My busking career began during freshers’ week at Durham university over a decade ago. I had thrown my hat down by the footbridge over the River Wear one evening, and had strummed my guitar to a crowd of on-lookers. I was surprised to find the old hat full of coins after barely one hour of Radiohead and Stone Roses songs. I was a Politics undergraduate who had dreamed of going to the Bar one day. My hopes of becoming a barrister were to be drowned by student prices at the college pub, but I took well to my new and unlikely avenue of self-expression as a street performer, and was to become a fixture on the weekend streets of Durham during my truncated and inglorious career as a student there.
Licking the wounds of a half-finished degree I returned to the parental home in Leeds, West Yorkshire, and took a job in a dull call-centre selling car insurance. Weekday misery was punctuated by weekend joy as I would drive over to York and spend the evenings serenading the merry-makers in that ancient city. This period was the making of me as a busker. I learned how to work a crowd, and whether to play the Smiths or Take That by the garments that people wore as they would walk past me. I learned how to parry heckles and duck punches, and how to guard my territory against rival street performers and other marauding strangers of the nighttime. When I added a battery powered guitar amp into the mix my earnings trebled. It looked like my hobby was turning into a livelihood.
Two years after leaving Durham and my dreams of becoming a lawyer, I joined the Musicians’ Union and became a self-employed street musician instead. I invested in singing lessons and good guitar strings, and began travelling the country playing music on the streets. I discovered the booming night time scene in Liverpool where I was born and became a regular on the Merseyside alleyways. I travelled to Covent Garden in search of gold and found gnarly old minstrels with tired repertoires instead. I played in Edinburgh at festival time and Bradford in winter time. Cities with cathedrals and saints were particularly good to me, with Norwich, Canterbury, and St. Albans all receiving regular visits. Without realizing it I had stepped into the ancient shoes of a wandering troubadour.
Last summer my past as a Politics student and my present as a street performer collided and I found myself as one of the leaders of a campaign against Liverpool Council’s draconian plans to license buskers in the city that gave us The Beatles. I started this petition and helped set up this website. The proposed scheme involved the threat of trespass prosecutions for non-compliant buskers and a total ban on under-18s. It required work permits, photo ID cards, pre-booked time slots and strict rules about where and when people could play. It was an assault on the idea of public space as a forum for grass-roots art and culture and we campaigned against it wholeheartedly. To our delight our constructive opposition gained momentum and, spurred on by legal action against the Council, we won. The policy was dropped and the buskers of Liverpool were free again.
I realized there was a growing need to campaign for the rights of people to use public space for music and culture. All over the country buskers are facing harassment and interference from over-zealous local authorities. I decided to set up ASAP! (The Association of Street Artists and Performers) to campaign for policies that help foster street culture and allow a sense of urban community to prevail in shared spaces. Busking, as such, is not illegal. Many cities publish a voluntary code of conduct for street performers but recognize that many different acts will pass through them on their merry way, and don’t try to keep tabs on them. York City Council took a different decision ten years ago and introduced a compulsory permit scheme. The Liverpool campaign was to shed a different kind of light on York’s relationship with its street performers.
Two Wednesdays ago I was stopped by two council officials in York who objected to me making two of my CDs available for a suggested contribution when busking on Parliament Street. They wanted me to pay a £40 a day charge. When I refused the Licensing Department were called, along with the police, and for a while I was in a stand off with six public officials. My busking permit was suspended by the council, but I knew that injustice was at work and that it was time for ASAP! to get on the case. I informed the council I was going to carry on busking and I started this petition calling for them to scrap their unfair license scheme and to get in line with other cities that allow public space to be used for grass-roots art and culture without casting public officials into the role of judge and jury and a poor man’s Simon Cowell, auditioning would-be performers and casting out buskers like failed X-factor contestants. The future of public space is too important to be left in the hands of unimaginative public officials. The streets are where it’s at, and they need to be filled with music and filled with life. The campaign to Keep Streets Live has only just begun. Watch this space!
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