The war on busking has gone too far

Busking as bad as urinating in public? A town council's move to ban 'nuisance' street performers overlooks their value

The news that a town council is to designate busking a “public nuisance” comparable to riding an e-scooter on the pavement or urinating in public will be welcomed in some quarters. To many, buskers are a blight on the urban landscape.

Point out that, without busking, Ed Sheeran may never have conquered pop, and these detractors will nod along enthusiastically. Another good reason to give the tradition the heave-ho.

Yes, buskers can be irritating. There are only so many times you can hear a scruffy 16-year-old butcher “Mr Brightside” before concluding that something has to be done – as West Northamptonshire Council has proposed this week.

But let’s not forget the importance of street performance to the wider musical ecology – especially when grassroots music is in danger of becoming entirely virtual and where the only way of breaking out of your bedroom is by blowing up on TikTok.

Busking is the anti-TikTok, and for that, we should be grateful. For instance, while it’s popular to pan Ed Sheeran, he’s one of the most successful songwriters of his generation, and it was those formative years playing around Ipswich and in London that helped him hone his craft.

He isn’t alone. At university in Boston, Tracy Chapman would spend her spare time busking in Harvard Square. Sheryl Crow’s first experience of live performance was as a busker. And Dixie Chicks – today just The Chicks – started off busking around their native Dallas.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Tracy Chapman attends Cirque du Soleil "Kurios" - Opening Night - San Francisco, CA at AT&T Park on November 14, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Trisha Leeper/WireImage)
At university in Boston, Tracy Chapman would spend her spare time busking in Harvard Square (Photo: Trisha Leeper/WireImage)

It isn’t just folkies and country rockers. Eurovision glam-rockers Måneskin cut their teeth playing to tourists in their native Rome. The experience was crucial, according to guitarist Thomas Raggi. “You quickly learn you have just one shot to grab people’s attention,” he has said.

Rod Stewart would agree. As a starry-eyed young man, he cultivated his stage presence by playing harmonica for folk singer Wizz Jones. They performed around London, Brighton and Paris – and were even deported from Spain for vagrancy.

That’s an interesting footnote in the Rodfather’s CV. But today, busking offers a rare opportunity for musicians to play to a live crowd. There are fewer and fewer such avenues, with 127 small music venues estimated to have shuttered in the UK since the summer of 2022.

The notorious “toilet circuit” that once allowed up-and-coming acts to hone their live chops has gone down the bend – meaning that busking is increasingly the only alternative.

It’s also a reminder that music is more than just a virtual affair. Advances in technology mean young artists can launch their careers from their laptops – recording and producing their music and then posting it to social media and streaming platforms.

Close Up Of Female Musician Busking Playing Acoustic Guitar Outdoors In Street
Let’s not forget the importance of street performance to the wider musical ecology (Photo: Getty)

But busking is where many still turn to learn the nuts and bolts – and experience the unique feedback that is the reaction of a live audience. As Passenger’s Noah Rosenberg has said, “Busking is brilliant for clearing your head”.

That busking is still regarded as the ultimate proof of your rock’n’roll credentials is evident from the many established artists willing to take to the streets with a guitar. Jon Bon Jovi has busked the length and breadth of the UK.

Bono and Glen Hansard have a long-running tradition of busking on Dublin’s Grafton Street each Christmas. In 1984, Paul McCartney set up in Leicester Square and sang “Yesterday”, attracting barely a passing glance.

“No one wants to look a busker in the eye cos then they get his life story,” he said. “So they’d toss coins and I’d be going, ‘Yesterday, all my troubles – thank you sir – seemed so far away’… it was a great feeling, just me and the music.”

Would he be allowed to do so today? More and more councils are clamping down on unlicensed busking.

Earlier this year, Westminster Council said it had received 5,000 noise complaints between April 2021 and May 2023, many related to buskers.

And buskers in Covent Garden face ever tightening regulations that form part of a broader backlash by councils. And now Northampton is turning on them too.

Whip out his guitar in 2023, Macca might face a fine or worse – proof, surely, that the war on busking has gone too far.

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