared. Finally, I was, like, If I want to eat today and put gas in my car, I need to start busking.
Walter, the saxophone player, let Charlie borrow his sound equipment. The first night she played in front of Horton Plaza on Fourth and Broadway was a small disaster…at first. Charlie brought the wrong guitar and had to mic it instead of plug it in. She didn’t have a monitor, so she couldn’t hear herself. Charlie was so stressed out, she closed her eyes and started to sing.
“When I opened them, there was a crowd. I was excited, but at the same time I was, like, Why are they all here? Why are they staring at me? It took me about a month to realize that they really liked my music. I was shocked.”
Charlie says playing on the street is nothing like being on a stage. When you play at a venue, you have managers, a band tab, and people eating, drinking, and being loud. On the street, her music stands on its own.
“I played that first night in front of Horton and became kind of addicted. It really built my confidence. It takes a lot to sit on a busy street and start playing your own music loudly. If I can play at Horton with all the crazy things that happen, I can handle any crowd. It’s almost dangerous, but it’s a thrill.”
The weekend prior to our meeting, Charlie was nearly assaulted by the homeless man.
“I closed my eyes during a song for a second. When I opened them, a disheveled drunk guy was standing in front of me. He acted like he was going to hit me with a stick that was in his hands. Afterward, he sat 15 feet away and stared at me. [Horton Plaza] security asked him to leave. After I calmed down and took a break, he came back and tried to hit me again with the stick. My friend jumped in front of him.”
Charlie has had other difficult experiences.
“I had another lady stand in front me during a song and tell me she was going to kill me. Two weeks ago, this tiny lady in a biker jacket — she was maybe 4´11˝ — came up to me in the middle of a song and yelled, ‘You stole the teeth out of the mouth of my children! You stole my teeth!’
“I was, like, ‘I swear I didn’t steal them!’ She was yelling, ‘F--- you, give me my teeth back!’ My friends were laughing so hard. My girlfriend’s dad comes down frequently and stands there because things have been getting worse.” He advised her to hire a professional bodyguard.
Charlie goes on to say that she’s had many more positive experiences than negative. People have placed bottles of champagne, notes of encouragement, and love letters in her tip jar. Fans offer to help pack up her things at the end of the night. A few weeks ago, when a police officer threatened to ticket Charlie on a noise complaint, the crowd offered to pay for the ticket.
One of her fans told the cop, “She’s doing a good thing down here.”
“The guy who left me the white rose tonight buys me candy. Last week, he left a bag of gummy bears. People have written me notes that say, ‘I’ve been struggling with depression for 12 years, and this song has made me realize that it’s going to be okay.’
“I got one that said, ‘I will love you for the rest of my days.’ Another said, ‘I just lost my job, and your music made me forget how crappy my life is.’ That’s why I love playing music. Every single time I come out here, I hope someone will benefit from what I’m doing. That’s what gets me through the first hour. It’s loud. I play over planes, motorcycles, groups that come and play over me, and people that walk past and don’t even look at me. Then there are the moments when I look up from my guitar and see people really into it. That makes it worth it.”
Nightly, Charlie makes about $100 in tips, plus $50 in CD sales. She performs most Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays in front of Horton Plaza. Recently, the mall hired Charlie to perform on Saturday afternoons in exchange for mall gift-cards.
In mid-June, a man who recorded one of Charlie Rae’s Gaslamp performances uploaded a video of her singing “The Sun Lights the Pavement.” The video went viral.
“Someone who recognized me emailed me the link. Before I knew it, there were 50,000 views. I was floored. I contacted the guy who posted the video. He said, ‘You should go on Reddit and say who you are.’ I did.
“I was invited to do an AMA, which is ‘Ask Me Anything.’ It’s a worldwide video. I was on the Reddit website for 12 hours, answering questions. That same video was on the front of YouTube trends for two days as the most-viewed video. It was on MSN. Someone at ABC News did a story on me. I got a lot of exposure, but I haven’t gotten any gigs because of it. I did get a lot of downloads and purchases on my iTunes account. It was really nice, because I was starting to feel a little lost in the crowd out here.”
Charlie has started booking more shows. She recently played at Humphreys and in L.A., at Hotel Cafe. She has a manager now. Proactiv, the acne medication, contacted her manager and requested to use a few of Charlie’s songs in an upcoming ad campaign.
“Hopefully, I won’t have to play at Horton much longer,” she says.
Charlie believes she will be famous. She sees herself touring with a band and playing large venues.
“I want it so bad. I feel I deserve it. I see myself as a Bonnie Raitt. She does tours alone. She has a bad-ass band behind her. I want to be a girl Kid Rock. I know some incredible musicians, but I’m not ready for them yet. I’m getting there.”
The first time I hear the Yes Team perform, I’m at the Encinitas Station Farmers Market. The Yes Team is a folk group composed of three musicians; two guys — TJ Moss and Jonathan Walsh — and one girl, Kinnie Dye. Halfway through their third song, they’re interrupted by a passing trolley, their voices drowned out. Kinnie laughs. The three pause to let the trolley pass.
The crowd consists mostly of toddlers whose eager parents snap photos while their children dance. A boy wearing only a diaper shakes his booty for a two-song set. A little girl in a purple tank top knows all the words. Another toddler with curly blond hair runs up to Kinnie, Jonathan, and TJ. She hugs all three.
