Boris Johnson has allegedly aimed to make London ‘the most busker friendly city on earth’ since launching his #backbusking campaign last March. But while Boris’ PR cronies might have endorsed busking, city authorities have simultaneously clamped down on it. Take the double standards dished out to young Cricklewood band, The Kings Parade, for example. A month after winning a mayoral competition to unearth ‘London’s best buskers’, the band were arrested by the Met Police and put in a cell for several hours for busking in Leicester Square. Outside of the big smoke, Oxford, Birmingham, Bath and Chester are just some of the other areas that are in the process of formalising draconian policies.
Busking is an art that should be approached with caution. While it gave birth to the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Tracey Chapman, George Michael, Edith Piaf and The Grateful Dead, it has also propagated the squeaky clean “nice guy” singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. But whatever you think of Sheeran’s inoffensive 'allow me to serenade you in a bubble bath' music for people that don’t like music, busking remains an integral part of our musical heritage.
From medieval minstrels to modern-day guitar heroes, busking has long been part and parcel of British culture. But in recent years, the age-old practice of public performance has come under mounting threat. In turn, Buskers are being arrested, fined, having their instruments confiscated, and pretty much criminalised for simply playing music. In recent years, many local authorities across the UK have brought in highly restrictive policies and laws and resorted to unduly heavy-handed tactics. For want of a better word, this “crackdown”, has fostered a climate of official hostility towards busking.
Long-time musician and veteran busker, Tony Scott, 47, has experienced this first hand. “A few weeks back, I was treated really brutally and manhandled by the police for busking in Walsall,” Scott tells me. “While I was performing, a police officer appeared and asked if I had public liability insurance. In my ten years of busking, I’ve never been asked this, but there you go”.
“He got a pad out and took my details. I asked what crime am I committing for you to require my details? After this, the officer became incensed. He put the notebook away, put his cuffs on me and started dragging me along the floor without giving a thought to my equipment”, recounts Scott. “Of course all the wires tangled around my legs and I fell to the floor. He pinned me in some kind of lock that really hurt. I was in absolute agony”.
Immediately after this, Scott says “Lots of people came rushing to my aid, saying what the hell are you doing to this man?” Soon afterwards, Scott was driven to the local police station. “In the end, they said I'd be summoned to court for obstruction of the highway which is a ridiculous charge because you could've got two buses sideways past where I was busking”.
Left traumatised by the incident, Scott has yet to return to the West Midlands satellite town. “When I left the station, they said you can go to A&E because my arms were black and blue with bruises. One was even bleeding. I couldn’t play guitar for a week”.
As well as Scott’s own bodily injuries, his music equipment was left damaged. “When I was dragged away, thousands of pounds worth of equipment – my whole life – was left on the street. When I did finally get it back, the amp, the wires and the mic were missing and my Takamine guitar was irreparably damaged and scratched”.
And all this for what? “I broke no laws at all. I sung three songs on a public highway. [The policeman] was a violent thug who attacked me in the street. If I'd done that to someone I'd have got seven years in jail,” sighs Scott.
While this might sound like an isolated horror story of a crazy-busker-beating-bad-cop, this incident took place in the context of an increasingly hostile climate towards buskers.
Like Scott, Dan Wilson is another musician who has been on the receiving end of heavy-handed tactics. “I started busking four years ago while I was studying at Leeds College of Music. It was a good way to test out new material in a non-pressurized environment and earn a bit of beer money. If people see you and like what you’re doing, then it’s a happy accident”.
After moving to London, Wilson continued to busk regularly and was even employed by Greenwich Council to do so during the Olympics. But this didn’t help him when the police approached him in March last year. “I’d got to Leicester Square at about 9 o’clock but I only got to play for about five minutes before a guy from the Council said you’re not allowed to play here”.
In response, Wilson calmly explained, “This is public property so I’m not doing anything wrong”. In spite of this, the warden proceeded to call the police immediately. “They said you’re trading on the street without a license because I had some CD’s in my guitar case with a sign saying £5 suggested donation. I’d always displayed CD’s in this manner and never had any problems whatsoever. It’s a donation not a tariff. People take them for free if they want,” explains Wilson.
