Busking is the practice of performing in public places for tips and gratuities. People engaging in this practice are called buskers. Busking performances can be just about anything that people find entertaining. Buskers may do: acrobatics, animal tricks, balloon modelling, card tricks, clowning, comedy, contortions & escapes, dance, fire eating, fortune-telling, juggling, magic, mime and a mime variation where the artist performs as a living statue, musical performance, puppeteering, snake charming, storytelling or recite poetry or prose as a bard, street art (sketching and painting, etc.), street theatre, sword swallowing, or even present a flea circus.
Busking is a British term used in many areas of the English-speaking world. Buskers are also called street performers or street musicians. The place where a busker performs is called their pitch. People busk for a variety of reasons, for money, for fun, for the attention they get, to socialize or meet people, for the love of their art, or to practice their skills or try out new material in front of an audience.
Some buskers only work part time, while others make a living performing full time on the streets. Some buskers do professional entertainment gigs in addition to working the streets. Some people manage only pocket change from busking, while others can amass substantial incomes. A busker's income depends on many conditions including, the type and quality of the performance, the composition of the audience, the weather, the location and the time of day. Competition from other buskers can also play a role.
Busking can be the bottom rung of the entertainment industry. Some of the most famous groups and superstars started their careers as buskers. Examples include Joan Baez, Roni Benise, The Blue Man Group, Pierce Brosnan, Jimmy Buffett, George Burns, Cirque du Soleil, Eric Clapton, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Stephane Grappelli, Bob Hope, Jewel, Steve Martin, Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Page, Dolly Parton, Penn & Teller, Gerry Rafferty, Carlos Santana, Simon and Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Stomp, and Robin Williams. Many other buskers have also found fame and fortune.
There are three basic forms of busking. Circle shows are shows that tend to gather a crowd around them. They usually have a distinct beginning and end. Usually these are done in conjunction with street theater, puppeteering, magicians, comedians, acrobats, jugglers and sometimes musicians. Circle shows can be the most lucrative. Some time the crowds attracted can be huge. A good busker will control the crowd so the patrons don't obstruct foot traffic.
Walk by acts are typically with the busker providing a musical or entertaining ambiance. There is no distinct beginning or end and the crowds do not particularly stop to watch. Sometimes an intended walk by act will spontaneously turn into a circle show.
Cafe busking is done mostly in restaurants, pubs, bars and cafes. Musicians and balloon artists can frequently be found using this venue. Making a living on the piano bar principle (i.e. for tips) is an experience practiced by many musicians. Perhaps one of the most famous of these is Billy Joel, who rose to fame from working in piano bars. His hit song "Piano Man" was written about a six month stint he did in 1972 at the "Executive Room" piano bar in Los Angeles.
A bottler is a British term that describes the person with the job of collecting the money. A bottler may also be called the "hat man" or "pitch man". The term bottler came from a device old world performers used for collecting money. It was made from the top half of a glass bottle. It had a leather flap inserted in the bottle neck and a leather pouch attached. It was designed to allow coins in but not allow them to be removed easily without being noticed by the jingling of the coins against the glass. The first use of such contrivances was recorded by the famous Punch and Judy troupe of puppeteers in early Victorian times. Bottling itself can be an art form, and the difference between a good and a bad bottler can be crucial to the amount of money earned on a pitch. A bottler usually gets a cut of the money made on the pitch, although it's not commonly a full share. In olden days it was common for buskers to use a monkey as a bottler. That practice has diminished due to animal control laws, but as tribute to the monkey's service there is a device known as monkey stick which buskers use to get attention. A monkey stick is a long stick with bottle caps or small cymbals attached such that they make an attention getting noise when shaken. It is frequently topped by a small monkey doll or figurine.
Location can be the key. An act that might make money at one place and time may not work at all in another setting. Popular busking spots tend to be public places with large volumes of pedestrian traffic, high visibility, low background noise and as few elements of interference as possible. Good locations may include tourist spots, popular parks, entertainment districts including lots of restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs and theaters, subways and bus stops, outside the entrances to large concerts and sporting events, almost any plaza or town square as well as zócalos in Latin America and piazzas, and in other regions. Other places include shopping malls, strip malls, and outside of supermarkets and flea markets, although permission is usually required from management for these.
