2005-11-19 - United Kingdom - England - London - Kensington and Chelsea - Museum Subway - Busker - 12x8London is one the most popular cities in the world for tourists, and as you often seein tourist destinations is a high number of  buskers (street performers). But buskers are often seen as beggars, and now a set of rules for auditioning and licensing buskers in some areas has been put in place in order to control who is allowed to play on the streets of London. It is a strict system that does not please all buskers.

What do Kanye West, B.B. King, Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd) Tracy Chapman, Pierce Brosnan and Benjamin Franklin have in common? They all were buskers once, performing in the streets to earn money. Buskers have existed since the dawn of time, and without them the streets would not be the same. But in London you can legally busk in four places only: Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Camden and the South Bank.

These are the city’s best spots, but you have to be auditioned and get a license to busk there. Some buskers are not happy with this, like Mad Mat Valentine, a contortionist who performs on the South Bank. “Auditions are a ridiculous affair,” he says. “You show a minute of your work, which is not respective of street art at all…and then they tell you yes you can or no you can’t. The unfortunate thing with auditioning bodies is that they are usually filled with people who have degrees in performance but no idea about street art.”

Singer and guitar player Charlotte Campbell is also a performer next to the London Eye. She does not agree with Mat: “I am very happy with it, I have started as a busker without a license, and I am now working with one. I feel safer, I feel like there is more of a community.”

Auditions are twice a year to play on the South Bank and you have to re-audition every year. “It is free, but you have to pay for your own public liability insurance. If you take what you do seriously then you should have it anyway, to protect the people who are watching”, Charlotte explains.

You can also play in the tube, but “you have to get license similar to what we have here”, Charlotte says. “I have tried to get an audition. They were auditioning me and they said there is no space. That is a shame because it feels like not being given an opportunity.”

A restrictive system for buskers.

The auditions system can stop people who are beginners if they are not good enough. “I had no skills when I started performing and I slowly gained skills”, says Mat Valentine, who has been performing for over 10 years. “Over the years I have gone better, and now I go to international festivals, representing England as an entertainer.”

According to Nick Broad, the founder director of The Busking Project – a company supporting street artists created in 2012, licenses undermine the real nature of busking. “It sounds like it wouldn’t be a bad thing because it keeps the quality of busking high. But busking has always been a nomadic art form and the best buskers travel the world, performing to new audiences and bringing their culture and talent to new places”, he says. “An audition system immediately cancels that out because if I am a busker from a foreign land it doesn’t matter how good I am, I won’t be able to busk in your city.”

What buskers complain about is that the system is arbitrarily controlled. London has its own code of practice because each borough is free to make up its own rules regarding busking. The borough of Camden has changed its rules to fight against noise complaints, for instance: since February, any person who wants to busk there has to apply in writing, pay a £19 license and wait up to 20 working days for a response. If you don’t, you risk a fine of up to £1,000, have your equipment confiscated or even being arrested. After this was announced, some celebrities protested over these restrictions.

How to improve busking?

Places where busking is allowed are limited, and this is an issue, says Adam, a magician in Covent Garden. “It is really restrictive. Other than performing in Trafalgar Square, Camden, the South Bank and Covent Garden you are going to get stopped. What they should do is open up a lot more areas. Because there are a lot of good performance areas but we are not allowed to perform there.”

“I think the important thing is that buskers and councils work together”, says Charlotte Campbell, who has been playing on the streets for two years. “There is always an assumption that people are against buskers, but most people love to watch something performed in streets. If we work all together we can create a really lovely atmosphere for street performers.”

That could be an idea for the Back Busking Campaign of London Mayor Boris Johnson. He has backed this new campaign to support buskers in the capital since April. “Boris Johnson has positioned himself as a friend of struggling artists”, says Nick Broad. “At the moment the Campaign does not have much of an effect on the street. Even if the literature sounds really promising, will it be backed up with actual policy on the ground? And you know, all bureaucracies, especially the largest like London’s Mayor Office, take a long time to do anything.” So, for the moment, it is ‘wait and see’ for buskers.

Raphaël Hudry