Whats Going Down?
I am a busker. I earn a living by playing music on the streets and I am proud to belong to an ancient and vital urban tradition. Musical exchange- live, free and in the heart of our cities- is a force for good. I have been told this with words, thank you notes, bags of sweets, energy balls, bananas, doughnuts, childrens toys, ear rings, bottles of beer, bags of weed, and Christian literature. I have witnessed countless examples of emotional outburst and empathetic exchange between complete strangers in cities across Europe. I’ve witnessed group hugs, dance offs, celebrity dogs and toddlers. I’ve seen crowds gather in their hundreds around communities of artists bound together with great solidarity.
But street performance is under threat. The forces that threaten it endanger not just the cultural health of cities, but their social, emotional and even political health. This is a story of policing, subversion and organised resistance. It will reflect on relevant theory as it charts my journey through the European cities in an attempt to understand their space, their culture and who controls what.
One August afternoon in Maastricht, something happened to me that made me realise I was involved in something that went far beyond just music. It is 5pm. The upwardly mobile, slightly elderly population of this small Dutch city are rushing to finish their shopping. Husbands tut at their watches on the steps of department stores. Children whinge and tug on the arms of stressed mothers. Everyone is alone, lost in their lists of
things to buy. Outside a closed down shop I plant my stuff down, plug in my loop pedal and start to lay down a track. Guitar, beatbox, vocals. We
are away. A crowd begins to gather. A nearby teenager starts to breakdance in an attempt to impress a girl. He’s got some moves. Then a kid half his age rocks up from the other side of the street and takes the floor. He’s got some serious moves. As the dance-off escalates, a crowd of almost one hundred have assembled and I’m only two minutes into the song. They are all clapping along and cheering the young dancers who are now minor celebrities in their town – a status that seemed to come out of nowhere.
That evening I pushed my trolley back from the streets, glowing with that familiar feeling that comes from the collision of energy and positivity that spirals around street music. It was clear that it wasn’t just about me and my sounds. Time and again I was witnessing how busking repurposes sections of city centres. They transform zones consisting purely of commerce and retail, into ones filled with person-centric interactions. The exchanges are spontaneously subversively, wild, jubilant and joyful. They face not towards the shop windows, but back into the centre – back in to the public inside the public space. Is it any wonder the police are clamping down? Buskers redirect the flow of attention and financial resources away from window displays, the air conditioned shopping centres, the alluring carbohydrate waft of fast food restaurants, and the creeping territories of café tables.
Why You Should Never Play in a Shopping Centre
Indoor shopping centres are privately policed mini town centres. In these synthetic retail paradises there is no homelessness, no mental health issues, no demonstrations or leafleting, no charity begging, no loitering and no busking. It is standard in the design of retail parks to channel the flow of people as quickly as possible through the entire circuit of the space. They are built to discourage human congregation, relaxation, recreation and self-expression.
Buskers, like professional charity fundraiser, are experts in public space and how human energy flows through it. The difference of a metre to
one side or the other can make the difference between a wasted hour and a hat full of money. Certain walkways provide bottlenecks where people can be hooked in, other provide what fishermen (and fisherwomen) call eddies – spaces away from the main current where numbers collect to rest or feed. But surely this is as manipulative as any other enterprise collecting cash from shoppers? In some ways yes; but, as I will explain later, there are important differences.
A friend and I were once passed a paid gig to play inside a cake shop. When we got there, to our dismay, we realised that it was a chain company inside a shopping centre. The shop was lifeless, stale and half -empty. After an hour of playing to ourselves in the shop, and eating our way through more than our fee in cake (given freely by the bored and indifferent staff), we decided to play outside the shop window by the escalator. We were in good spirits, banging out improvised tunes about cake with a guitar and a trumpet. Anywhere else this would have gathered a crowd, but not there. There was something about us that was unattractively out of place in that polished air conditioned concourse. Granted I was wearing a multi-coloured tutu. But it felt wrong playing somewhere so inorganic. Maybe it was the taste of the shoppers. Maybe it was their ‘demographic’ (sorry). Maybe it was the lay out of the space. Maybe we were just a bit shit. Either way, I am no longer available for corporate bookings.
Busking and forcing the peasants off their land
Outside the shopping centre, the disapproving facades of some of the most powerful institutions in the country (the chain stores that have now monopolised every town in the continent) look down on the buskers. The performers often look scruffy and are employed by no-one but themselves. Increasingly, authorities see them as having no place in the computer generated models presented to them by private developers. Why should their sonic trespass be allowed on the streets?
Difficult to tax, monitor or coopt, busking as we know it is now under grave threat of extinction. Across Europe, busking faces an increasingly sophisticated security apparatus designed to clear city centres of immigrants, political dissent and the growing unemployed. Just like unpermissioned street demonstrations, artisan street vendors, black market traders, squatters, fly posters, ‘loitering’ youths and even street homeless people; buskers could soon be swept from our town centres like autumn leaves.
