Should you do it? Can you legally do it? Have you got the right sort of songs to do it?
How legal is busking? And how horrible? John Morrish wants to know.
EVERY DAY, I wander round the streets of London. Not only the streets, either. There are the railway platforms, and the endless miles of underground tunnelling, too.
The last thing I want, then, is to meet some whining bastard in a denim jacket plonking a battered acoustic guitar and giving me a minimally-vocalised lecture on those very streets, courtesy of that notable social commentator Professor Ralph McTell.
That's busking, though, at least as it affects those of us who survive in the bloated Metropolis. Interestingly, busking doesn't simply mean rattling a tin to the accompaniment of strangulated singing noises. In jazz (is it safe to say that word now?) circles, busking is simply the opposite of "reading".
All this is by way of saying that when you see "101 Hits for Buskers" in your music shop it doesn't, despite the picture on the cover, mean people who play in the streets, it means people who play in pubs and who may need to do requests, producing instant versions of songs they may barely have heard of. No mean skill.
Actually, a lot of the people you see down in the nether regions of London Regional Transport's crumbling empire are not "buskers" at all. I mean all those nicely-scrubbed music students who arrive at the end of term and start inflicting Vivaldi at us long-suffering commuters. They're reading: they're not busking, in the real sense of the term.
It's my suspicion, though, that these academic characters with their music stands and leather music cases are rather safer than you or I might be if we ventured down there with a cheap guitar and a head full of easy tunes.
A Making Music reader wrote to ask whether you could get a permit to busk legally, thereby avoiding all that unpleasant business of being locked in the cells, fed on bread and water before being transported to Australia or hanged by the neck until your collar size changes significantly.
Apparently, you can not. It's one of those things that is always illegal, though not always prosecuted: like opening a supermarket on Sunday (party political there).
Take the tubes. London Regional Transport (ne London Transport) is one of those organisations, like local councils, which has been given the power to make its own minor laws, called Bye-laws. One of them prohibits the playing of musical instruments. If you are caught, you will be summonsed to appear at the magistrates' court, where LRT (not the police) will prosecute you. The fine is fairly minimal, and many buskers go back and back, but it is a real law and not a particularly edifying experience to go through. If convicted, you get a criminal record, just like shoplifters and motoring offenders.
So, you leave the tubes and set up outside, on the pavement. If you do, keep at least one eye open. If you're on the ordinary street, you risk prosecution for "obstructing the pavement", and this time the police will be prosecuting. The maximum fine here is £400 — and your name in the local rag, quite probably.
If by any chance you don't see the Boys in Blue as they're bearing down on you, be polite when they speak to you and if they advise you to piss off out of it, I should do so. Technically, it requires some danger of violence to make a "breach of the peace" charge stick, but that can be quite a nasty prosecution to face. Better to hop it rather than trying to be funny at the expense of Our Boys With The Funny Shaped Heads.
So, you leave the corner of the street and set up in somebody's front garden. They may like it, and be happy to see you. The neighbours may not, but they have to resort either to a local council bye-law or the civil law to deal with the 'noise nuisance'. In the first case, they can send a copper round and you could be in court again, though it's unlikely. In the second case, you will probably escape unless you do it every day for a fortnight.
If you are a trespasser, you can't be prosecuted for that (despite the sign in the garden), but you can be done under the same noise bye-laws.
So, it's a bit of a minefield for the unwary, though it's my suspicion (no evidence, I hasten to add) that if you look like a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed music student just getting in a bit of practice, you will probably get away with it for a while. Quite a while.
Whether the same goes for Irish tramps playing sherry-sodden harmonica and looking like they need the money, I don't know. Perhaps not.
A man in London Regional Transport's highly efficient press office told me that station managers have discretion over whether they clear the buskers out. Then he changed his mind. If he had one. I'm still waiting to hear how many people they prosecuted last year. I'll let you know when I get it.
So, if you decide to stride through this thicket of legalistic irritants, you might like to have a think about the best way of doing it. Guitar is the traditional instrument for the busker, but frankly, I'm sick to death of a) Streets of London, Blowing in the Wind et al, and b) Cavatina, Tarrega's tremolo study etc. The sound of amplified classical guitar makes me want to go home and go to bed for a year.
A final thought, culled from that great philosopher, pop-star's husband and occasional guitarist Robert Fripp: "Music is the silver goblet that holds the golden wine of silence." What price a bit of quiet, when every second busker's packing a battery-powered muscle-amp?
Feature by John Morrish
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