I am sure we all know the term and what it refers to. So when we ask, “What is busking?” we probably assume we know all there is to know. But, you might be very surprised.
This is how most of us might see a busker today. But, aside from the visual aspects of what we see and hear, is there anything else to consider? Let’s look at a few important things about busking.[bl]
- It can be more than a bit of fun, and there could be money to be earned.
- You can use as much equipment as you choose.
- A way of letting people hear your music.
- Use it as a promotional exercise.
- Connect with people.
- Develop as a writer and performer.
- Build your confidence.
- It could lead to you being offered other work.
- Free publicity.
- A way of developing your social media network.
Those are just for starters. But let’s look back in time a bit and get a fuller answer to the question, “What is busking?“
The word “busker” is very much an English term used to describe a street performer. You will only occasionally find it used in America or Canada to describe street performers, but it is used a little more often in Europe.
Are Buskers Musicians?
We automatically make that assumption, but if we use the term “street performer,” then it isn’t only just music. It could be applied to anyone who “entertains” you in the street.
That could be just about anything. I have seen incredible ball juggling, miming, living statues, and puppeteering in Amsterdam. And I saw an amazing guy, a one-man band in New York, and a snake charmer in Morocco. You will see street art and caricature drawing as well. One of the funniest things I ever saw was a ventriloquist in Rotterdam, Holland.
But one of the greatest experiences in music I ever had was in Cologne, Germany. I sat down to have a coffee in the city, near the Cathedral, one sunny afternoon. A string quartet arrived from the local Music University and played Beethoven and Mozart for two hours.
It was simply captivating…
I didn’t move; it was just wonderful, even though I should have been somewhere else. It brought a whole new meaning to the expression “street entertainment.”
Each of the street entertainment classifications has its own set of rules, requirements, and options. However, I will concentrate here on just one – musicians.
Where Did This All Start?
The term busking originated in England in the 1860s, but the activity itself goes way back. It was evident in Roman times and used by traders to attract business and also to decry competitors. Fast forward to medieval times in the UK, and again traders would employ a professional singer, poet, or musician. They would do this in an attempt to draw a crowd and an interest in what they were selling.
Of course, poor people and even beggars with some ability saw a potential income in this. It became a popular thing in the town fairs and markets for the next few hundred years. It even probably gave birth to some famous songs that have been adapted for today, like “Scarborough Fair.”[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Jj4s9I-53g[/yt]
Busking, as an activity, hasn’t really changed in centuries. It is an important and valued part of life in many cities and countries.
Simple Or A Little More Complex
The most basic form of busking is only playing and singing in a public place. It can be just for fun, and it can be made as complex as you choose.
Some just turn up and get their guitar out of its case, and away they go. Others use the latest electronics for drums and other instruments to create a “bigger” sound. That is one of the great things about busking. You only need to bring the equipment you need. I mentioned earlier some considerations about busking. Let’s expand on that a little.
More Than Just A Bit Of Fun
It can be since there could be money to be made. There are street performers who do little else. That is their job. And, with a good “pitch” to set up and a decent performance, it can be very lucrative.
As Much Or As Little Equipment As You Choose
As I said earlier, you can just turn up with your guitar and play as this guy does. Or, you can really get into it like this busker in East London, playing some blues. Let’s go over to Brazil for this one and Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing” with everything going on.
You can see from these clips that you are only limited by your imagination. And, to a certain extent, what you can afford. You can get some good battery-powered amps these days if you need to project your sound. Of course, effects pedals are also usually battery driven, and a mic won’t be a problem.
If you are planning to perform in a large open space without some form of amplification, your sound might get lost in the general bustle. You will need to consider where you are going to perform and ensure your busking equipment is up to the challenge. Will you be on a tight budget? If it’s just you and a guitar and maybe a harmonica, choose a site where you don’t need to spend money on amplification.
Let The People Hear Your Music
If you are writing your own songs, busking is a good way to “test” them out on an audience. Observing people as you play might give you some ideas about what you are playing.
A Promotional Exercise
Again, if you are writing your own material, then you can use busking as a promotional exercise. One of the problems with performing your own material is that it has to have something to make the people want to listen.
Many musical street performers play well-known songs they know people will like. That is one way to get them to stop and listen and donate some money. However, that doesn’t apply if they are hearing one of your songs for the first time.
Assuming you can get them interested in your music…
A form of business card with a name, tel number, social media contacts, etc., will help. There are plenty of sites on the internet offering free templates for promotional flyers.
That would be a benefit, and you can make them look very attractive. Some performers may even create some basic CDs of their music. It’s easy to do at home these days. These they hand out for free to interested customers.
Connecting With People
Some people might call this networking. Essentially, the more people you can make actual contact with, the better. Even if it is only giving them contacts to listen to your music. It is also a way of developing your social media network, which, these days, can pay dividends.
