DIGITAL MONEY

Busking for Bizum: Coronavirus pandemic sees street artists swap cash for card payments

Madrileños are increasingly opting to use digital money in the ‘new normality,’ a trend that also applies for the musicians on the corners of the capital

Alejandro Cainedo and Jonatan Quiroz playing on the metro in Madrid.
Alejandro Cainedo and Jonatan Quiroz playing on the metro in Madrid.David Expósito

The chink chink of falling coins is music to the ears of every street artist. As Grex belts out a number in front of a feminist mural on Madrid’s Gran Vía, the sound provides the backing track to her song. But while money from appreciative passers-by is this folk and reggae performer’s main source of income, it increasingly comes to her in the form of a ping on her cellphone.

Recently, she was sent €50 via Bizum when she was playing in the nearby Puerta del Sol. The amount took her aback, but not the method. As well as transfers via cellphones, her audience has paid her via the artists’ platform Patreon and has even asked for her bank details via Instagram. These digital-payment methods are more common when she is touring the streets of other European cities, but the trend is also starting to reach Madrid as people steer clear of change due to the coronavirus pandemic, something that has fuelled predictions that cash will become obsolete – the governing Socialist Party has even gone so far as to call for its gradual elimination.

“I’m thinking of getting a dataphone [for bank cards],” says Grex, 25, whose real name is Greta Borszewski. “It’s pretty normal in London. You put a sign with the amount you charge, like €2, and people pay with their card.”

In Denmark, I’ve seen homeless people with a sign with their phone number on it so that people can transfer them money
German tourist Janik Breuer

Grex starts playing again and a German tourist called Janik Breuer, 24, gives her €1. He would have given €2 but he doesn’t have it. When asked, he shows the author of this report the screen of his phone with his Apple Pay Card, which he uses to pay for any shopping. Paying in electronic currency is now totally normal in countries further north. “In Denmark, I’ve seen homeless people with a sign with their phone number on it so that people can transfer them money,” he says.

One of the drawbacks of using digital money is it can be traced by the taxman, but street musicians don’t have much alternative right now as people have largely stopped carrying cash. This is a natural development as many stores in the center of Madrid have put up large signs warning that they do not accept cash payments and even a bottle of water, a newspaper or a coffee are being paid for now by card – shopkeepers no longer appear to require that their customers spend a minimum amount.

But whatever the form of payment, buskers are facing challenging times. The economic impact of the pandemic has left the streets of Madrid practically devoid of tourists and locals are tightening their belts. To make matters worse, City Hall, run by conservative Popular Party Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida, has curtailed the freedom to perform on the streets of the capital, restricting the number of musicians playing in the Central district to 450 and reducing the hours they can play – conditions that have become even stricter with Spain’s so-called “new normality.”

The 20-odd musicians consulted for this report say they don’t earn half of what they did before the pandemic. “We get given céntimos,” says veteran street guitarist Chema Martínez, 74. “If we make a huge effort, we get an average of €15 a day.” This is a fraction of what Martínez earned before the pandemic when he says a good musician on a good day could earn up to €300 in Madrid.

Hardly any of the street artists in Madrid make it clear to passers-by that they accept payment via Bizum or similar, though several say it’s something they are planning to do. “I thought of doing it but I didn’t because I was embarrassed,” says Mónica Jiménez, a 21-year-old from La Rioja. “I wasn’t sure what people would think.”

I think cash has had its day. In fact, I’ve been noticing over the past three years that people barely carry coins
Costa Rican street singer Mynor Sánchez

The performers are still working out between them where to play as permission to perform in the center was only given a few days ago by City Hall, which authorized 399 musicians.

“I think cash has had its day,” says Costa Rican street singer Mynor Sánchez, 28, who has already received transfers via Paypal. “In fact, I’ve been noticing over the past three years that people barely carry coins.”

According to Cuban doctor Alejandro Cainedo, who has formed a guitar duo with Peruvian engineer Jonatan Quiroz, “We have been told by some passengers that if we carried a dataphone, they would give us money.”

Other musicians laugh out loud when they hear that some of their colleagues are getting money via their cellphones. These musicians set out their hats in the established busker tradition. This week things have been a bit better – a reflection of the fact that people have just been paid. “I don’t think money will disappear yet in our generation,” says 26-year-old Colombian, Alexandra Gutiérrez. “I think that will happen in about 100 years.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Cabrera, a member of the platform La Calle Suena – The Street Sings – says: “Digital payment is still anecdotal but if it spreads, we will adapt.”

While there are still people who carry cash, many are fearful of touching what others have touched. When a coin is dropped into the musician’s guitar case or hat, it is often done with gloves or alternatively the disinfecting gel will be whipped out.

But despite the caution, many still appreciate hearing music on the streets as they go about their business. “There are people who are so moved, they hug us,” says Gutiérrez, who is grateful for the city’s solidarity in whatever form it takes.

If you are a musician in Madrid with an interesting story to tell, contact Fernando Peinado at fpeinado@elpais.es or on Twitter @FernandoPeinado

English version by Heather Galloway.

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