FEATURE: Busking and the Road to Success: Change Is Gonna Come?



Busking and the Road to Success: 


Change Is Gonna Come?


IF you’ll forgive the pen-laden cringe of the title’s sensibilities…

I wanted to address a side of the music industry that has caught my mind recently. Living where I do; unfortunately, one does come across buskers whose quality and worth are not exactly sky-high. Sure, there are some occasional standouts but, by and large, when I am situated, in busking terms, seems to be stuck in the 1940s. Maybe it is a reaction to the coolness/demographics of the area or a real lack of any ambition – getting people smiling rather than offering any depth, quality or credibility. If you are performing on the street to raise fun, that is okay, but I find myself travelling to the city in order to discoverer the decent and worthy buskers. There is a codified legislation – sternly known as Buskers’ Code – that details the rules and regulations all buskers must adhere to:

Where to busk

·         Busking is legal on public land and there are lots of great places to busk in London.

·         All pitches operate differently. Chat to local buskers to get the lowdown.

·         If you trying out a new area, talk to local busker, businesses and traders. You are less likely to get a complaint.

·         Let people get past. There should be space to push a piano past you and your audience - even at busy times.

·         If your audience blocks a doorway, market stall, pavement, ATM or loo, please stop and clear the blockage! You may want to try a bigger pitch or adapt your act for a smaller audience.

·         If there isn’t a suitable space, wait for one to become free. Ask other buskers if there's a queue you can join.

·         If a performer is waiting for your pitch please share it. On really popular pitches this could mean sharing after one hour or less.

·         Avoid sound clash! Acts involving sound should have lots of space between them.

IN THIS PHOTO: Mercy Grace (one of the competitors at this year's GIGS: Big Busk)

Your Performance

·         Your performance will have an impact on people nearby. Please be aware of this and be willing to move or adjust your performance if necessary.

·         Please don’t cause offence or humiliation.


·         The biggest cause of complaints is sound. Sound can travel a long way and go high into the air. Many busking locations are surrounded by flats, shops, offices or hotels. Because the people inside can’t walk away, please make sure your volume doesn't bother them.

·         As a rule - keep your volume just above the level of background street noise and check that it is not distorted.

·         Please don’t repeat music in the same location. Acts with varied content are much more popular.

·         Some sounds have a big impact on people. If your act has loud, bass heavy or percussive sounds, please monitor your volume regularly, vary your music and limit your time at each location.

·         Keep backing tracks unobtrusive and turn them off when you’re not performing.


·         Make sure no-one could trip over your equipment.

·         Never leave equipment unattended.

·         Keep it safe! Check out our guidance page if your act involves anything risky (e.g. fire, knives, high wire, unicycle, diabolo, juggling).

·         Please don't cover your face (e.g. by wearing a mask) as this puts people off talking to you if there is a problem.

If you use fixtures such as furniture, lamp-posts or railings, or you draw on the ground, please get permission beforehand and make sure nothing gets damaged.

·         Please keep the pitch clean and tidy-up afterwards.

Collecting Money

·         Performers can accept donations but the public must never feel obliged to pay.

·         You can give away CDs or other items, but you cannot charge a fee for them. To sell items for a fee you need a street trading licence.

·         If you are collecting for charity you'll need a permit.

Resolving Problems

Talking with the performer is the starting point for solving all busking related problems. Unless there is an imminent risk to the performer or others, they should be given the chance to change their performance so that it follows the Buskers' Code.

Enforcement action should only be taken once the following three steps have been taken:

·         STEP 1 - Don't wait until you're irate! If a performer or group is causing a problem it can usually be resolved quickly and amicably by talking. Where possible, wait for a suitable break before talking to the performer(s). Introduce yourself and explain the impact that their performance is having on you. Ask the performer if they know about the Buskers' Code and refer them to Busk in London website.

·         STEP 2 - If you have spoken to the performer(s) and the problem continues, please contact you local authority. This might be via an on-street warden/officer or by calling council hotline. They will decided what steps to take, which may be enforcement.

The Law and Enforcement

Is busking legal?

Yes - busking on public land is legal in most places. However there are some exceptions:

·         The London Borough of Camden has introduced a bylaw that requires acts with music or amplification to have a busking licence. If you perform without one you could be arrested and have your equipment seized.

