Jonny Walker’s Battle for Music and Public Space

, busker and wandering troubadour, writes of his battle to save music in public spaces

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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.

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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!

Check out Jonny’s adventures on Facebook

20 comments

  1. 21 Mar ’13 at 5:20 pm

    Councillor James Alexander

    York is proud of its long tradition in street entertainment which provides colour, interest and vibrancy to its city centre streets. The city plays host to a year-round programme of events and attracts a diverse range of street entertainers from around the world. To ensure that this valuable tradition continues to thrive, it is important that the city preserves good relations between street performers, the local community and businesses. York therefore operates a ‘Busking Badge’ registration scheme for street entertainers, which is based on a balance between various statutory laws and a local by-law which gives certain powers to members of the public. The scheme sets down minimum standards that can be expected of entertainers performing on York’s streets. All buskers should register under the scheme before performing in the city.

    York’s ‘busking badge scheme’ is run by City of York Council in conjunction with North Yorkshire Police and the Safer York Partnership. The scheme, introduced in 2005 following widespread consultation with buskers in the city, aims to maintain the good relationship which exists between street entertainers and the local community and to set down certain standards expected of buskers performing in the streets of York.

    All buskers who wish to perform in York have to register under the scheme and display their busking badge at all times while performing in the city. Members of the public are advised to only donate to buskers who have the official, council issued yellow badge displayed. Where an individual is busking who is not registered they will be moved on by the Police.

    The sale of merchandise (for example, CDs) is not allowed unless an appropriate Street Trading Consent has been obtained.

    Mr Walker has held a busking permit for many years and has signed up to the ‘code of conduct’ so is therefore well aware of the implications of street trading without a license.

    The council’s approach to street trading consents is to create a balanced approach supporting appropriate street trading whilst at the same time ensuring the ongoing vibrancy of the whole city centre retail offer.

    This specific incident arose as a result of Mr. Walker offering CDs for sale without a street trading consent on Wednesday 6 March 2013. Two city centre officers learned that Mr Walker was busking with CDs on offer. One of his notices said ‘CDs: £7 each, 2 for £10’, on the other it said ‘voluntary donations welcome’. The city centre officers asked him to remove the sign and the CDs given that he didn’t have a street trading consent. He refused so they called colleagues in licensing who told him he was street trading and must stop. Again he refused and the police were called. An enforcement officer cautioned him and he was told his busking permit was suspended.

    If Mr Walker continues to busk in York whilst his permit is suspended then he leaves himself open to being moved on by the police. If he continues to offer goods for sale without a street trading consent the council will take the appropriate legal action.

    Mr Walker has made the point that the cost of street trading consents is high. A one-off Street Trading Consent costs £40, however this reduces to £6.58 per day for a monthly consent. When considering our costs compared to other local and historic city’s York’s charges are not unreasonable (see below).

    Mr Walker has also been complained about by others in the city.

    York £40 per day or £197.50 per month (£6.58 per day)
    Harrogate £49 per day or £384 per month (£11.52 per day)
    Bradford £108 per day
    Selby £23 per day

    All the best,

    James

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  2. Nice to see this response from the leader of the council. It is a cut and paste job from the council website, it was also sent to the original petition in identical wording. It fails completely to address the issues at hand, including the council’s assertion that they can control access to public space. It attempts to justify a £40 per day charge for making CDs available by reference to rates charged to street traders for having full market stalls. It shows a total lack of willingness to engage with the issues at hand. I hope that my meeting with the council next Wednesday will be more productive then this promises it will be….