In her documentary movie and book, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York (Anthropology of Contemporary Issues), Susie J. Tanenbaum talks about the old adage "Music has charms to soothe the savage beast". Her sociological studies showed that in areas where buskers regularly perform, crime rates tended to go down. She also discovered that those with higher education tended to appreciate and support buskers more than those of lesser learning. Some cities are encouraging buskers because they can be a tonic to the stresses of shopping and commuting, and can be an influence which is entertaining and beneficial for all. Some cities give preference to "approved" buskers in certain areas and even publish schedules of performances although in the USA they have to be careful that such things are not exclusionary, judgemental or discretionary.
In the United States there has been a rebirth of this art form as the new millennium has started. Buskers are found at many locations: in New Orleans all over the place, in New York around Central Park and the subway systems, in San Francisco at Fisherman's Wharf area, Market Street, Union Square and the Cable Car turnarounds and BART stations, in Washington DC around the transit centers, in Los Angeles around Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade, and the Hollywood area, in Chicago on Maxwell Street and many other locations throughout the US.
Busking is still quite common in Scotland, Ireland, and England with musicians and other street performers of varying talent levels.
From the Renaissance to the early 1900s busking was called minstrelsy in America, Europe and other English-speaking lands. In medieval France buskers were known by the terms troubadour and jongleurs. In northern France they were known as trouveres. In old German buskers were known as minnesingers and spielleute. The term busk is also used in music when a musician has to play something quickly from scratch, by ear or at sight, as in: I'll just busk it.
Mariachis are Mexican street bands that play a specific style of music by the same name. Mariachis frequently wear ornate costumes with intricate embroidery and beaded designs, large brimmed sombreros and the short charro jackets. Mariachi groups busk when they perform while traveling through streets and plazas, as well as in restaurants and bars.
There have been performances in public places for gratuities in every major culture in the world, dating back to antiquity. This art form was the most common means of employment for entertainers before the advent of recording and personal electronics. Prior to that, a living human being had to produce any music or entertainment, save for a few mechanical devices such as the barrel organ, the music box, and the piano roll. Organ grinders were commonly found busking in the old days.
Busking is common among the Gypsies, also known as the Roma people. Mentions of Gypsy music, dancers and fortune tellers are found in all forms of song poetry, prose and lore. The Roma brought the word busking to England by way of their travels along the Mediterranean coast to Spain and the Atlantic ocean and then up north to England and the rest of Europe.
In the USA, medicine shows proliferated in the 1800s. They were traveling vendors selling elixirs and potions to improve the health. They would often employ entertainment acts as a way of making the clients feel better. The people would often associate this feeling of well-being with the products sold. After these performances they would "pass the hat".
No article on busking would be complete without mention of the one man band. These buskers would perform a variety of instruments simultaneously. One Man Bands proliferated in urban areas in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Folk music has always been a dominant presence in the busking scene. Cafe, restaurant, bar and pub busking is a mainstay of this art form. Two of the more famous folk singers are Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. The delta bluesmen were mostly itinerant musicians emanating from the Mississippi Delta region of the USA around the early 1920s and on.
The counterculture of the hippies of the 1960s occasionally staged "be-ins", which resemble some present-day busker festivals. Bands and performers would gather at public places and perform for free, passing the hat to make money. The San Francisco Bay Area was at the epicenter of this movement — be-ins were staged at Golden Gate Park and San Jose's Bee Stadium and other venues. Some of the bands that performed in this manner were Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape, and Jimi Hendrix. The hedonistic pursuits of the hippies, including the controversial free love and illegal drug use tainted the image of busking, especially among the religious right.
Christmas caroling can also be a form of busking, as wassailing included singing for alms, wassail or some other form of refreshment such as Figgy pudding. In Ireland the traditional Wren Boys and in England Morris Dancing can be considered part of a busking tradition.
One of the latest trends is Cyber Busking. Artists post work on the Internet for people to download, and if people like it they make a donation.