·         Uxbridge Town Centre in the London Borough of Hillingdon has introduced a bylaw that requires all acts using the four town centre pitches to have a busking licence. If you perform without one you could be arrested and have your equipment seized.

·         The financial district of the City of London (known as the Square Mile) allows performers but does not allow money to be collected in public places.

·         Some parks and squares have bylaws that don't allow busking.

·         Private land owners may have their own policy on busking and you may require permission from the landowner. It is often hard to tell private from public land, so please check with a local warden or business or contact Busk in London if you are unsure.

·         Private busking schemes that have entry requirements, such as auditions, permits or licences, include: the London Underground Busking Scheme; some pitches at Covent Garden; and the Southbank Centre Busking Scheme (between the London Eye and Hungerford Bridge).


Anti-social behaviour

·         If your behaviour is unreasonable and you are having a persistent, detrimental effect on the quality of life of people in the area, you will receive a verbal warning.

·         If you carry on, you could be issued with a formal warning letter, followed by a Community Protection Notice under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (2014).

·         If you breach the notice, you could be fined or have your equipment seized.

That is, actually, a simplified truncation of the full ins-and-outs. If one wants to play their music on the streets of London; it is not quite as romantic and easy as the likes of Jerry Rafferty and Ralph McTell romanticise – the ease one can work their craft and discover some great music. The reason I raise this article is the discrepancies between town and city; why people busk and whether it can open doors – or if it is a way for musicians to cut their teeth and get first-hand feedback. One of the incongruous aspects of my local busking scene is how unregulated it seems to be. Anyone can busk which creates a couple of issues: the high streets can, especially at the weekend, be awash with ill-fitting sounds that cause some hostile reactions. One might move down one section and hear Hokum bands covering relatively modern songs with all the cheesy charm and jug-blowing coolness one might expect from counties away from London. A few metres down the street and there will be a wannabe X Factor warbler or droning, sonorous Folk singer – mangling some classics and draining the emotion from them.

One is ‘treated to’/threatened with’ so many different performers in the space of a few seconds. Other than the fact the quality is seriously questionable – so many musicians covering songs badly is not going to get me heading for the wallet – it makes me wonder the reasons behind this. Unregulated performances give freedom for artists to ply their trade on the street but does it create a culture of over-saturation? I walk down some streets and find myself inundated with crooning, strumming and sounds of various offensiveness. Even if one discovers a gem down a side-street; that is often washed away by a caterwauling singer a few yards down the road. London’s rigid and rigorous book of rules ensures their buskers are selected in terms of quality and potential.

IN THIS PHOTO: The cast of Once; busking at Leicester Square Tube/PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Crockett

I remember a few friends of mine auditioning for Busk London and trying to secure a spot on the London Underground. It is a competitive and much-contested process that sees musicians battle for converted spots in some of the capital’s prime locations. I will come to look at the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of busking but, considering London, I want to introduce a piece from TimeOut London written a few years ago:

Actually, it’s pretty hard to compete as a busker in general. The tube is out of bounds for newbies. There are currently 280 licensed buskers on the Underground in a TfL-run scheme. It’s proved so popular since its inception in 2003 that it now attracts 4,000 applications when auditions for new licences are held every two years.

Above ground, the outlook isn’t much sunnier. We’ve got away with playing music freely in Trafalgar Square without being moved on by the authorities. But we’ve been lucky. ‘There are times when the police come round Trafalgar Square and tell everyone to stop without any reason,’ says Olly Corpe, one of The King’s Parade, the quartet arrested in Leicester Square. ‘It’s really strange. It depends on the day, it depends on the officers on duty. Sometimes there’s complete hostility towards you.’

Part of the problem is the lack of a citywide consensus on how authorities and the police should treat buskers. For example, The King’s Parade were carted away under the Metropolitan Police Act, an obscure piece of legislation from 1839. They weren’t formally charged according to Corpe: ‘When we got to the police station the officer in charge didn’t even know what the Metropolitan Police Act was.’ Still, it was later defended by the Met in a statement to press. The reason? ‘There is strong evidence that this type of street performing attracts thieves.’


