I’ve been back out busking, somewhat tentatively, in the last two weeks or so. There is a big debate in the busking community at the moment about whether it is morally/legally right to do so – I fully respect those who think we shouldn’t be out, but my view is that as long as we are responsible, and maintain social distancing, there is no harm being caused by doing so. Chester Bingley from Keep Streets Live recently outlined ways in which we can adapt our busking to abide by the coronavirus guidelines, and I think they take into account everything that it is reasonably possible to do. On the legal side, the law in England is clear that ‘the need to work’ is a reasonable excuse for leaving one’s place of residence ‘where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work from the place where they are living’.
For me, it has been a case of re-learning on the job. On the whole, people have been significantly friendlier than usual – perhaps because this may be the first live music they’ve witnessed in three months; perhaps because they instinctively know that the coronavirus outbreak has hit artists hard in the pocket; or perhaps there is just a general sense that, now more than ever, we should be a little more kind to one another. Though footfall is down, the percentage of people walking past who are dropping into my case is higher. I was even given a delicious bottle of red while busking a supermarket queue in a London suburb – he’d listened to me on the way in and, in lieu of cash, decided that wine was an acceptable method of payment. He was more than correct on this front and I was delighted to receive it.
It hasn’t been without its downsides, however. I don’t have a car, and as such I’m currently limiting myself to places I can walk to (I’m yet to go back on public transport yet, though I suspect I will have to soon). Which still leaves me with a few pitches, but a 3-mile walk along a river is very pleasant on my journey towards my pitch – it is not so enjoyable when I have finished a hard day’s work and need to cart my guitar and a bag of coins back to my house. Not that a hard day’s work is as long as it used to be. I have found the length of time that I am able to play for has dipped significantly since before lockdown. I suspect this is temporary, but it has been surprising and a little disheartening to feel worn out after two hours’ worth of playing, when I would previously do three or four with no complaints. Of course I’ve been practising in lockdown, but maintaining the energy, voice and calloused fingertips necessary for a performance of this length, day after day, is not easy, and sitting in one’s bedroom for half an hour or so each day absent-mindedly plucking away doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
And then we have the change in the way that I must now look for a pitch. For the foreseeable future, I am only busking in pitches where I can maintain a two-metre distance from my punters. Which automatically rules out quite a few of my favourite spots and has forced me to seek new ones. The only places these days where you can guarantee some level of footfall are parks and shop queues. Gone are the days when a semi-bustling high street could reliably provide enough customers willing to part with their cash.
I hope that busking will return to what it was in the not-too-distant-future. But for now, we have to adapt. I’m confident that busking will survive this crisis – it is a profession that has weathered much worse conditions throughout the centuries. The next few months will be the toughest I have faced, and I suspect the same is true for almost every other busker out there. But we’ll come out the other side. In the meantime, I’ll be in unfamiliar pitches, keeping my distance from my punters and playing We Shall Overcome – a song that has experienced quite an uptick in its utility for me.
Deep in my heart, I do believe
We’ll walk hand in hand some day
People love that song at the moment. If you’re a busker looking for advice and you’ve been disappointed at the slim pickings on offer thus far in this article, then all I can say is that you should add this gem to your repertoire, even if only temporarily. And then buy me a beer with your increased earnings.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy my book, Busking Beyond Borders. Available as an e-book and soon to be released (hopefully) as an audiobook: