Many businesses have began complaining about the quality of street performers in Dublin, most notably on Grafton Street in the city centre. However, locals have praised one musician, a piano player, earning him the title of “The Acceptable Face of Busking”. These complaints have arrived shortly after the enactment of bylaws governing street performance. What I am aiming to uncover is the truth behind busking, and whether it is a real issue. I took to the streets, and law books, to find out what, if anything can be done to combat these performers.
My home-town of Nottingham has become known as one of the most artistic cities in the country, having given birth to such musical talent as Indie singer Indiana, Folk singer Jake Bugg, and the legendary Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson. However, Nottingham isn’t only known for its professional musical talent, but also its amateur talent; Buskers. Ask anyone over the age of 18 in Nottingham to name a few local celebrities and without a doubt, one name will be mentioned ad nauseum… The Xylophone Man, Frank Robinson (1932-2004). The Xylophone Man is one of the most recognisable names in Nottingham culture, but not for his musical abilities. Despite his name, he had no musical talent, which made him such a loveable figure around the city centre. Armed with his childs 8 note, plastic xylophone, he would make his way to the city centre from his home and sit outside H&M and strike the 8 notes repeatedly, drawing a crowd of 10’s of people, who would often drop spare change from their lunch into his cup. Xylophone Man was such a staple of Nottingham life, that after his death in 2004, a memorial was erected by the people of Nottingham in his honour. The simple marble plaque now sits in the spot that he used to entertain people from and it reads “He played his Xylophone here for fifteen years, bringing a smile to the faces of the people of Nottingham”. Robinson wasn’t the most talented of musicians, but he made people smile, and people remember him for who he was. Should we really be preventing these people from doing what they love, in a place that they love?
Busking is a true art form, that brings a spark of colour into an otherwise dull, dreary day. Gone are the dark days of busking, where it would have been exclusively homeless people playing a battered guitar to earn some money for a coffee, while I admit this is still the case in some situations, busking is now a true, bona fide art form. Especially in my hometown, busking is now some of the best music you can ever hear. ‘Real musicians’ now take to the streets in order to showcase their talent to the people, in hopes that they will be noticed and picked up by a talent agency, or a small time club who will be winning to pay in order to have them perform at their venues. A number of today’s big artists were once buskers, most notably Ed Sheeran. Ed Sheeran was homeless for a time, during which he would busk in the underground stations in London, where he and his music would be appreciated, and that led him to become one of the UK’s best selling artists. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Sheeran spoke of his experience working his way up to becoming a superstar and said “I spent about a week catching up on sleep on Circle Line trains: I’d play a gig, wait till 5am when the Underground opened, sleep on the Circle Line until 12, go to a session – and then repeat.”. He then goes on to mention that exactly a month after deciding that the music wasn’t working, and that the had to get his life together, he noticed that one of his albums that he had put onto itunes has started to climb up the charts, and woke up the next morning to find it at number 2. He was then bombarded with phone calls from an unknown number which he continued to ignore, until he received a text message from his agent telling him “Answer your phone!! It’s Elton”. He told the Mail “It was just mad, because I grew up listening to Elton John’s music. He was ringing to say congratulations, which was cool.”
Busking has, on more than one occasion, been called a nuisance by councills. In order to try and understand the debate a little bit better, I interviewed Mogs Morgan, who is better known to the Nottingham dwellers as “The Saxophone Man”. Morgan has been playing his saxophone for the people of Nottingham every week for the past 10 years.
“In Ireland, there are calls from the people of Dublin to ban buskers in the city center as it is seen as antisocial and disruptive to both shop owners and shoppers. As a busker, can you understand where this stance comes from?”
“Well, I can understand it in some respects, but I can’t in others. As far as it being disruptive, I can fully understand where shop owners are coming from, without proper regulation, it can be a nuisance.” He responds. “When you get a busking license here, you are told exactly where and when you’re allowed to busk. You have to be a certain distance from shop fronts, so you’re not causing a blockage and stopping people from going into the shops. As far as antisocial… No. How can playing music and interacting with dancing toddlers be seen as antisocial? I’m sure antisocial means you’re distancing yourself from people. If we are going to talk about being antisocial in public, instead of gunning down the musicians, we need to do something about people setting up speakers just so they can read us the bible.”
“Do you think that the face of busking has changed? Back 10 years ago, with the likes of Xylophone Man, busking was seen as a joke, or at best, something that was done by homeless people”
He took a sip of his coffee, smiled, and responded “Yeah, of course it’s changed. Frank (Xylophone Man) was a great showman, he was proper shit [sic] but he knew how to make people smile. Buskers are now mostly student, or businessmen made redundant, who don’t necessarily need an income, and who have a lot of time on their hands. They’re really good, I mean, I’m okay at playing this thing” he lifts his saxophone and chuckles, “ but the others are out of this world. Jerry (who I was later informed was a fiddle player) is incredible, he can play as good as the professionals earning millions. So as far as the face of busking changing, yeah it has, massively. I tell you, there have been plenty of people who have been given record deals when they were discovered busking, and there will be plenty more in the next few years”
However, a person who has a different view on buskers was Ms Tina Goodchild of Mapperley. Goodchild is a regular frequenter of a bookshop in the city centre, and she believes that allowing buskers to play music outside such shops is wrong.
“I’m not totally against buskers, for the most part, they’re great and they play really nice music, but I think planning should take place as to where they are allowed to play their music. Outside a music shop? Great idea. Outside a pub? Great idea. Outside a bookshop? Terrible idea. People go to bookshops to relax, and read books. It’s impossible to read a book when you can hear someone playing Oasis covers outside. Would a bookshop allow someone to come inside and play music? Of course they wouldn’t, so why are they allowed to play right outside the door? There is no difference, except there is an automatic door between me and them. I can still hear them.” Goodchild also had quite an opinion of other forms of street performing. “Music I can understand why people enjoy it, but I don’t understand this new thing, people in masks doing that levitation thingymajig [sic]. What’s all that about? Seriously? Nobody is entertained by that, nobody except 3 year olds”
Buskers do in fact have a very strict set of guidelines that they must adhere to, enforced by the Environmental Protection Act 1990, one of the guidelines states that “The appearance and quality of your act should demonstrate a positive intention to entertain passers-by, not to solicit money through sympathy i.e. begging”. These complaints by the public may hold water when it comes down to legal aspect of the passtime. Another regulation also states that “ You and your audience should not obstruct free passage of pedestrians or vehicles on the highway (this includes pavements and in pedestrianised areas)”. So again, there might actually be a real argument over the legality of the situation.
Do people really have a cause for concern and complaint? Should it be classed as freedom of speech? Should people be allowed to play music, no matter the quality?