Lockdown. Week Seven. Still not busking.
The last time I took more than a week off work was, to the best of my recollection, about six years ago. I now haven’t worked since the 17th March, a St Patrick’s Day gig that I knew would probably be my last for a long time. As is customary at my gigs, crowds were not a problem. Ever seen that episode in the final series of Game of Thrones, where all the remaining characters are preparing for war in their own ways? A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. It was like that, but set in a village just outside Wolverhampton and without absurdly overcritical Reddit users.
It is a strange thing when you find yourself unemployed overnight. And before I go any further, it’s probably worth pointing out that I know that a great many people have it a lot tougher than I do, but there is little to be gained in any of us refraining from acknowledging that it’s all shit just because it’s more shit for other people (or just a different variety of shit). Everyone’s been hit in different and unexpected ways, whether that be financial, social or psychological, and that doesn’t negate or minimise anyone else’s problems.
The first week was difficult. I’d convinced myself that this would be the end of busking as we know it – that, even after lockdown ended, people would no longer use cash and therefore my profession was essentially doomed. I broke down in tears more than once for no obvious reason.
In lieu of any genuine work (and in the face of rejection from countless temporary warehouse/supermarket/porter jobs), I have been assigning myself projects that, for the meantime, I refer to as my ‘work’. Recording an audiobook for Busking Beyond Borders was one such project – that’s now finished and as long as it is deemed to be of an acceptable audio quality by faceless Amazonian technological chiefs, it will be available soon. Learning Italian from a podcast is another. In times that we are constantly reminded are ‘unprecedented’, referring to such projects as my ‘work’ has helped me to claw back a bit of structure and a bit of purpose.
As time has gone on, I’ve come to realise that, while this crisis will probably hasten the phasing out of cash from society, it will not be as immediate as I’d feared. I’ve long known that this is an eventual inevitability, but if the change is gradual then buskers will be able to adapt. If it is sudden, then we will not. Yes, we can use card readers, but this is about behavioural changes – many who are happy to root around for some loose change to give to a busker they like will not, at the moment, be similarly moved to tap a card.
Another fear is that those councils who have long been attempting to find ways of restricting busking now have a new route to do so. The measures put in place during Covid-19 must be time-limited and thrown out in their entirety once a vaccine is created and it is considered safe to congregate in large groups again. In any other time, they would be considered authoritarian to the point of extreme fascism. Some of them are sadly necessary for a brief time, but news that the government is considering things such as facial recognition-based ‘immunity passports’ should concern us all. My fear is that, if this technology is introduced, some elements of this new scheme are retained for ‘security’ reasons even after the crisis is over. I have regular interactions and arguments with police officers in my line of work – at present, I can always refuse to give my details to them. But what if the Covid-19 demand that everyone carries ID with them at all times lapses into the ‘new normal’? It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to imagine that a facial-recognition database created in order to determine who is considered safe to be mingling in public during this epidemic could be extended beyond its medical necessity.
It is impossible to know what the future holds for busking. Covid-19 has succeeded where councils in Westminster, Peterborough and Chester (among others) have failed, in ridding the streets of the musical underclass. We need to be vigilant in ensuring that this is a temporary state of affairs.
For some useful advice on socially distant busking, my Keep Streets Live colleague Chester Bingley wrote a useful and interesting article which you can find here.