“I’m getting so big!” she proclaims.
The band hands out Easter egg–shaped shakers to the crowd of children. They play “Rockin’ Robin,” “Country Roads,” “Africa” (by Toto), and a handful of Yes Team’s original music. From time to time, people bend down and deposit dollar bills in the tip basket.
TJ tells me, “We’ve gotten things like guitar strings, cases of beer, and hippie tips [weed] in our tip jar.”
When I ask if kids are their usual fans, Jonathan shrugs. “Kids are drawn to our music. It used to be really distracting. They don’t keep rhythm with their shakers. It used to drive me crazy. But I love it now. Children have great energy.”
Three hours prior to the market gig, I met them at Jeremy Miller’s house. Miller is engineering the Yes Team’s new CD, Life Is Good. Kinnie and Jonathan are outside loading their van for the market when I pull up. Kinnie smiles. Jonathan waves. They take me around the back of the house, through a screen door, and into what appears to be Jeremy’s bedroom. Two surfboards, a bike without wheels, and sunset posters serve as decor.
TJ is sitting on a computer chair. He greets us with high-fives. “Do you want to hear what I’ve been working on?”
“We’ve got about five minutes before we need to leave,” Kinnie says.
TJ has spent the day mixing their new CD. “It’s my favorite part of this whole thing,” he says. “I love getting a crisp studio recording and making the album.”
I sit down to listen. Everyone else stands. They tap their feet and sway to the sound of their own voices. TJ smiles proudly. When it’s over, they all talk at once, each offering praise and advice.
On the drive up to the market, I’m offered shotgun in Purple Reign, the band’s 1998 Dodge Ram van. They purchased it on Craigslist for $1600 in December 2010, while living in Manhattan.
“Five years ago, while we were all living in New York, San Diego popped into my mind,” TJ says. “‘San Diego 2010’ became my mantra.”
At the time, Kinnie was a bartender at a swanky place on Fifth Avenue, TJ was working for a catering company, and Jonathan was a singing waiter in Times Square.
“When Kinney and TJ asked if I wanted to come to San Diego, I was still going to Broadway auditions,” Jonathan recalls. “I’d spent nine years hearing ‘No,’ with an occasional ‘Yes.’ I heard the words ‘San Diego, California,’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ I thought, This island has held me captive for too long.”
The three set off from Manhattan on January 4, 2011. Their van broke down just past the “Welcome to California” sign. Their first night in the state was spent sleeping in the parking lot of the auto-repair shop.
“We bought a bottle of wine and watched The Big Lebowski in our van,” Kinnie says.
The first time the Yes Team performed together was two nights later. They played an open-mic night at Rebecca’s Coffeehouse in South Park.
“Three months went by and we were still here,” says Kinnie. “We were only supposed to be here for eight weeks. That’s all the money we had.”
Busking became the group’s livelihood. Jonathan says, “It put gas in our van and food in our stomachs.”
“We lived off the kindness of strangers,” Kinnie says. “We slept on people’s couches for three months. We were lucky if we made $75–$100 for three hours [of street performing]. On an average day, we made $40 to split between the three of us. We played mostly O.B., P.B., and sometimes La Jolla.”
The Yes team has had many interesting moments while busking. They endured a busking war with another street performer in P.B. over a prime boardwalk location. Homeless people have inserted themselves into the group’s performances. Law enforcement has asked them to leave for not having a permit.
“One time we were in P.B.,” Jonathan says, “and a family sat down and watched us. Afterwards, they came up to me and said, ‘Were you in New York back in December, waiting tables in Times Square?’
“I said, ‘Yes,” and they said, ‘You were our server!’ I’d gone from wearing a sparkly bowling shirt, standing on top of chairs singing ‘Earth Angel’ to being on the beach wearing cutoff shorts and busking. They were, like, ‘You’ve made it!’” Jonathan laughs.
After three months in San Diego, the band was exhausted. In March 2011, they decided to head back to NYC. They continued to play together but decided to get “real jobs” to save up in order to move back to San Diego and rent an apartment — they never wanted to couch-surf again. Jonathan returned to his singing-waiter gig, TJ worked for a catering company, and Kinnie was a swim instructor.
In January 2012 they moved back to San Diego. They’ve been here ever since.
“We decided not to get jobs,” Jonathan says. “Music is our job. We’re going to make this work.”
Shortly after their second arrival, a friend took the Yes Team to the Hillcrest Farmers Market. They saw a performer whose tip jar was full and soon discovered that there were markets every day. The crew played on the sidewalk in Hillcrest on Sundays. Every week, the crowds increased. Before long, the various markets were paying them to play. Most offer a flat fee of $40 for three hours; the performers earn about $80 more in tips and CD sales.
“We’ve moved on from open mics and are graduating from markets, as well,” TJ says.
The group has begun booking more venues. They’ve played gigs at Burlap in Del Mar, Pacific Beach Alehouse, and at Union Kitchen and Tap in Encinitas.
They are no longer couch-surfing. The Yes Team recently rented a 1050-square-foot apartment in Loma Portal.
“Our credit was pretty sketchy,” Jonathan says, “so we gave the apartment manager our CD. Luckily, she rented to us.”
TJ says, “We’re out to make the next American hit song.”