To remove this confusion, the Mayor’s Office is running a #BackBusking campaign to establish a universal code of conduct. It should allow non-nuisance, unlicensed buskers to perform without recrimination. It’s tricky, though. When we asked Camden Council to explain their clampdown on unlicensed acts they said it was ‘light touch regulation’ due to ‘a rising number of complaints from residents […] particularly where amplified and percussion instruments are used’. The number of complaints? One hundred. In a year. If the councillors felt this sufficient to act against spontaneous street performance it seems unlikely they’ll get on board with a mayoral campaign which asks councils to ‘make sure [that] genuine buskers outside designated schemes don’t get moved on.’

‘It’d just be nice to change the image of a busker to someone that adds to the character of the city rather than being a nuisance,’ says Charlotte as we return to the South Bank, this time setting up at an unlicensed area by Gabriel’s Wharf. Apparently, the public agree. As Charlotte begins to coat chart hits with her honeyed voice, nearby office workers eating sandwiches on benches flash megawatt smiles at us.

IN THIS PHOTO: Ina Reni (an artist, whom I have interviewed, who has taken part in London's biggest busking competition)

Fifty daytripping kiddiwinks in luminous jackets are dragged over by an excited teacher. They clap along until Charlotte finishes singing and then run at her, wrapping their arms around her waist, squeaking ‘Another! Another!’ Pocket money fills the guitar case (we later find that we’ve made £45.26 in two hours) and the youngsters sit in a big crosslegged huddle in front of us, gazing up in adoration”.

It is that ‘public appreciation’ that seems to get to me. Not only does London prove to be a perfect place for busker hostility – people taking ‘offense’ at the music being played – but deters artists who want to bring the streets alive – and make some money for themselves. What troubles me is the fact some of these artists are genuinely trying to make a career and path for themselves. Even if they are there to provide happiness and music: should they be protected and safeguarded more than they are? The article above – I urge you to read it in full – is supported by testimony from many buskers in London. A recent piece in Metro added another dynamic to the argument:

Buskers and street performers could be forced to buy a licence in order to legally perform in one London borough.

Councillors representing Kensington and Chelsea will discuss a proposed clampdown on buskers, mime artists and ‘living statues’ that would involve street performers needing a licence.

The plans state a new policy would ‘help eliminate people who are not providing a genuine performance’, the Evening Standard reported.

IN THIS PHOTO: Boris Johnson (Mayor of London at the time) and Newton Faulkner

It is not known how expensive the licence would be, but nearby Camden charges £17 a year, or £47 if they use amplifiers, drums or bagpipes.

In a report, councillor Tim Ahern said the proposal would reduce ‘nuisance and inconvenience to residents and businesses’.

He said: ‘It has proved difficult for enforcement officers to attribute anti-social behaviour to an individual busker. Officers would now like to license busking across the whole borough, initially for a trial period of 12 months.

‘The proposal is that all categories of busking performance, including those that are considered low impact, such as mime and living statues, will require a busking licence.

IN THIS PHOTO: Luca (a former winner of a London busking comepetition)

The borough would make about 100 permits available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Kensington and Chelsea is the first council in Britain to propose a ban on unlicensed street performers”.

This seems like a super-harsh taxation on people who are trying to create something pure – not bilk and swindle credulous tourists. I walk through London a lot and, away from the Tube stations, one does not encounter many musicians on the bigger streets. It used to be the case I would discover a lot of musicians performing through Oxford Street and Piccadilly. One finds more homeless than musicians these days: should we reverse a policy that seems to strangle a sense of artistic freedom?! It is a complicated brew but one we need to decode, review and amend. One can apply to busk on the Underground because, in my mind, we need to encourage and nurture those who risk performing to the bustling, unpredictable commuters of London. I am not down on London but feel cities like Manchester and Glasgow afford their buskers greater humanity and financial remuneration. I will, when passing through the London Underground, dip into my pocket when I hear a great musician play – it makes commuting more pleasant and appealing.

There are negatives when it comes to city busking. Recently, when travelling on the Jubilee Line; a trio of accordion-playing buskers leapt onto a Tube and ‘serenaded’ the patrons to a very loud and confined ditty. The pressure to compensate them – one could not easily look away or get private – was a pressure I surrendered to. There are rogue and rebellious artists that do offer sonic force and pressure. There is a minor element many associate with ‘London busking’. That is not the majority and is an unfair representation of what one can expect from the city. You can say the same of any major city where a variety of artists want to play. I am soured and off-put by the musicians one gets in smaller towns and local environs – often anyone can rock up and you might find, say, one half-decent busker in ten. To perform in the city; there are more stipulations and obstacles one has to navigate – to ensure there is an emphasis on quality and promise.