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  3. Because I think there is an issue of principle at stake. I believe that people should be allowed to make their CDs available for a voluntary contribution…my sign actually said ‘these CDs are not for sale’…

    Whatever this press release says (and it is a cut and paste job identical to one sent to the petition website a week ago), the council has made it very hard for buskers. The terms of their policy says you can only play in a given spot once for two hours between Monday and Friday and have to move regardless of whether you’ve received complaints, so to suggest, as mr Alexander implies, that one could simply busk for 30 consecutive days is absurd and would contravene the terms and conditions of his own policy…

    That’s why the scheme stands as discredited and needs to be replaced…

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  4. 21 Mar ’13 at 6:42 pm

    Catherlagh Jones

    Agree 100% with Jonny Walter’s comments above, all of them. Our streets, towns, cities, societies are better places thanks to champions like him who are willing to stand up for his (and other’s) principles and challenge injustice. His guts and determination are an inspiration to others from all walks of life and he has many supporters following this saga. Good luck and respect to him.

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  5. 21 Mar ’13 at 6:46 pm

    Councillor James Alexander

    It is the same as council statement as I wrote it. It was also sent to the original petition by me. I would have sent it to you direct and all petitioners, but the petition software you are using doesn’t allow me access to respond to you or the petitioners. Some of the comments from a minority of your supporters are over the top. Comparing council staff to nazis is uncalled for. I also submitted this statement as a comment on Facebook. I will await the outcome of the investigation into your activities.

    There have been complaints about yourself playing music until the early hours of the morning. This is unfair on local residents and it shows why it is right there is some regulation.

    The Council is very supportive of street entertainers in all their forms. A vibrant street scene is exactly what we want but we don’t think there should be a free for all and if there is some regulation, this should be fairly applied to all performers.

    I submitted your petition into the democratic process as I thought it would meet numbers for a debate at full council. However the Lord Mayor and legal officer have ruled this is a personal matter and will not be debated. The Leaders of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have backed this position. I don’t think it should be up to me to decide what gets debated and what doesn’t.

    Feel free to email me on [email protected].

    All the best,

    James

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  6. Completely agree with the councillor here.

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  7. 21 Mar ’13 at 7:37 pm

    Jonathan Walker

    The street in question was Coney Street which has several night clubs on it and many boisterous people enjoying the night life which is such a major part of York’s visitor economy. I have played there for 10 years without a single complaint. I will be well known to some of the readers of this newspaper who attend a student venue called ‘willow’…on the night I was complained about there was another busker who contributed to the noise and had refused to move on when pitching close to me, in violation of York’s code of conduct. I then received an email saying if Busked after eight pm I would lose my badge. By what authority was this ruling made? Why did it fail to take account of the fact that in 10 years no one had made a complaint about me prior to this moment?

    James, if you read the text of the petition you will notice it does call for ‘no regulation’ or a ‘free for all’. Instead it calls on the council to draw up a policy based on collaboration with street performers and the musician’s union. It only asks for buskers to be treated with respect under existing laws which do not empower the council to control access to public space and remove permits without any legal process. I’m calling for fairness and openess, principles that are meant to be important to the Labour Party.

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  8. Incidentally I entirely agree with you that comparing council officials to nazis is inappropriate and unfair. I don’t endorse those comments at all. But I do think that the council needs to fundamentally re-examine its attitude to street performers.

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  9. 21 Mar ’13 at 7:52 pm

    philip garrett

    I tried pavement art in York, only to be moved on. I rang in advance and was advised to go in front of the cathedral. I made nothing in two hours. Next day went to market street and was appreciated and was doing well. It promised to be a good day, with the races starting and a military parade going through the city. I was then told to move on or face arrest. The law I was breaking apparently, was by attaching something to the street(masking tape to thwe pavement, to hold down canvas I was painting on. Shoppers, locals, market traders did not have a problem with me. Even the police officer who attended the scene at the request of two council officials, wanted an easy life. I had only been busking for two weeks previous to this. If I knew then what I know now, I would have questioned further, and challenged the councils claims that I am causing an offense and risk prosecution. I am not someone who would block a pavement, cause an obstruction or become a burden to others. Councils like York need to radically rethink what they are there for.

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  10. 21 Mar ’13 at 7:55 pm

    philip garrett

    excuse my grammatical errors above this keyboard is playing up

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  11. James, you have misrepresented what my sign said…

    The sign said, ‘CDs available SUGGESTED and VOLUNTARY contributions, £7 for one, £10 for two’ notice, these CDs are not being offered for sale, any contribution is voluntary and at your discretion’

    This is not street trading because people are free to take a cd without making a contribution if they choose.

