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Buskers and Busking

7 Conversations

Some buskers.
Music is good for the ghostly canyons below our streets.
- David Benn, ex-musical clown of Piccadilly Circus.

Busking

Busking - the playing of musical instruments and/or singing in public places in the hope that the passing hordes will show their monetary appreciation - is perhaps the best-known form of street theatre. It really is 'street entertainment' so anything goes: singing, comedy, magic, juggling skills, fire-eating, and even sword-swallowing.

Busking is something you can do to earn a few quid if you're down on your luck, homeless, hitchhiking around the world on a shoestring budget, or just feel like sharing your talent with the world. All you need is a musical instrument (a tambourine would do) and a container such as an upturned hat to collect the coins donated by passers-by. An ability to sing would help, although some buskers just play well-known tunes. You can busk alone, with a friend or in a group, like Welsh group Manic Street Preachers who started out this way.

Some places require you to have a permit to busk, but in others this could be illegal and get you arrested. Therefore, you would be well-advised to check with the local police if you're travelling and reach an area where you don't know the local by-laws and customs. For example, in Calgary, Canada, you would need to pay the necessary fee for a busking permit, but in Kuwait, where begging is illegal1, they could lock you up and throw away the key.

Tips For Successful Busking

  • Be well-groomed - make it obvious you are not begging.

  • Smile. Put your heart and soul into your performance. People like to be entertained, and a sluggish attitude will get a dismal response. Try to look like you're enjoying yourself, even if you're freezing and gagging for a cuppa.

  • Try and be original and novel. You may not be the best singer in the world, or the most talented guitarist, but you can make up for lack of ability by being different. If you can grab attention, you will earn money.

  • If you're quite good and willing to make fun of yourself, people see the humour and the money comes rolling in. So I wear a multi-coloured clown's costume, a stetson hat, and huge pointy shoes.
    - UK busker Iain Everett
  • Perform older songs rather than new material. People will be more generous if your tune reminds them of when they were young, or it's 'their tune', or maybe their mother's favourite song. Be prepared, also, to take requests. Just one verse of Unchained Melody can send someone into raptures, and having one appreciative person obviously enjoying your music will pique the interest of others.

  • Practise, practise, practise. People will pay more if what they are hearing is pleasing to their ears.

  • Get a dog (if you can afford to look after him) or borrow a friend's pet, or combine dog-walking and busking and make double the money. Not only will he keep you company but he will also add to the sympathy factor and attract passing dog-lovers, thereby swelling your coffers. Make sure you have a bottle of water so you can give him a drink and poop-bags in case he makes a mess.

  • Perform outside London. There is too much competition in the capital from Big Issue sellers, beggars, other buskers and the 'you don't exist' attitude of most Londoners. Pop star Damon Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy) was secretly filmed busking for a pop video in London. He made £1.60 in the first 90 minutes, and £4.90 over the whole day2.

  • Be female. On average, a female busker earns over three times what a man would earn on the same pitch, playing the same instrument at the same time of day.

  • Don't sit on the ground. You are too easily overlooked and anyway, the ground is filthy. Stand when you are performing, or sit on a chair, but do ask permission if the seat belongs to a nearby pub or café.

Best Busking Places

In Helsinki, busking is quite popular and accepted. Most of my 'colleagues' are talented Russian accordion players. So being much more modest in skill, I've gone for steel guitar strumming and singing ballads in my native Spanish. Earnings are 6 to 14 Euros an hour.
- Busker Isko Kuha

Markets, taxi ranks and cinema (and theatre) queues. Outside of churches (after services) especially baptisms and weddings (although do try not to get in the way of photographers).

The tunnel at South Kensington, between the tube and the museums. It's a nice busking spot because of the acoustics but the competition is fierce. There's a little piece of paper on the wall where you sign up for a half-hour slot. I made £24.11 in my 30 minutes, but it's not worth going all the way across town if that is your day's takings. I can earn £50 in three hours in other places (outside London).
- Professional busker Clare Mee (42)

In Galway, Ireland, you can make between 8 and 15 euros for a 90-minute pitch during the day in Buttermilk Lane, just off Shop Street, which is a pleasant, pedestrianised street full of shops.