IN THIS PHOTO: Maeve Fitzpatrick (a contestant at this year's GIGS: Big Busk)

There are a few points from Roland’s guide to busking that offers tips to any wannabe busker:

#10. Loosen their wallets
Most buskers ‘salt’ their cases before starting the set, slipping in a handful of their own money so punters recognise that tipping is welcome and know where to throw coins. As the set progresses, you want enough coins in the case to imply that you’re popular, but not so many that people conclude you don’t need more. Every few songs, take out some of the accumulated coins to stop a passing toerag stealing the loot. And that leads us onto…

#11. Grin and bear it
You’ll get drunks, nutters, thieves, pensioners informing you that you suck and hoodies gobbing in your case. Take it all on the chin. If you get heckled, laugh it off. If you get robbed, don’t chase them. Dealing with borderline psychopaths is an invaluable lesson for anyone hoping for a career in music.

#12. Use it as an apprenticeship
Busking can teach you everything you need to know about live performance. Spend a few weeks out there and you’ll work out what engages people and what leaves them cold, which songs spark a singalong and which ones get you punched. Learn your trade on the streets and who knows: maybe you’ll follow in the footsteps of ex-buskers like Ed Sheeran and Rodrigo Y Gabriela, and use the experience as a springboard to a gold-plated career. Today, the doorway of a defunct Woolworths. Tomorrow, the world…”

IN THIS PHOTODonna - Lois Andrea Music (a contestant at this year's GIGS: Big Busk)

We have all heard the story of famous musicians starting their lives as buskers. Ed Sheeran is a modern example of someone with those humble roots – transitioning, over the years, to the mainstream. That success did not occur overnight but, seeing him rise to prominence, gives heart and hope to buskers who, on an average day might seem deflated and lacklustre. Of course, one cannot say whether busking was instrumental in Sheeran’s success – and whether he was ‘spotted’ and discovered. There are few that have managed to rise from the streets to the mainstream but it is not impossible. Most musicians, when they busk, do not yearn for instant stardom: the fact they are able to get their music out there is the most important thing. I have reviewed and interviewed many musicians who busk; for different reasons. Some do it to showcase their music and get the first-hand reaction. It can be a terrific forum to see how songs are perceived by the British public. If one can navigate the ignorance and attitudes of the average citizen; you do get a core that recognises the hard craft and talent of musicians trying to make other’s lives better. Many busk to earn extra money or provide an outlet for amateur designs – not necessarily parlaying into a career in music or play at a professional level. Whatever the scale of ambition – and magnitude of their performance – we must provide better reception to buskers; those doing it legitimately and imbued with actual talent. There are many, as I have explained, who pollute the streets and crowd the eardrums – so many streets laden with similar-sounding buskers; none of whom warrant a pitch or any second thought. Bigger cities have greater quality control but, with such stringent guidelines being introduced, many are forced to pay to set up a pitch – often not able to turn any sort of profit over the course of a week.

We need protectionism and stricter codes in the RIGHT direction. Of course, nobody wants to see a cavalcade of semi-talented buskers singing at them but, at the same time, we do not want to purge the streets of genuine musicians who have something to say. I go to London and discover a range of wonderful sounds and artists. From the edgy and cramped conditions of the Underground to the open and swaying Oxford Street – it can be a great way of enlivening and enhancing a city. I fear, with venues under threat, many musicians will have to busk in order to get their music heard and honed. The danger of verbal and physical abuse; the criticism, banning and costs: all of this is muddying and diluting a culture that needs to survive and grow. I can understand the need to limit buskers in towns and smaller areas. Those who do not have a license should be punished by those who have the right to perform should not have to face taxation, repression and curfew.

IN THIS PHOTO: Ed Sheeran (busking in Brighton in 2010)

Music is an industry that should welcome people in and promote growth and expression. We cannot see our live venues close and struggle and push people off the streets. Maybe busking is not an easy way to success – it is part of a gruelling series of steps – but it needs to be protected and strengthened. I am split when it comes to town vs. city but, in terms of those instilled with promise and talent – they should not feel fearful and unable to follow a busking path. It is not a big ‘industry’ but, from the street-level player and artists looking for larger success, it is absolutely crucial. Whether we see buskers on the streets, cities or trains; I feel we all…

SHOULD be a lot more hospitable.