I used to be slightly tentative about telling people that I busk for a living. There is a wide spectrum of reactions, ranging from, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’ to ‘Ah. So are you homeless then?’
The latter was the response I got while at a wedding and making small talk with a friend of the bride. As it was a wedding, I happened to be wearing a suit. A Marks and Spencer’s suit. And I was drinking champagne. I’ve probably never looked less homeless in my life. But then again, the man who asked me this question was a physics student at Oxford, so I’m assuming pretty much everyone looks homeless to him (who doesn’t love a bit of inverse snobbery?)
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard people equating busking with begging, and it’s one of my real bugbears. This issue even came to court in the 1980s, when Manchester council tried to prosecute a busker on a begging charge. The case was awarded to the busker. So there you have it: busking isn’t begging and that’s the LAW. The last time this happened to me was when I was getting held up attempting to go through Canadian customs last month; they were a tad nervous about the fact that I might play some music in the street during my 5 days there and explained that this was because it was ‘basically begging’. Much as I wanted to call him an arse and run through my reams of legal evidence to the contrary, I felt that given that this man had the power to put me back on a plane to England, it was probably best to let it slide.
I suppose it all boils down to people not viewing busking, or indeed playing music in general, as a job. Almost as bad as the references to begging are those who are well-intentioned but hopelessly ignorant.
‘Well, I hope you find a job one day.’
‘I hate to see people like you playing in the street.’
‘I’m sure things will all work out for you at some point.’
With these people, no amount of explaining that this is my choice of career and I wouldn’t change it for anything else will sate their desire to express pity at my ‘plight’. The problem here is that it’s much more difficult to argue with them because they genuinely believe they’re being nice.
The majority of buskers I know and come across make their living from music, or at the very least are keen and capable amateurs looking to make a bit of extra cash in their spare time. So please, even if you have wonderful intentions, don’t tell a busker that you feel sorry for them or imply that they must be struggling and unhappy with their lot.
The irony of all of this is that I am, at the moment, technically a little bit homeless. Not sleeping rough, thankfully, but I don’t have a permanent address, which really blows a hole in my entire argument. I’m enjoying the freedom that gives me though, and haven’t had to sleep outside yet aside from one night sleeping in a tent just outside Krakow in April while snow fell outside. The closest I came was a couple of days ago when my original plan was to leave Ghent on Saturday afternoon, but a music festival that had been organised to protest against draconian busking regulation kept me there for longer than I thought. I was a little concerned about not having anywhere to sleep that night, but someone I’d met earlier that week assured me that there would be lots of friendly people at the festival and one of them was bound to have a sofa available. This turned out to be absolutely true which was rather a stroke of luck.
I’ve now arrived in Antwerp and it’s pissing it down with rain. The hostel here is both friendly and indoors, which ticks two of the most important boxes. And I can’t wait to try out a bit of busking here tomorrow.