Busking. When it goes well, there aren’t many better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon. Glorious sunshine, coins raining down, punters singing along, eccentric millionaires scattering tenners, maybe even an A&R man waiting to sign you up when you finish your acoustic reworking of Happy.
But let’s get back to reality. When it goes badly, busking in modern Britain is no picnic, and can present some pretty serious challenges, from sunburn and on-the-spot fines to abuse and arrest. Here’s our twelve-step guide to get you out there and coining it in.
#1. Sort the paperwork
The UK’s minimum age for busking is 14, but every town has its own web of rules and byelaws. Sometimes, you can just pitch up and play, but often you’ll need a busking permit from the local borough council. The fee isn’t much (eg. £19 in Camden), but you might have to audition to prove you’re not planning to fart into a penny whistle. You may also need a licence from PRS (although most councils will already have one covering public spaces). Keep paperwork on display in your case, to avoid being challenged mid-Wonderwall.
#2. Choose your pitch wisely
Footfall is vital for healthy earnings, but there are other considerations too. Choosing a covered or shaded pitch will stop you getting soaked or sunburnt. You’ll want somewhere to keep your bag and equipment where it won’t get nicked. Be sure not to block pavements or access to shops (if you rile the local shopkeepers, they’ll make your life hell). Also, park yourself in a spot where people can see you as they approach, and have time to fish for shrapnel.
#3. But don’t hog the best spots
Etiquette varies from town-to-town, but as a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t spend over an hour at a pitch. It’s important to support your fellow buskers and scratch each other’s backs: another musician might request to take over your spot at an agreed time, or you could ask the bloke playing kazoo outside HMV when he’s knocking off. As the new kid, you’ll have to pay your dues, but don’t let the veterans intimidate you: no performer owns the street.
#4. Avoid the no-busk zones
Just because you’ve got a permit, that doesn’t give you the run of the town centre. Most indoor shopping arcades are off-limits to buskers, for example, and if you set up in front of a fire station, you’re asking for a clip around the ear. Ask the council for a map that shows the no-go zones, then steer clear of them, to avoid your day’s earnings being decimated by a fine.
#5. Don’t actively ask for money
Busking is defined as a performance of music, dance, street theatre or art in a public space. Everybody knows you’re after tips, but if you put up a cheerful cardboard sign actively asking for them, you might be deemed by the police to be begging and sent on your way. If you’re collecting for a legitimate charity, meanwhile, you’ll need to apply for a street collection permit.
#6. Spread yourself
You’re buskers, not sardines. Everybody loses out when too many musicians pack into the same postcode, with competing performances causing a hideous mash-up of your Bob Marley covers and the toots of the Peruvian pan-pipe troupe outside Primark. Keeping a distance of fifty metres between acts is generally considered acceptable – and some local councils actively enforce it.
#7. Don’t get on people’s nerves
If you’ve set up in front of a market or seating area, then cycling through the same three songs all day will make your captive audience want to defecate in your flight case. Learn a decent repertoire and don’t play it too loud (many councils state that a busker’s music shouldn’t be heard beyond a distance of fifty metres). Even if you have documentation, the police can move you on if they decide you’re causing a nuisance.
#8. Trade your wares
Busking is a solid-gold opportunity to get in front of people who wouldn’t have discovered you otherwise. If they enjoy your set, you might find them asking for lessons, song transcripts or bookings, so bring a stash of business cards with all your contact details. If you’re an independent artist, it’s also a great chance to flog CDs, but this is a little more thorny – technically, you need a street trading licence, and could be fined up to £1,000 without one.
#9. Pack a gigbag
As with any live gig, you’ll want to bring along spare strings, leads and plectrums in a sturdy backpack. But busking takes a little extra preparation. If you’re playing amplified, you’ll need a model that can run off batteries. Also remember that you could be stood out in the elements for hours – and you can’t desert your pitch and instruments – so pack a bottle of water, suncream and something to eat. Oh – and have a wee before you leave the house.
#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…