Buskers & Busking


Buskers and Busking has received a lot of attention in the media since the licencing trial on the London Underground Railway and more recently with the drive to raise funds for Cancer Research by Busking Cancer. We have received several queries and the following article aims to answer the most frequently asked questions on the subject and there are some excellent dedicated sites for buskers available on the internet which are listed at the end of this article.

The term ‘Busk’ means to play music or sing in a public place so that the people who are there will give money (Cambridge Dictionary). “Busker” means ‘itinerant musician or actor’ although nowadays it is used to describe any form of street performer. Buskers are also referred to as travelling musicians, street musicians, sidewalk musicians, subway musicians, minstrels or bards.

Busking is a time honoured tradition going back to medieval times when wandering minstrels and bards travelled from place to place and acted not only as entertainers but also as news reporters and message bearers. The term ‘Sing for your Supper’ probably originated from around that era, when it was common practice for inns and stall holders to pay the busker with a meal and/or a bed for the night instead of money.

A performer can be any age or standard, although in the western world there are laws that restrict or limit any form of employment for children under the age of 18. A ‘Busker’ is now defined as any form of entertainer including (but not limited to!) solo singers or musicians, one man bands with multiple instruments, carollers, duos, trios, bands, magicians, clowns, balloon artists…… Likely venues to see buskers (or find a pitch) include parks, fairs, fetes, subways, train stations, bus depots, shopping centers, street corners or any open space where there are enough passers by to hope for an interested reception and possible donation into the hat. There are even dedicated Busking Competitions, Festivals & Events!

In the last few years it has become more regulated with many countries local authorities requiring performers to apply for a license to publicly entertain on designated ‘pitches’. Favourite areas for buskers in the UK include major towns and underground stations where a high amount of walking tourists and travellers may be persuaded to stop and drop a few coins into the collection.

The standard of performer varies considerably from the enthusiastic amateur to concert virtuoso. How much a singer or musician can make busking depends on several factors including, musical style, proficiency, image, location, weather and time of day! The variables may differ from country to country, but generally, people are more likely to part with their cash if the busker is reasonably presented and plays with a modicum of competance. Covers of popular songs may gain more financial reward, but a busker can choose to perform whatever they please!

Each countries licencing requirements (or lack thereof), vary considerably from city to city. Regulations usually reflect current laws and the individual local authorities attitude towards street entertainers. The following basic rules usually apply:

Buskers may not:

  • Cause or promote a public disturbance
  • Block pathways, fire exits or impede traffic
  • Play louder than the volume limit set by the local authority
  • Hinder or prevent the passage of any emergency service or personnell
  • Actively request money by asking for a donation or by shaking a collection box (unless they are collecting on behalf of a charitable cause in which case permission to collect must be sought from the local authority)

In the UK a permit or licence to busk is not always required, but before you start busking, find out from the local council what its regulations are. Some councils and railway stations require that you audition before they will grant you a permit or license and there may be age restrictions which do not allow children under the age of 18 to perform on the streets.

To confuse the matter further, British local authorities or ‘councils’ are structured in similar ways but may allocate licence regulation and collection to different departments (i.e., Parks & Recreation, Health & Safety, Road & Traffic, Town Hall) or even place the responsibility on private companies who run the shopping center or covered mall, in which case permission to perform should be sought from the City Center, Shopping Center or Site Manager. For convenience we have created a list of known licensing authorities which includes direct links to the London Underground Permit Application and any other online information on regulations or licencing application pages we could find for the UK and various other countries.

The application used to be quite easy and in most cases cost nothing, although buskers usually have to report their takings to the council. Sadly all this may change with the introduction of the new Licensing Act 2003 which on it’s implementation will affect ALL live music performances with few exceptions.

If you do not follow the regulations or obtain a licence when required to do so, any police officer or relevant official can force you to move on and in extreme cases place you on a blacklist, impose fines or put you in prison.

Standing on a street corner may not be your idea of making a living, but many entertainers have supplemented their education, started their careers or travelled the world by busking. Earnings vary from nothing to £20+ an hour and in the UK, Buskers are liable for Tax on earnings and required to inform the Inland Revenue even if they are non-residents who may also be required to apply for a UK Work Permit. Of course money isn’t everything…. busking is also a useful way to practice your art, promote good causes, sell your CD and if you are lucky, get a paid booking from a passer by, or even noticed by A&R.

If you want to sell CDs of your music whilst busking on the streets, you will need to pay for a Street Trader’s Licence or Street Trading Permit from the local authority which varies in cost from council to council. Its not a bad deal and the cost will be covered if you sell one or two CD’s.

When music is played in public the owner of the copyright is entitled, by law, to payment from the music user. The Performing Right Society is an organisation that collects and distributes this money (known as ‘royalties’) to it’s members – the owner of the copyright (usually the composer or their publisher). This means that buskers who perform cover versions of popular songs are required to pay royalties to PRS, but on the up side, if you are performing your own original works and are a member of PRS you may be entitled to receive royalties! (Information courtesy of Performing Right Society).

Organised events are less complicated as the organiser usually obtains a blanket license to cover all performers. This usually includes competitions, festivals, fetes etc., but do check with the organiser before participating.

Busking Tips:

  • B Prepared. Put some coins in the hat to encourage donations
  • U nderstand your audience
  • S tage – it helps to have a defined area but not always practical
  • K ards – put a few business cards next to your hat
  • E ntertain
  • R ules – follow whatever they are in your town/country
  • S mile! No-one pays a misery guts!

(Yes I know … Cards is spelled with a C not a K … call it poetic license for the purpose of this list!) There are some pitfalls to busking which should be noted before jumping in at the deep end. As with any music related job, care should be taken with your instrument and your cash. Buskers working alone can fall prey to the lower elements who think nothing of stealing their hard earned donations or even the artists instrument. When working alone, try to choose a pitch where you are visible to others but close enough to traders/aid during during quiet periods. Consider taking out insurance to protect your instruments and equipment.Following an interesting email exchange, busker/writer Nick Broad has written an article based on our thoughts on the London Busking Scene at his website The Busking Project. The latter is an ambitious but worthy aim to interview, photograph, film and discover the life and motivations of the street artist for which he is seeking funding – if you would like to support the venture, go make a pledge!