The privatisation and securitisation of public space by corporate interests has its roots in the first wave of enclosures of 15th,- 18th centuries,
when a nascent and growing puritan work ethic scrubbed carnivals, processions, fayres and festivities from the calendar and from the street. Peasants were forced off their land which was sold on to more ‘productive’ farming. Left with no choice they migrated to the slums to work as wage slaves in factories. Those not conforming to a growing ideology of profit – which seized space and time for maximum productivity – were shipped to the New World. Troubadours, travelling circuses, puppeteers and party people; just like travellers, subversives and those economically less productive, would not be tolerated.
Street entertainment belongs to a long carnival tradition of folk lore and festivity. Why is carnivaling the streets important? Jeff Ferrell links it to the political health of public space:
Carnival celebrates old temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and the established order; it makes the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privilege, norms and prohibitions. (Ferrell, 2001, p137)
Today the monied takeover of space is ever more far reaching, as this quote from the Chicago protest art group DSLR (The Department for Space and Land Reclamation) states:
Global capital has reached such a point that both physical and intellectual landscape have been completely purchased. To exist today means to tread on the property of others. The city has increasingly become a space completely built around consumerism. The freedom of expression has come to mean the freedom to advertise. Like a minefield of manipulative codes, urban space has been designed to manoeuvre us from one point of sale to the next. (McPhee 2007)
The Daily Bread
As any performer will tell you, venue hire is soaring and less people are attending live entertainment (preferring instead to consume it digitally). At some point in the lives of millions of artists, busking provides a financially unmediated opportunity to earn a living.
But it is not just about necessity. Many buskers I know regularly turn down paid gigs in favour of playing on the streets. It is organic,
unpredictable, challenging and rewarding. There is something artificial about an audience that doesn’t contain children and dogs, and cannot just wander off when they get bored. In venues, people are more likely to all be the same age, class and sensibility. On the streets anything and anyone can happen. In Berlin it is not uncommon to find large audiences of late night revellers stumbling into illegal U Bahn parties that go on till the early hours of the morning.
Busking for a living is not a dos job, neither is it scrounging or freeloading. It is physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally exhausting. Money is unpredictable and unreliable and the working environment can be hostile. The attention you draw can make you a target for the unstable and aggressive. It is not uncommon to get threatened by unwell members of the public or to have money stolen. Twice this summer I have been yelled at for no reason mid song, one of them kicking over my amp (I wasn’t even singing Celine Dion!)
As well as bringing joy, busking brings down unemployment. What’s more, it is one of the few jobs left that Karl Marx would describe as ‘unalienated labour’. By being free of an employer, the busker has creative control over his or her work and so is not alienated from it. How dare they!? Send them to the Job Agency to get warehouse work. What, there’s no work there? Then send them to the Job Centre. No work there either? Then put them on a compulsory 6 month workfare placement and force them to stack shelves in Tesco for free. Scum.
From the information I can obtain, in Holland and Germany (and possibly other countries too) it is officially illegal to use amplification anywhere. There are a host of different licences that entitle you to collect money, put down a sign and perform. Sometimes you need three
different licences at once to be legal. Each one can cost up to 150 Euros. Break the rules and the authorities can confiscate your equipment, leaving you without a livelihood. Getting it back takes many weeks, legal proceedings and accompanying costs. Aside from the cost, it is complicated and bureaucratic to get the licences. No two officers on the street will have the same information. If you are street homeless forget it. In many British cities, new licences, costs, fines, rules and even auditions are being placed on street entertainers. Busking in the London Underground is strictly policed. When I researched it I was told there was a 1 year wait to get sent an application. If you do not respond to that email within ten days you lose your chance to go one the waiting list which is another 1 year long! We should not take street music for granted. In much of the world and the United States it is either not allowed or the culture has died out. It is something that makes Europe a pleasant place to live and visit and it could die out in a climate of security crackdowns and privatisations. The result would be street art appearing only on temporary stages – programmed, licensed and financed like a ‘winter wonderland’ market – all profits going in one direction.
Eight Reasons to Leave Buskers Alone:
1. Freedom of expression is an unalienable human right enshrined in Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
2. Busking brings down unemployment. It is a lifeline for often vulnerable and marginalised people to provide for themselves and their families.
3. Police can and do use new powers to arbitrarily supress buskers they deem to appear undesirable. This accelerates gentrification and leads to intolerant and socially cleansed cities.
4. Busking contributes to the emotional health of the streets.
5. Busking adds ‘cultural capital’ to a city by making it vibrant, diverse and attractive to visitors.
6. New licences put a price on taking part in the cultural conversation of the street.
7. Localised problems of excessive noise are best dealt with by talking. Blanket bans and rulings trample over a spectrum of evolving variables particular to that place and the time of day.
8. Penalising buskers will not stop an overcrowding of buskers. Busker will stop an overcrowding of buskers. It is financially pointless setting up too close to another busker. It is also a breach of common courtesy.