Helping Your Development
Continually playing in front of an audience will only be good for you. If it is something you are uncomfortable with, then use performing in the street to try to overcome your fear. If you just can’t, all is not lost. You have learned something about yourself, and maybe you are better performing in a different musical environment where you are more comfortable.
But, if you can get comfortable, it will help you improve as both songwriter and performer. That, in turn, will build your confidence. You could find you might get invited to play at a party, wedding, or other function.
Getting public recognition can be an expensive activity. If you can get free publicity from busking, all the better. Some may not have liked your performance, and maybe they are telling other people. That is a good thing. They are talking about you.
Is Busking Legal?
In addition to the question, “What is busking?”, many people ask, “Is busking legal?” The answer will depend on where you live and where you are planning to perform.
Each country has its own rules and regulations on busking. Some countries, no names mentioned, are unlikely to welcome Western street performers. So, let’s look at a few of the more popular potential busking destinations.
Busking, or street performing, is legal in the UK, provided you are over 14 years old. So, if you are close to the age limits or just have a young face, make sure you carry some ID.
Local councils often have their own rules, and this will fluctuate by region. Always best to check first. In some cases, you may need a “Busking Licence,” but they aren’t difficult to get.
Some licenses are free; others have a small charge. Local council websites will contain all the information. Just enter the appropriate postcode. When you perform, make sure you display the license clearly to avoid any problems.
CDs and Merchandise?
You are allowed to accept donations from the public and onlookers. However, if you plan to sell something like a CD, then you will need a Street Trading Licence. Again, visit the local council’s website.
Where Do You Play?
There are plenty of great sites for busking in the UK. Busy shopping areas are good, and there are plenty to be found. Just recently, the practice of placing a piano in railway stations and other travel centers has become popular. These are often used for free by buskers and street performers.
Other Parts of Europe
There isn’t much better you can do with your time than busking around the great cities of Europe. Again, each country has its own rules, so do your homework.
The big cities – Brussels, Antwerp, Leuven, etc. – will require you to get a “busking permit.” That may also apply in some of the smaller towns. Each city also has further rules about times. For example, you are not allowed to busk or perform in Brussels on Saturday or Sunday.
A bit more complicated here. You will need a permit, and depending on where you plan to work, that can be quite expensive. In some cities, you will be given time slots, and you are only allowed to perform at those times.
Is a bit more easy-going regarding performances. Some of the larger cities require you to get a permit, but many smaller towns don’t. There are just some simple rules to abide by. Be aware, though, that in Switzerland, you aren’t allowed to use any form of amplification.
Far more relaxed here, and street music is accepted and enjoyed in most places. You may need to get a permit depending on what city you are in.
A bit more formal with the rules, you will need a permit to perform just about everywhere.
Once again, it depends on the region. Some areas, like the Amalfi Coast near Naples, have banned busking completely. Police patrol the areas, so don’t try to get away with it.
In Rome, you are going to need a permit. But, in many smaller towns, just respect for the locals will suffice. You will find the north of Italy a little bit more easy-going than the stricter south.
You will find it similar to the UK once you get started. However, in some parts, you will be very unwelcome, and there are anti-busking laws in place in certain states.
However, where busking is allowed in the US, you will just need to check if you need a permit. Not every town requires one. Should you be required to move on by the police, permit or not, it’s not a good idea to argue the point.
Some places will expect an audition before they grant a permit. In some cities, Chicago is one; you will need a permit for each performance, making life a little harder. In some places, Boston, for example, they run a criminal background check on you before issuing a permit. That takes time and money.
As in most places, each area and city has its own rules. But, generally, you will be welcome. Laws vary in each city, and in some smaller places, you will not need a permit. Although, you will be expected to respect the locals. Laws are enforced, so don’t try to perform without any necessary paperwork. They could confiscate your equipment.
It Will Be Worth It
Despite busking looking like a minefield of bureaucracy, most places will be welcoming and try to help. The benefits of busking will far outweigh the few aggravations you might face.
We have already covered the many benefits, and they can be significant. Buskers, or street performers, today are often very organized professional entertainers. To compete with them, you will have to be also.
Even though you might have to pay out a small sum for a permit, think of the publicity and connections you could realize. It’s a great way to practice your skills and test out a potential audience. It is also a great way to visit places you might never have gone to and earn some money while you are there.
There are a lot of well-known artists who were once street performers. Rod Stewart in London in the 60s was one, along with Long John Baldry. Tracy Chapman and even BB King, to name two more. And Leo Sayer released a song all about it, a Top 10 hit in 1974.
Thinking About Doing A Little Busking?
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What is Busking? – Final Thoughts
Do your homework first. If you are planning to busk and travel, do a bit of research first to make sure it all goes smoothly. Plan a route and check out the rules and, of course, accommodation. If you’re staying close to home, get yourself a good pitch away from anyone else. There’s only one last thing you need to do. Get on with it; it could be the time of your life.
Until next time, let your music play.