Salisbury seems to encourage people to busk and showcase their talents. In one case, I liked a band so much I hired them for my 40th birthday - for less than the cost of a week's groceries. I'm not a Musicians' Union member, but I do like their slogan: Keep Music Live. Busking has an important part to play in that, and it is sad that so many local authorities ban it rather than support it.
- David Hughes, busking fan

Leicester Square is even better than Covent Garden's official busking area because the tourists and the Chinese community in particular are very generous and have a real appreciation of music.

Seattle has a buskers' week each year, which is a blast - we have quite a lot of busking normally, but it is virtually a carnival during buskers' week.
- An h2g2 Researcher

In University towns like Chichester, busking students can earn between £60 and £70 in three hours.

Places To Avoid Busking

Outside of a church when there's a funeral going on.

You can be arrested in Venice, California for juggling without a permit, so it's a fair bet that buskers would be invited to admire the paintwork of the local sheriff's cells.

Theme Parks; Zoos, any place where people have paid to be entertained already. Unless there's a long queue outside, then you'll be quids in.

You can't go busking if the street is too loud (like during a parade).

War zones.

Buskers

Busking is a tough way of life but it's possible to eke out a living on the streets of Ireland, Spain and France.
- Busking guitarist Jesse

Frank Robinson aka 'Xylophone Man' busked on the streets of Nottingham for over 15 years. Although not musically gifted, he became recognisable and quite a popular entertainer. After he died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 72, the council laid a granite slab, prepared by fan Chris Hart, at Frank's favourite busking spot in Listergate.

Cardiff has had quite a few buskers over the years. Most notably: 'Railroad Bill' - but the Bucket Band, the Lost T-shirts of Atlantis, and the Howling Sleepers are all part of that same melting pot of busking that is Cardiff.

Jimi McRae was for many years Edinburgh's best-known street busker at his pitch at St Giles in Edinburgh's Royal Mile and was known originally as the 'Biker Piper'. He was very popular with the tourists, who liked the Braveheart image he projected; he was often seen playing bare-chested. He has now formed a band called Pipedreams and they supported Lulu at Stirling Castle on Hogmanay 2004. They have now released an album named Earthdance.

The 'Hoochie Coochie Mancunian' pitches in Market Street in Manchester, and he sets the shopping area alight with his fiery blues guitar and energetic vocal style.

I can remember seeing The Cambridge (now Classic) Buskers many times on television, and some of their renditions (and instruments) were quite something. They were good raconteurs as well. I believe they took up busking to assist their way through university.
- An h2g2 Researcher

Alistair Griffin, 25, from Whitby, a student, busker and indie songwriter, secured a place in Fame Academy 2003 and although he didn't win, he ended up releasing an album entitled Bring It On, to mixed reviews.

Canadian Vincent Dubé was a busker from 1995 - 98 with a quartet of juggler's acrobats called Les Tourisk. From 1998 - 2002 he performed in a circus, travelling Europe and the USA. Since 2002 Dubé has been a solo busker, creating his own juggling act on drums with bouncing balls.

Sir Paul McCartney once donned a disguise and busked on the streets of London (outside Leicester Square tube station). It was for a 'film thing' and something he'd 'always wanted to do'. No-one recognised him, and the money he collected was donated to charity.

Some really great musicians have busked while waiting for their particular star to shine, notably Blues singer and musician Ted Hawkins, who took up busking on Venice Beach in Los Angeles to make ends meet. Gerry Rafferty earned money by busking illegally on the London Underground. Poetically, his biggest hit Baker Street was about a tube station.

Other buskers who later became famous include:

Then there's the pre-fame busking groups:

Busking For Charity

Accordion-playing busker John Jones has helped to raise over £100,000 for the MAST scanner appeal. In 1999 he won the Manchester Local Heroes competition.

Two detective constables busked their way from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire to raise funds for Cancer Research UK and the Myosotis Trust. They were accompanied on their 200-mile busking journey by a black labrador on their two-week trek.

Members of Wantage Silver Band spent eight hours on New Year's Eve 2004 busking outside a large supermarket in Limborough Road, Oxfordshire, to raise funds for Oxfam in order to help victims of the Asian tsunami. Over £2200 was raised by the children aged eight to 17, who were supervised by their conductor Denise Clark.

