A new law passed towards the end of 2014, and it rather passed under the radar. It’s called the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act and it’s one of the most absurdly heavy-handed and authoritarian pieces of legislation passed in recent memory. It gives councils the power to create Public Space Protection Orders, which they can use to ban pretty much any activity in any area they deem necessary. Despite assurances when the bill was being passed that these powers would not be used to restrict the rights of buskers to entertain the general public, there are many councils who have done exactly this. There is currently a proposal that has been put forward by Birmingham City Council that would ban all amplification in Birmingham City Centre, thus making it virtually impossible for a guitar player such as me to make any money there whatsoever. The council had quite clearly arrived at a decision before the consultation process had run its course, making a complete mockery of the whole process.
Other councils across the country are doing exactly the same. Oxford, Camden and others have all been engaged in attempts to clamp down on busking despite the public being overwhelmingly in favour of having buskers on our high streets. I could get into all sorts of legal arguments about this, and did so when making my response to the consultation, but here I’m going to make my case from the heart rather than the head.
I recently got back from a trip to Canada and the United States, including San Francisco. While there, I bumped into a busker who was playing in one of the subway stations. I asked him if you need a permit for this, and he gave me a very odd look indeed.
‘Of course not!’ he replied with a laugh, and told me of all the best spots in the city to play at. When you think about it logically, why on earth should you need a permit for the act of playing a bit of music? It’s an absurd idea! It brightens people’s days; in New York an enthusiastic commuter handed me a dollar and encouraged me to:
‘Keep playing man! You make New York what it is!’
I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I had only been there for 4 days and would leave 4 days later. But he wasn’t talking about me – he was talking about street performance in general. Music adds vibrancy to a city. Of course, there is a wide range of ability when it comes to street musicians but this is fine too. A friend of mine told me of a busker and local legend in Liverpool who stands outside clubs in Liverpool at 3 in the morning ‘playing’ a cardboard cut-out guitar and singing Wonderwall out of tune. My friend once gave him a £20 note because he found him hilarious. Then there’s Cardiff’s Toy Mic Trev who, as his moniker suggests, sings into a toy microphone. He is apparently pretty famous in that part of the world.
Then there are the really high quality buskers. Many well-known musicians started out their careers playing on the streets including Billy Bragg, Ed Sheeran and Passenger. Had they been criminalised for this, who knows where they would have ended up without that vital financial support?
I’ve thought about regulating busking a lot, and I’ve come to the opinion that I am entirely against it, for the simple reason that I don’t trust councils to be reasonable and fair in their rules. They are passed by people who don’t understand that busking is not just a hobby; it is a profession and a way of life (they also tend to be the sort of people who don’t understand humour, and if they were to smile their faces would crack with the surprise of this as-yet-unknown facial movement. But now I’m getting personal and that’s not big or clever, no matter how justified). They are passed by people whose primary motive is short term profit, so if they receive one complaint from a nearby shop (it’s worth pointing out here that, in my experience, shops like having good buskers outside – it’s a minority who kick up a fuss) who pay them a lot of money to be there, who will they side with? In the long term, anti-busking legislation harms a city by sucking the creative life out of it. But all too often this isn’t factored into their decision-making and they will side with whoever has more power and money.
So the next time you see a busker who brings a smile to your face, for whatever reason, put a coin or two in their case (doesn’t have to be a coin of course. We like notes too). Support live music on our streets, or we risk losing it altogether.