Covid has obviously accelerated cashless payments. But it has also created a surge in initiatives transforming city centres, either through legislation, pop-up markets, outdoor seating and other endeavours trying to bring people back to town. Add inflation and the cost of living crisis—both of which are eating away at the value of a $1 tip—and it looks like a pretty rough time to be a busker.

That’s not what the public sees. The public sees you singing your songs and making your jokes. They see people putting money in your hat. Maybe they’re on their commute to a job they hate. Maybe they think you have it easy.

So, I thought it might be useful to explain why it’s not so easy nowadays to busk. This video therefore sums up the issues facing street performers — why busking is, in my opinion, ‘at risk’.


I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but street performance is at real risk of dying out, for many reasons.

To start with, councils all over the world are passing anti-busking legislation. Some pass laws saying you need to apply for a licence to busk, which puts off a lot of first time buskers from giving it a go. Others enact bans on amplifiers, with catastrophic consequences for instrumentalists with a subtler sound (like Spanish guitar), or those who mainly use their voice.

Then there are councils who mandate that in order to perform on the street, you must first audition in front of a council-appointed panel of judges. Or they say that officials can be the adjudicators of what is permitted in public spaces. As the late busking campaigner Johnny Walker once said, this means turning police officers and council wardens into what he called, “Civic Simon Cowells”.

Pressure isn’t just coming from governments. As new housing is built to capitalise on the gentrification of artistic neighbourhoods, new renters discover their apartment is nearby a popular busking pitch, which they promptly attempt to have silenced.

Cash-strapped councils are also selling off the right to manage public spaces to Business Improvement Districts, creating an often confusing and arbitrary amount of red tape, fees and new rules dictating that acts can’t last longer than 30 minutes, amps must be under a certain size, buskers can only get a permit if they have five million pound public liability insurance, and newly minted security guards will harass you before you’ve even played a note.

These rules and regulations are invariably labelled “common sense” by those who pass them, a compromise between different interests to make life in the city better for all. But in over a decade of seeing the irrational way that busking policy is actually formed, I have never seen one of those common sense people follow up to check how many livelihoods they’ve ruined, or much tourism they’ve damaged, or how much international talent no longer visits on their world tours.

Gentrification, privatisation and litigation are, however, not the biggest existential threats facing buskers. The worst is the digital revolution: kids who’ve seen and heard everything before on YouTube, teenagers constantly nagged by a need to interact with their phones, young adults who’ve never in their lives bought a physical CD, and everyone, young and old, no longer carrying cash in a post-covid world.

Unfortunately, cashless payments systems are not designed for buskers, who want fast, anonymous, variable tips either from a passing audience or all at once at the end of a show.

The tap-to-tip machines are set to a single price—say, five dollars. Immediately, anyone who can’t afford a fiver can’t afford to tip at all, and people hoping to tip more are unable to. Gone is that beautiful aspect of busking, where you can tip as much as you think the performer deserves. In its place, there’s now a queue of people waiting to tip a pre-set amount.

Services that provide online tipping options are equally bad. Either they are platforms that require accounts, excluding any tippers who’ve not signed up, or they force tippers to enter an email address, slowing down the process and getting rid of the idea of a casual, anonymous tip.

All the while, inflation relentlessly devalues the currencies in which buskers are tipped. The cost of living crisis is tightening belts. And no street performer can now afford rents anywhere near the good pitches in a city.

Imagine you’re a street performer wanting to busk in the USA. You couldn’t get a work visa, but you did manage to convince the border guards that the juggling clubs in your bag are just for fun. You can’t busk in the first city you get to, because it has a busking licence that only auditions in the off season, so you travel to the next city on your list. There, you discover the hard way that what looked like a pretty good pitch is actually controlled by a commercial district, and you’re roughly moved on by security guards with one hand on their batons. You finally find a workable pitch, but it’s hugely oversubscribed, as it’s one of the only places in town where you don’t need a licence to use an amp. You queue for six hours, then do a great show, but hardly anybody tips. A friendly local tells you that everyone uses Venmo in the United States. And you don’t have a US bank account, so you can’t sign up.

That’s increasingly the new reality.

Put simply, street performers all over the world are having to deal with more barriers, more expenses and less cash. And there’s no significant movement to protect their livelihoods, because nobody, anywhere, realises the full extent of the good that buskers do.


The above is part of a trio of videos I’ve made on the importance of street performance and why we work within this field. See the other videos here:


Video 1: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in busking

Video 2: The benefits that busking provides

Video 3: Why busking is at risk