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The Big Busk: London Busking Explained

By
Published 7 February 2010

From the bottom of the elevator, his voice echoes.

Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
and I’ll always remember you like a child, girl

He’s leaning against the blue and red brick Underground sign, singing. He sounds just like Cat Stevens.

Lalalalalala…

Guitar case open, a dozen coins spread on the black felt lining shine. He’s at work.

Nearly 400 buskers entertain the traveling public in tube stations throughout the city every week. A hit with the listeners and performers, the London Underground busking scheme started in 2003 to manage what was once an illegal activity. London Underground now runs up to 3,000 weekly time slots which buskers, licensed through their office, sign up for.

If you use the tube, it means there is a pretty good chance you’ll get to hear some of the city’s best folk music and liven up what can otherwise be a dreary experience. For buskers, it’s the chance to earn a living doing the thing they love.

Although the LU has a full assembly of buskers and isn’t offering new licenses right now, buskers and busker-lovers can also be found above ground all around London. The City of London itself, though, isn’t a good place to start. Busking within these boundaries is not permitted, but plenty of boroughs on its outskirts – including Camden and the Covent Garden market – allow it.

Camden doesn’t license busking, so musicians or performers are allowed to busk in public places as long as they’re not causing a nuisance. Which is why, on a sunny weekend afternoon, you might hear a guy or a girl outside a pub or on the high street, singing something familiar and hoping you’ll spare some change.

Throughout the rest of the UK, busking is not illegal, but some local authorities have bylaws prohibiting busking. If you want to busk in a particular area, contact the local council to see what their regulations are.

In Greater London, Covent Garden Market is one of the best places to catch a busking act, be it flame-throwing or a duo singing country. This isn’t for amateurs, though, and if you want to busk here, you’ll have to apply first and then audition. If the market likes your act, you’ll be issued a license. The summer is considered high-season for busking in London and catching an act only involves following your ears.

Article written by Natalie Appleton.


  • http://www.moove2london.co.uk Rebecca

    We have a fantastic variety of buskers in London, my personal favourite being a solo clarinet player who performs in Green Park tube station.

  • Jonathan

    Busk the scene and think the scene is great, if only there was a scheme running to work with buskers on the above ground circuit in the City of London. So much good work is going down the tube, and otherwise just dreary ole london Town above ground. Come on peeps, its a lot better than allowing straight out beggars to work the pitches. Out and out musicians, are short oppertunities to present their caseload!

  • Filipus

    Hello everyone. Can anyone let me know the name (and where I can find) of the singer in the photo, that is said to sound like Cat Stevens? Please, please, it is really important that I find him. Look forward for your help.

  • http://myspace.com/thefreewheel Clayto Devanny

    Hello there. Could anybody recomend good places to busk above ground because getting a license for the underground is quite difficult to sat the least.
    Any suggestions welcomed.
    Cheers, Clayton :)

  • T-ka

    Hi,

    Is there somewhere on the web a list of all the boroughs in London where you can busk and if you need a license or not?

    Thanks!

    T-ka

  • groovedetective

    Does anyone here remember the 3 guys  who used to frequent the busking scene in Covent Garden in the mid 90’s. They were guitar bass and drums doing a lot of jazz funk beats and grooves. Couple of black guys and a white guy who I think was the drummer. Battery operated amps….electric bass and guitar. man they were good but never got to see them anywhere except here. I used to get up there a lot in those days. I iften think about the tight grooves they had going. Very cool. Where are they now?

  • George

    as a London busker I have to say that outside of the South Bank and Covent Garden, there are very few places you can get away with a long performance without having to make concessions to the police. Usually they will just shut you down, particularly if you’re playing in a tourist heavy, central location (Leicester Square, Camden Town). However, if the cops are decent (and your not making a horrible squawking noise) they might let you keep playing provided you move your case or whatever money depositary your using out of sight – therefore removing the element that they consider “begging.” 

    However, most of these places are playable in the late evenings on weekends, as the police generally have enough to deal with without running after musicians. That said, you have to be wary of drunks and even worse, cokeheads! 

    If your good, you’ll make money – simple as. It might not be much everytime, but I can if the weathers good make around £20-40 an hour, but you’ve got to be on your game!!

    Peace
    George (spraypainted guitar and vocals)

  • George

    T-ka

    Licensing (outside of the near-impossible to achieve London Underground licenses) does not exist. Police will tell you that you need a license to busk, then not know where to get one from. I once spent a good few days researching how to get a “license” for the borough of Camden. By the time I finally found contact information for the right department, I was told that they were no longer giving out licenses.

    Dicks.

    George

  • George

    Make your own pitches bro :-) nothing worse than travelling down to a pitch only to find another busker has taken it!

    Look for somewhere without too much traffic, but a good amount of people. Near supermarkets in more residential neighbourhoods. Also try to time it right, weekends = tourists, sun=people in better moods. Rush hour can be good, but then businessmen in a hurry to get home aren’t ever going to be your number one customer (although you do get the occasional power-hungry rich maniac who used to listen to Bob Dylan, watch out for these fat cats – they got big bucks)

  • Mark87kk02

    Yesterday I called the London Underground (Customer Services Centre) here in London (0845 330 9880) and they told me that there are NO longer positions for busking in the tube at this moment. Actually, they sayd, there is a waiting line of 2000 peoplesThis is just incredible …. and sad!Mark

  • Muskadash

    If you want to busk in the streets, apart from at Covent Garden or the City, can you just turn up and start playing without applying for an audition?

  • Andyshonfeld

    Saw a really good busker yesterday (14th April 2012) near the London Eye but I didn’t get a chance to ask him his name or buy one of his cds. He was playing the most beautiful guitar arrangements I have heard for sometime. If anyone knows his name I would be really grateful as I don’t live in London and I’m not sure when I will be visiting again.

  • Denise

    Is there somewhere a list of all the boroughs in London where you can busk and if you need a license or not?

    Thank you

  • Jess

    How old do you have to be to start busking ?

  • Fabian

    What licenses do you need to busk in Shepards Bush?

  • Andi

    I think I know who you mean – Paul Sebastian

    http://www.myspace.com/paulsebastianmusic

    paulsebastianmusic@live.co.uk

    It is quite incredible what he does, isn’t it?

  • max

    14