    I think this is a reasonable approach to take when the local authority want to charge £40 per day for a street trading consent for a few CDs when market stalls with thousands of pounds worth of stock pay less than that.

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  12. James:

    I can’t help but find your comments and cheap recital of ‘council mantra’ (pasted directly from your website) very strange and a little insulting when one of your best known and longest standing street performers is wanting to collaborate with you to make constructive changes for the better.

    Firstly can you explain how you think it’s acceptable to use a figure of £6.58 per day to sell CD’s in York is a serious argument when your own terms state that if you are using an amp you cannot return to the same location more than once from Monday to Friday? Are you honestly saying that you would encourage a busker to realise the value of their monthly street trader’s consent by performing on 30 consecutive days? If you were as in touch with buskers and management of shared space as you say you are then you’d realise that not only would the weather not permit this but it would also be incredibly repetitive for everyone in the vicinity including the busker who wouldn’t physically or mentally be able to do it.

    I am a well known busker in York (you may know who I am) and I can tell you that your current busking “licence” scheme is certainly not encouraging a rich and colourful street culture to thrive, quite the contrary. Your statement that York council has “good relations” with buskers is testament to the fact that you are just believing what you would like to hope is true. Word on the street between buskers is that it’s very much “them and us”. Lots of buskers want an easy life and may not speak out at the risk of losing their “licence” and their livelihoods without any right to reply.

    I am personally aware of several buskers, (very experienced musicians) who WILL NOT COME TO YORK either because of the way they have been spoken to by your staff or the restrictions imposed by your terms.

    The truth is that some of your wardens (please note some not all) seem to be on somewhat of a power trip as they walk around enforcing your busking code like the iron rod of the law, even to the point where they condescend and offer their unwanted derogatory personal opinions about the particular style of act. In a rich and diverse street culture such as the one you aspire to in York there SHOULD be a wide range of performers and acts and it is certainly not the place of your staff to assert negative personal opinions when it is purely a matter of taste. Who are they to judge? I might further add that this is in stark contrast to attitudes from wardens experienced in other cites.

    My next question is one that I would very much like an answer to so I hope that you will do the honourable thing and address it right here and now and not quote some standard script as a response.

    Why are you threatening buskers by saying it is a police matter if somebody busks in York without your “licence”? Let’s assume, (as the vast majority of buskers are) that they are well intentioned, cooperative individuals who aren’t causing a nuisance and doing a reasonably decent job of things. If someone is not being offensive, excessively loud, aggressive to other buskers or the public, exactly which law are they breaking that warrants a call to the police?? I’m really struggling to see how that would be a necessary allocation of police time and even more disturbed at the fact that you are so freely using a threat like this to intimidate buskers which you are purporting to have “good relations” with. Can you explain?

    People are now waiting months to get a “licence” without success even though the same buskers seem to be in York all the time – lots of which are only passing through for a few days. Again if they dared to try to busk while they were on the waiting list they would be under threat of “police action”.

    Another point which is I have to take issue with:

    When the council decides they want to hire a band to use the space they are able to do so without any sort of collaboration with or consideration for the regular street performers who often travel from great distances to get to York only to be told they cannot busk. Not only that but interestingly hired bands don’t seem to have to play by the same rules York Council imposes on other performers but can crank up their volume to hugely excessive levels, dominating an entire street (capable of hosting 3 or 4 “regular” buskers) and stay as long as they like – I find this to be very hypocritical. Experienced performers try to be conscientious and cooperative with other acts on busy days – it is highly frustrating and insulting to us all when the council act like they can just do what they wish at the expense of others. Is it a case of “do as I say and not as I do?”

    Is this really how you want things to be James?

    Your comments would be appreciated.

    Neill Ryan

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  13. I find it outstanding that the council can treat busking as some violation of liberty or outright threat to the public’s best interests, threatening arrest to performers.
    So ridiculously petty.