Some people stereotype buskers as being unemployed, homeless or beggars. Most buskers are not, and these terms are normally derogatory when referring to a busker. Some people will heckle buskers and stigmatize them as such regardless of their social status.
Conflicts and fights over pitch do happen. Career buskers may try to maintain a "right of pitch" over others. Generally it is considered first come, first served. Some buskers will send a person ahead of them to fend others off a pitch until they arrive. This practice is known as "squatting" and is greatly looked down upon by other buskers. At times, a compromise may be reached between competing buskers and a pitch will be shared on a rotational basis.
Beggars have been known to congregate around buskers trying to intercept those patrons who want to pay the busker for their services and convert the donation to themselves. The buskers refer to these types as "spongers". Beggars may also try to extort money from buskers by being obnoxious and harassing people until the busker pays them to go away.
Buskers may find themselves targeted by thieves due to the very open and public nature of their craft. Buskers may have their earnings, instruments or props stolen. One particular technique that thieves use against buskers is to pretend to make a donation while actually taking money out instead, a practice known as "dipping" or "skimming". George Burns described his days as a youthful busker this way:
Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats.
- Sometimes they took something out of the hats.
- Sometimes they took the hats.
The first recorded instance of laws affecting buskers were in ancient Rome in 462 BC. The Law of the Twelve Tables made it a crime to sing about or make parodies of the government or its officials in public places; the penalty was death. Louis the Pious "excluded histriones and scurrae, which included all entertainers without noble protection, from the privilege of justice". In 1530 Henry VIII ordered the licensing of minstrels & players, fortune-tellers, pardoners and fencers, as well as beggars who could not work. If they did not obey they could be whipped on two consecutive days.
In the United States under Constitutional Law and most European common law, the protection of artistic free speech extends to busking. In the USA and most places the designated places for free speech behavior are the public parks, streets, sidewalks, thoroughfares and town squares or plazas. Under certain circumstances even private property may be open to buskers, particularly if it is open to the general public and busking does not interfere with its function and management allows it or other forms of free speech behaviors or has a history of doing so.
Some places outside the USA may require a paid license, a permit, or some other form of permission to busk. In Great Britain free speech and busking can be regulated. Some towns in the British Isles limit the licenses issued to bagpipers because of the volume and difficulty of the instrument. Places requiring licenses for buskers also often require auditions of anyone applying for a busking license. Many places require a special permit to use electronically amplified sound and have limits on the volume of amplified sound. Some venues that do not regulate busking may still ask performers to abide by voluntary rules. While there is no universal code of conduct for buskers, there are common law practices to which buskers must conform to. Most jurisdictions have corresponding statutory law. It is common law that buskers or others should not impede pedestrian traffic flow, block or otherwise obstruct entrances or exits, or do things that endanger the public. It is common law that any disturbing or noisy behaviors may not be conducted after certain hours in the night. These curfew limitations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is common law that "performing blue" (i.e. using adult material that is sexually explicit or any vulgar or obscene remarks or gestures) is generally prohibited unless performing for an adults-only environment such as in a bar or pub. In most English-speaking countries, it is common law that unless invited to do so, busking for a captive audience where people cannot move away is generally not acceptable. In some locations, like the London and New York subway platforms, preference is given to "approved" buskers but performing on the trains is not allowed. Throughout the rest of world, busking on public transport may be commonplace.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, busking had grown to be quite a controversial enterprise in New York. The country was in the midst of a horrible economic depression and many people had turned to busking as a source of income. Buskers were everywhere and fights over pitches were alarmingly common between the buskers themselves and the buskers, merchants, and vendors. Out of frustration over the complaining, fighting, and violence, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned busking in New York on the grounds of safety issues regarding the escalating conflicts. Busking went on, but on a much smaller scale. If anybody complained about a busker, at their discretion the police could order the busker to move on or could even arrest him or her. In 1970 poet Allen Ginsburg challenged the constitutionality of this ban. The ban was lifted in 1970 after being found to be unconstitutional by NY Mayor Lindsay.
In the USA free speech is an essential and absolute civil right of every individual. The only exceptions to this are acts of sedition, pornograpy & obscenity and criminal behavior such as fraud or defamation. If two or more persons conspire to violate a persons civil rights they are violating federal law. It is also a violation of federal law if an officer of the law violates a persons civil rights under the color of the law.