'Busk 8' took place in July 2005 at Canary Wharf Tube station in aid of the Make Poverty History campaign, and also to celebrate two years of legalised busking on the London Underground. Buskers staged a two-hour concert for travellers and donated the proceeds to the cause.

Unsung Heroes

Some buskers deserve a knighthood, or at least a medal. 'Bongo Mike' was able to lead people like the Pied Piper of Hamelin from the carnage of the 1987 Kings Cross fire because of his intimate knowledge of the station.

David Benn, ex-Musical Clown of Piccadilly Circus, spent 17 years busking, mostly on the London Underground. He chased pickpockets from stations, stopped fights and halted escalators when someone missed their footing and came tumbling down.

Busking and The London Underground

The London Public Entertainers Collective campaigned for the right for buskers to perform wherever they want on the London Underground network, which was illegal up till 2001. Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber became the first official London Underground busker when he launched a six-month pilot scheme in 2001, which was a great success.

Buskers are now able to perform legally on certain tube platforms (but not trains). A change in the local by-law came after eight out of ten passengers on the London Underground interviewed said they liked hearing live music as they travelled. Nobody liked being hassled though, so prospective buskers are vetted and have to audition when they apply for a formal licence. Only two buskers per station are allowed, and they can have up to two hours each.

There are now an estimated 285 licensed buskers. You can apply for a licence here: London Underground homepage.

I didn't want to come up here and fight people over the pitch. Now I know where I can go and play, and there won't be any arguments from anybody - shopkeepers, environmental health, police or beggars.
- Official busker.

London Underground stations which allow busking are:

  • Bank
  • Bond Street
  • Canary Wharf
  • Charing Cross
  • Green Park
  • Leicester Square
  • London Bridge
  • Oxford Circus
  • Piccadilly Circus
  • South Kensington
  • Tottenham Court Road
  • Westminster

Nutcracker Busker

Not many people can say they saw a busking ballerina on the London Underground! Passengers at Leicester Square saw an excerpt of the Sugar Plum Fairy dance by ballerina Begona Cao of the English National Ballet, to advertise the group's return to the London Coliseum in September 2004.

Celebrating Buskers and Busking

On a recent visit to London I got off the Tube and walked through the tunnel at South Kensington towards the museums. A young man was playing Cavatina on his guitar - I actually thought I was hearing a recording of Hank Marvin until I saw the busker. It was hauntingly beautiful and an absolutely unforgettable experience.
- A British tourist
  • The Busker and the Devil's Only Daughter - A 1990 album by Brian McNeill.

  • On the Royal Mile at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, street performers can enter busking competitions.

  • Waterloo Busker Carnival.

  • The writers of the sitcom Friends paid their own tribute to buskers when they wrote a story about the character Phoebe busking outside Monica's new restaurant to attract customers. Unfortunately, her songwriting was so bad that she drove people away.

  • Music day at 'Buskingham' Palace took place in 2005, with two London buskers meeting The Queen.

  • A cross-section of people from the music industry were invited from buskers to chart-toppers because they all have a role to play in entertaining through music.
    - Buckingham Palace spokesman

The Law In The UK

Busking in itself is not illegal although many local authorities have passed by-laws prohibiting busking. If you want to busk it is worth contacting the local authority to see if any by-laws have been passed with regards to busking. Children under 14 years may not busk.

Be Careful Out There

Personal safety is paramount. Don't expose yourself to unnecessary risks and do plan an escape route in advance should danger threaten. You may be in possession of musical instruments worth hundreds or even thousands of pounds. Some low-life may feel you are worth robbing if you have your takings on display. Don't busk at night. Passers-by won't get their purses or wallets out at night for strangers, and may regard you as a potential mugger.

And Finally

Well-loved entertainer Rolf Harris admitted to the Queen that he busked for the rain-soaked waiting crowd on the day of her coronation.

I was sitting out in Hyde Park as a young 23-year-old waiting for the golden coach to come. I'd been there all night with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders in the drizzle, playing Waltzing Matilda on my piano accordion and singing to anybody who would listen...[..]...you lit the place up when you came round that corner.
1Donating to beggars is also illegal.2Busker Clare Mee claims that Gough earned so little because he didn't follow the golden rule and smarten himself up.3The band weren't buskers but the band's name comes from an insult thrown at Bradfield while he was busking in Cardiff.4They came second in The X-Factor 2004.

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