Forget, for a second, that the artists we work with are street performers. Let’s just say we are a nonprofit that “works in the arts”.

 


 

Okay. If I were pitching our non-profit to you, I’d put it this way:

We enable the creation of art for all, including young people, disabled people, working parents, elderly people and anyone who can’t normally afford a ticket to see a show.

The art isn’t just consumed by a diverse set of people, it’s also created by artists from all walks of life; middle-class theatre grads, passionate virtuosos, industry professionals, ex-cons, people who are homeless, people who have disabilities and anyone else. In other words, the art lives in an ecosystem of people from all age groups, ethnicities and economic backgrounds.

The shows are entirely donor funded, so the majority of audience members attend for free. The venue doesn’t charge an entry fee (and, by the way, is fully wheelchair accessible and in the heart of every city), and yet, because all of the money donated goes directly to the performers’ bank accounts (there are no managers, agents, producers, marketers or other middlemen), they still make a reasonable living.

But, would you fund this organisation?

Probably not, if you focused on just one more detail; the performers this nonprofit supports are the UK’s street performers. That’s right, “buskers”, and the vast majority of people with power and influence in the arts world do not consider busking to be worth supporting (in fact, never in the history of grant-making in the USA or UK (where we’ve looked) has money been granted to busking-specific projects).

A quick anecdote: in 2018, my company applied to become a CIC in the UK. The government’s CIC regulator, which awards CIC status to arts organisations of all kinds, initially refused to grant us the title unless we could show that we only work with artists who have licenses to busk, and who pay their taxes.

That might sound reasonable at first, but only 0.06% of land in the UK requires a license to busk on (there are just three parts of London where a license is required). Also, as our organisation helps buskers get mobile payments (i.e. bank to bank transfers) from spectators, we’re effectively increasing the digital paper trail for their tips.

That’s right, we’re making it harder for those apparently good-for-nothing, lawbreaking tax cheats to evade HMRC. [I should say here that I don’t know any street performers that are hiding wads of cash under the bed.]

If we’d been supporting any other kind of artist, our CIC status would have been much easier to get. Anyway, we convinced the government, but we have a much harder time with grantmakers.

Most arts funding is tied to strict reporting requirements, like ticket sales, scholarships and head counts, none of which is possible on the street. But, even those who could fund our work, reject us with accidentally infuriating responses like ‘We love what you’re doing, it sounds important, it’s just not something we would fund.’ Because they would fund it, at least on paper, if busking was at all important to them.

Except it could hardly be more important. Live venues are closing at record rates, arts funding is down and the internet has stripped independent musicians of any hope of making minimum wage (assuming an unsigned, 4-person band has no expenses, they’d still have to get 1.4 million plays per month on Spotify to make minimum wage).

So, increasing numbers of artists are taking to the streets to earn from their art. But they’re having to deal with the disappearance of cash from our wallets, the criminalisation of busking and the privatisation of public land, which has led to much higher competition for decreasingly available performance spaces. Put simply, this art form, which has survived all over the world for over four millennia, and which is currently propping up all kinds of independent artists, is now at risk.

Helping counter every one of those problems.

So, what’s our plan? At the moment, we’re testing whether NFC tags can be used to streamline tap-to-tip mobile payments and helping buskers get hired for gigs, from marriage proposals to corporate events.

But we have a new project we’d like to build, one that involves producing a massive, crowdsourced ‘living archive’ of resources that includes:

  • the historical impact of busking
  • why it is so important for society;
  • busking in popular media, including TV, film and fine art;
  • ‘how-to’ articles, including performance techniques and self-promotion;
  • the best equipment for use in the street;
  • permits, licenses, laws, bylaws and codes of conduct;
  • occurrences of police, council and private security interactions;
  • the rights of buskers, and previous court rulings;
  • news articles, research papers and books on busking;
  • local festivals and related organisations

You can read more about it (and fund us) here: busk.co/guide. But this is our funding pitch:

For buskers who are trying to defend street performance in courthouses and council meetings, this would be an invaluable tool in kick starting their legal defences. For busking advocates, this would help them fundraise and promote campaigns. For buskers just starting out, it would teach them the rules and help them “make it” on the streets. It would dispel myths around busking, especially for journalists, who seem to routinely mistake buskers for beggars with a gimmick. It would help artists travel to new cities, an increasingly difficult task in the face of the hyper-regulation of public spaces. And it would even be a good place to convince your parents (or dates) that busking is an honest and noble way of making a living.

Outdoors, away from our screens, away from marketing and PR, untouched by sponsorship and branding, and for a price you’re free to put on it yourself, you have access to some of the finest, funniest and hardest working artists in the world, most likely within 30 minutes of where you’re sitting right now.

If you ever do get a job as an arts foundation trustee, I’d like you to imagine what the world would be like without them. And then I’d like you to remember that thought, the next time someone approaches you with a company like ours.

 


 

UPDATE:

Amazingly, we did get a grant! Perhaps the world’s first grant for a busking-specific activity. Sure, there have been grants for scheduled, curated, auditioned ‘busking’, but not for the real deal! So, congratulations to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for supporting us.

We’re now crowd funding the rest of what we need. You know, grassroots donations for a grassroots website.

So please, help us out (and get wonderful rewards) here:

https://crowdfunder.co.uk/the-buskers-guide

And here’s the campaign video:

Thanks!