But this rationale did not sit well with the officers. Instead, Wilson was told he would be summoned to court. “I didn't hear anything from them for three months so I thought nothing would come of it, but then I got a summons through the door saying you’re due in court in two weeks. I only had a few days to notify them whether I was pleading guilty or not.”
“I was completely shocked by the whole thing. I’d had an amicable dialogue with them and I said I'd never been here before and I'd never come again. It's not like I was a repeat nuisance or a repeat offender,” Wilson explains.
In the end, Wilson appeared in court a grand total of five times. “It dragged on for eight months in total and the stress loomed over me. If I'd been convicted for Illegal Street trading, I would've got a criminal record that would've shown up on a CRB check. I'm a professional musician - this is my job and my livelihood - and if I got any blemish on my record, I might not have been able to go to America where I had previously toured. That was my fear”.
In the end, Wilson narrowly avoided a criminal record. “They finally agreed to drop it as Iong as I accepted a written agreement from Westminster Council that I'd never perform there again. But what a waste of public resources the whole ordeal was”.
Wilson and Scott are not alone. Across England, we have witnessed a clampdown on busking. Live music campaigner, Jonny Walker, says he has heard of numerous other cases. On top of this, we have seen increasing numbers of local authorities bring in highly restrictive policies, with police routinely resorting to heavy-handed tactics. The situation has further deteriorated since the introduction of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act last year. To put it simply, this legislation has been described as a ‘law against nearly everything’. The legislation forbids and criminalises any form of behaviour that is considered to ‘cause nuisance or annoyance’ - a pretty broad remit. In doing so, it gives local authorities sweeping new powers to ban activities in public space, even if they aren’t illegal.
Across England, approaches to busking vary. But believe it or not, Camden, the hollowed out home of rock & roll and Children of Bodum Zippos, is one of the strictest boroughs. In Camden, unlicensed busking has become a criminal offence punishable by a whopping £1,000 fine, the repossession of instruments by force, and the auction of those instruments to pay the fine after 28 days. If The Rolling Stones were to play on Camden Lock now as they famously used to, they’d be looking at criminal records. As a last resort, one resourceful group of buskers has even formed a new religion, the Church of the Holy Kazoo, and now exercise the right to preach in public while busking.
As our city streets have become increasingly sanitised, spontaneous performances in public spaces have been radically restricted. It goes without saying that when belting out a song in public becomes a punishable offence - “musical correctness” has gone mad. What’s more, as more of the urban landscape has been privatised in silent, soulless, consumer zones, there has been less and less opportunity for busking, as it is illegal to perform on private land. In turn, the ramshackle colour, commotion and community of our streets has faded.
Surrounded by late-night Prets and Fitness Firsts in living-working-playing city centres, it can seem like busking belongs to a different epoch. A bygone era when music was for the streets, not posing with a selfie stick at the O2 Arena. And in many ways, buskers themselves belong to a different era.
The “acoustic gentrification” of busking, if you like, is most obvious on the London Underground, where buskers must jump through a series of densely bureaucratic hoops to gain a licence. For the first 140 years of the London Underground, buskers could play wherever the hell they pleased, but strict licensing overhauled this. Now competition is fierce and thousands compete for just 39 Central London station pitches sponsored by the likes of Coca Cola, Capital FM and Carling in auditions with music industry professionals. Replace the dishevelled blokes playing synthesised Metallica and Vivaldi with gymnasts and dancing dogs and it’s not unlike Britain’s Got Talent.
The rich historic tradition of busking is under threat. While we are still a long way off from the days when Henry Vll ordered all buskers to be whipped for two consecutive days if they disobeyed his licensing system, things have clearly got out of hand. In turn, we are seeing artists treated like criminals. With increasing numbers of iconic live music venues closing their doors, the crackdown on busking has dealt yet another blow to Britain’s musical identity.
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