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  14. As a busker myself, I am completely familiar with the busking permit system, but disagree somewhat with the way it works. I found obtaining a badge a long and difficult process, and the fact that it costs money is ridiculous. To then charge a stupid amount in order to obtain permission to sell CDs or merchandise is also not right, especially in Jonny Walker’s case, where he wasn’t directly selling the CDs. Personally, I believe that the busking badge system should be scrapped altogether, and replaced with a fairer scheme that manages to keep performers, the council, and the general public happy. Removing the badge would make it easier and less stressful for not only buskers who live in the city, but performers and groups who travel from other cities to perform here.
    The issuing system was unclear and as friendly as the wardens are, there can be a slight feeling of intimidation at times. All buskers and performers I have come into contact with have been friendly, cooperative people, so I can’t imagine that removing the badge system would greatly impact the the relationship that performers already have with the public and the council. I agree strongly with Mr Walker here and wish to support him.

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  15. 22 Mar ’13 at 4:53 pm

    Kevin Russell

    I can’t sing,can’t dance or play an instrument but, I know good musicianship when I hear it. There is nothing better than walking the streets & catching the sound of a good musician coming at you.Street performers deserve to be respected. Give thematic break.

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  16. I am surprised to see James quoting Harrogate at £49 a day. Has this come into force recently as I have busked there for years and NEVER been moved on, never asked to pay a charge or become a member of a buskers scheme. I recently spoke to Harrogate council about free parking for buskers and whether I now required a licence to busk in the town. I was declined free parking but told to carry on busking. It may have something to do with the fact that I do not sell CD’s and put my Cancer Research charity boards up (my job as a police officer means I cannot earn cash from a scond job) but otherwise my use of the public space is no different to any other performer. I have been a police officer for 28 years and have worked the town centres of Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield in that time. I have never once moved on a solo busker or been asked to. I have moved on aggressive beggars purporting to be buskers (when they clearly had no musical talent whatsoever and were hassling shoppers) and a band that had blocked th entrance to a alleyway that contained shops. This was straight up obstruction and the band were sensible enough to realise that they were taking a liberty setting up at that spot. I hate to disagree with James but employing police officers to move on street performers who are not causing an obstruction is an abuse of their time and powers. The police will on occasions assist Trading Standards officers where a criminal offence is suspected; however I would suggest that the selling of CD’s containing original material or cover versions does not fall under the label of “criminality”. I will probably take some stick from James for putting on both my hats on this post, but my experience in Harrogate and Leeds as both a busker and public servant has been nothing but positive. I would never busk in York having observed the issues that Jonny has gone through. I have met Jonny twice both times in Leeds (not in an official capacity) and although I do not know him personally he has always given me the time of day and been very pleasant. He is also a very talented musician. I just think that York council should give him and the other street performers a break.

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  17. 23 Mar ’13 at 4:17 pm

    Councillor James Alexander

    Dear Jonathan,

    I am receiving complaints that you are currently busking in the centre of town and you are very loud. I have also heard you are singing about me and I don’t appreciate this.

    I have some sympathy for some of the points you have sent me but you have shown yourself to be a very unreasonable person and I will not be getting involved in your case.

    All the best,

    James

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  18. James, you have shown a consistent habit of making allegations on public forums and then ignoring personal emails inviting you to talk through the issues.

    I don’t think this is a very productive way of addressing an issue of great importance to the city, and I hope you reconsider your stance.

    Kind regards,

    Jonny

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  19. Cllr James, if Jonny Walker sang a song about me, I’d feel privileged :)

    Jonny has a good point and is not being unreasonable whatsoever.

    James, I’ve read your comments and you have a good way of twisting words!

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  20. I’m surprised York council still allows the nuisance of amplified busking, many other cities have found that stopping his menace has a positive impact on the city, whilst stopping the small elite of buskers with big amps from monopolising the space to the detriment of other performers.

    Facebook.com/stopbusking

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