In the United States there have been numerous legal cases about regulations and laws that have decided the rights of buskers to perform in public. Most of these laws and regulations have been found to be unconstitutional when challenged. In the USA about the only reasons that can be used to regulate or ban busking behavior are public safety issues and noise issues in certain areas that require silence like hospital zones, around churches, funeral homes, cemeteries and transport terminals where announcements need to be heard. Such laws must be narrowly tailored to eliminate only the perceived evils by limiting the time, place and manner that busking may be practiced. They must also leave open reasonable alternative venues.
In the US, laws regulating or banning busking must be applied evenly to all forms of free speech. Busking cannot be prohibited in an area where other forms of free speech are not prohibited. For example if busking is regulated or banned but people are allowed to conduct free speech behavior for pickets, protests, religious, political, educational, sports, commercial or other purposes then the law is illegal. In the USA any form of regulation on artistic free speech must not be judgmental, and permits must not be so restrictive, complex, difficult or expensive to obtain that they inhibit free speech.
In 1979, in Goldstein v. Town of Nantucket, the Town of Nantucket tried to regulate buskers as vendors, which the court did not accept as valid. Local businesses had complained about the competition from street artists..
In 1983, in Davenport v. City of Alexandria, Virginia, a judge ruled that a ban on busking and other business-related activities on the streets of the central city area was unconstitutional. Several courts found that there was no legitimacy to the cities allegations of safety issues that were alleged to be related to busking.
In 1985, in Friedrich v. Chicago 619 F. Supp., 1129. D.C. Ill, a Chicago court ruled in favor of allowing buskers in the city. In Chicago busking was restricted in certain areas. In the decision, buskers won injunctive relief from the cities enforcement of the ban in some of the contested areas. They also obtained relief from a permit scheme on the use of amplifiers because the scheme was judgmental and at the discretion of the issuers.
In 1996, in Bery v. New York, 97 F. 3d 684, 2d Cir., Local businesses had complained about the competition from street artists, visual artists won the right to sell their art..
In 1997, in Harry Perry and Robert "Jingles" Newman v. Los Angeles Police Department, buskers won the right to perform and sell their original music CDs and tapes on the street. Local businesses had complained about the competition from street artists and tried to prohibit busking..
In 1999, in Turley v. NYC, US 2nd Cir Appeal 98-7114 (1999), the judge ruled that New York City busking permit schemes were too complex and difficult to obtain, and that the costs were unreasonably high.
In 2001 street Performers won a lawsuit in Waikiki, Hawaii, after local businesses had complained about the competition from buskers, they got the city to push through an ordinance to ban busking on a very popular area, allegedly for safety reasons. Buskers prevailed in court by proving the safety concerns were not founded..
In 2003 District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. issued an injunction barring the city of St. Augustine, Florida from enforcing a recent ordinance banning street performances on St. George Street. Local businesses had complained about the competition from buskers. Judge Adams' order states, "Street performances are a form of expression protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution." Merchants got the city to ban busking for alleged safety issues. After public outcry, and a lawsuit with Judge Adams decision, St. Augustine acceded and as of March 2003 allows busking..
In 2004 a San Francisco busker known as the World Famous Bushman was charged with four public nuisance misdemeanors. A jury cleared him of the first complaint and the district attorney subsequently dropped the remaining complaints.
In 2005 a judge rejected Seattle Center rules on buskers. "Magic Mike" Berger, a magician and balloon-twisting busker, took the Seattle Center to court and won injunctive relief and a court ordered settlement of over US $47,000. Seattle Center had some of the most liberal rules regarding busking but even they could not pass constitutional muster. The Business Improvement District formed to manage Seattle Center claimed that they had the right to manage 62 square blocks in the center of the city like private property. They wanted to limit competition from buskers by regulating the time, places and numbers of buskers performing. The judge rejected the regulations, pointing out that... "while a street performer cannot offer a meek oral request for a donation from passers by, a beggar who does not perform can solicit Seattle Center visitors with relative impunity, subject only to general criminal prohibitions on aggressive panhandling."