Come bearing gifts

On the way home tonight, I had one of those rare things: a genuinely nice, genuinely spontaneous, genuinely shared experience. It came in the form of a tube-car busker playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a reverb-drenched electric violin. I feel like a traitor saying this as a musician, but usually, the feeling I get when I jump onto a tube carriage, the doors close behind me and I realise a split-second too late that I’m going to spend the next five minutes trapped in a small metal box with someone torturing a Bob Dylan song, or reanimating the rotting, late-night corpse of rockabilly – usually, that feeling is regret.

Not tonight, though. The fiddler on the tube was good. He made a nice sound. And from there, lots of other nice things followed.

For a start, people stopped reading and listened. They smiled. They applauded. I found myself catching the eyes of strangers – not something you’d usually do on the Victoria line at 11pm unless you wanted to scare people or get scared yourself.

And then, of course, EVERYone gave him money. Willingly. I did, and immediately thought that I could have given him double. Because actually, what he’d done had been valuable to me, and probably to everyone else on the carriage.

The first thing it made me think about, off the tube and walking up Stockwell Road, was what that value was. I only gave him a couple of quid. That won’t buy you a beer in SW3, where I’d been drinking. And yet what he’d done was worth way more. It was probably worth more than a lot of gigs I’ve been to, films I’ve seen, even possibly one or two CDs I’ve bought. Even though it was transient. Rare connection with strangers, smiles, a little bit of community and aesthetic pleasure in the middle of the night in London: that’s got to be worth more than a pint of Stella.

The second thing it made me think about was something David Hackworthy had said in a talk as part of the IPA Diploma course I’m doing. He said brands should “come bearing gifts”. I guess it was a variation on the old advertising bargain: be nice to people if you’ve arrived unannounced in their living rooms, I think Paul Weinberger used to say at Lowe.

The point was, I guess, that the busker had borne a gift. Not a slick one, or a branded one, or a particularly bling one. It was just some fairly well played, cliched music. But it was worth something. It was a surprise. It changed people’s behaviour for the better, like the sun getting the man to take off his coat in Aesop’s fable. And people willingly, smilingly paid, even though times are hard at the moment.

Some brands I guess do that. Little things that make people feel grateful. But they’re generally CRM-type things, or else they’re free trial-type things outside stations. It’s not that the ulterior motive that makes them less magical than the busker. He had an ulterior motive too. He wasn’t some angel of music. He was trying to make a buck.

I think it was the irrational, joyful, aesthetic nature of what he was doing. And doing well enough that it wasn’t an imposition. He lit up an evening for a bunch of tired commuters. Not many brands genuinely do that.

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