The clampdown on busking is a symptom of gentrification that must not be tolerated. In Berlin, many young African immigrants (who don’t
enjoy papers to make them ‘legal’) make ends meet by selling weed to wealthy white drug users outside train station until 5 or 6am. Some take a djembe drum to the park and sing. Both are vulnerable to Police swoops. The continent-wide movement against gentrification – its predatory real estate practices and it political policing – is articulated on this sign I found on the side of a social entre of Amsterdam:
Tourists: Go home and tell your accomplices to boycott the Dutch state. Your money is pushing out alternative cultures and undesirables. Social conflict still exists – deportations, mass arrest and asylum prisons.
Street musician Jeff Ferrell argues that such acts of ‘sonic graffiti’ can subvert the ‘enforced sameness’ of cities:
‘Years of busking have taught me that the power of live street music in reshaping the meaning and experience of public space. Effective street musicians change the flow and feel of the areas they often illegally occupy, setting little sonic traps… As the cash accumulates and the interactions multiply, the music itself serves to organise impromptu audiences, to spark collective dances and sing alongs, and, on good days, to transform the functionality of the street into the informal excitement of the festival.’ (Ferrell p150)
Most buskers are probably more concerned with earning money than ‘reshaping the meaning and experience of public space’. But their cultural production does stand against the cleansing of towns and cities to plastic sterility, museum parks for tourism but not for living. What is at stake is the ability for human wildlife to shape the character of city space from the bottom up. Jay Griffiths, in her trip into the Amazon, reflects on the replacement of wildness with wasteland. What she finds is ‘a terrible truth for the soul of modernity’, ‘a radical hollowness…an empty gauntness… a savage nothingness that blankly taunts you with your own reflection’.
What does our urban environment reflect about us? Is it destined to be peopled with cosmetically powdered, pastel-coloured imitations of billboard models? Will it waste into a dull lifeless theme parks for chain stores, punctuated by Costa, Subway and department stores – each town a clone of the next? Will we only be able to sit down if we are customers, only speak our minds with permission to demonstrate, only sing with a licence? Are we prepared to live in a land of swelling private developments and accompanying security apparatus that begins to look suspiciously like paramilitary militias?
Not necessarily. In Germany I spoke to one of the designers involved in the redesign of the prestigious Alexanderplatz. Among the various stakeholders invited to the consultations were buskers. This shows a commitment to the social architecture of the site beyond the more vocal and wealthy interests vying to remodel the area to their vision.
To the North of the city is Mauerpark – a large park where the Berlin Wall once stood. On Sunday it hosts a flea market, a giant 3000 capacity karaoke auditorium, and countless buskers. Visitors walk from busking pitch to busking pitch often surrounded by hundreds of people, sat on the
grass drinking beer, festival style. Several visitors have asked me who organises it. Who decides who plays where and when? Surely some authority orchestrates this massive public event of thousands of people? The reality is that it runs just like all the best things do – from the bottom up. There are no officers or authority figures, just people talking to each other. Remember that? The street art that takes place there every Sunday is one of Berlin’s largest tourist attractions and 95% of it is totally illegal. Occasionally the authorities come to close down the buskers. I am told that when this happens, a community group called ‘Friends of Mauer Park’ phone up the police chief and complain. The authorities are then not seen for months. This is an example of the power of sheer numbers, plus the solidarity of organised resistance to saving buskers’ necks. It should and can be replicated everywhere.
Berlin Street Musicians is one of many groups that keep the beat going. They promote and advocate for buskers, aiming to bring together ‘musicians, public, authority figures, policy makers, advocates, businesses, lobby groups, and everyone else involved in creating a thriving, culturally rich, and economically sustainable street art scene.’
Buskers are energy transformers. In this atomised, materialistic society, they engineer spontaneous collective empathy exactly where it is needed– in shopping districts and public spaces. All buskers should recognise the political and spiritual implications of their profession. They need everyone’s solidarity to help protect it. We cannot lose another centimetre of the negative space cowering beneath the growing corporate
edifices now swallowing our cityscapes. Gentrification and police crackdowns are not inevitable. Public space is everywhere and is constantly being contested. Powers, demarcations of space, authorities and regulations are forever in flux and can be influenced from below as well as above. This is not just about the survival of busking but the cultural health of our towns and cities – our freedom to express ourselves in diverse, public and spontaneous ways. Let’s make a song and dance about our freedom to make a song and dance. Everyone to the streets.
Busking Organisations, Blogs and Resources
Ferrel, J. (2001) ‘Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy’ (Palgrave St Martins)
McPhee, J. & Reuland, E. (ed) (2007) ‘Realising the Impossible: Art Against the Impossible’ (AK Press)
Griffiths, J. (2007) ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’ (Penguin Books)
Rees, J. German, L (2012) ‘A Peoples History of London’ (Verso Books)
Linebaugh, P, Rediker, M. (2012)’The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic’ (Verso Books)