What is busking?

If you’ve walked down a city sidewalk, in a subway, or any other place where a lot of people congregate, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a busker. They’re usually playing an instrument with the instrument case open and people are throwing in some money as they walk by. These are buskers, and they add entertainment to our public spaces.

So, What is Busking?

Busking is when people perform on the street in hopes of gaining something in return, usually money. The street performers (buskers) will set up in areas where people tend to gather, like busy sidewalks, public squares, and so forth. These performers usually work alone but also in pairs and small groups.

Busking has a long history and can be traced back to medieval Europe (though there’s evidence it went back further than that). Travelers would make their way from town to town while performing to buy food and pay for lodging. Buskers filled the streets of large cities, such as London. During Victorian times, organ grinders filled the streets with their haunting sounds. It was estimated that, at the height of busking, there were as many as 1,000 organ grinders on the streets of London, all fighting for the attention and money of those walking by. Buskers became such a nuisance that laws were finally passed to regulate street performing activities.

Busking in the United States goes back to at least the American revolution. As the country grew, so did the busking trade. The activity became more and more popular with performers when the traveling circuses crisscrossed the country. Circus performers would often take their acts into towns and cities as a way of making extra money.

Most Popular Busking Forms

When most people think of busking, they think of musicians. Buskers play everything from the guitar and the ukulele to drums, keyboards, and violins. Groups of musicians will often play together and split the profits among themselves. But more often than not, busking is a solitary endeavor. There’s also the one-man band. This involves a person playing a variety of instruments at the same time. These instruments usually include a guitar (or another stringed instrument), some type of percussion, a brass or woodwind instrument, and more. They accomplish this by using their hands, feet, and even their head to play. It takes a lot of coordination but when done right, the one-man band can sound amazing.

But busking isn’t just limited to musicians. Street performance is just that, a performance. This means that anything people can listen to or watch can be a form of busking. Street performers often get very creative by coming up with unique ways of getting people’s attention. For example, some performers will paint themselves in gold or silver, dress in a costume, and pretend to be a statue. This requires standing very still for long periods of time. When done right, it’s hard to tell the difference between the performer and a real statue. Buskers can modify their statue and pretend to be a robot by giving themselves a metallic look and moving around like a robot. Some will even add sound effects to make their act even more realistic.

Another unique form of busking is street magic. They usually perform close-up magic right in front of their audience, making their illusions even more impressive. Some magicians might even set up a small table and use props for their tricks. A good example of a famous street magician is David Blaine. He’s famous for extreme tricks like spending seven days submerged in a sphere of water or living in a transparent plexiglass box 30 feet above London. He only drank water and did not eat for 44 days.

Busking And The Law

The laws around busking vary greatly by location. In the United States, buskers are generally protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech. Because of this, most laws trying to place limits on busking have been ruled unconstitutional. That said, reasonable restrictions can be applied, like curfews on performing in residential or hospital areas. Public safety is another consideration. Municipalities can require buskers to have a permit as long as obtaining one isn’t overly burdensome.

Here are examples of busking laws from 5 cities around the United States:

– In Chicago, buskers might need liability insurance, depending on where they play in the city.

– In Atlanta, buskers cannot ask for a specific amount of money, nor can they single anyone out for donations.

– Boston has restrictions on the volume and requires permits to perform in the subway.

– Busking is legal in Austin as long as one does not obstruct entrances to businesses and residences, and does not obstruct the sidewalk. And as long as the tips are voluntary, a permit is not required.

– Los Angeles requires a permit to use amplifiers and busking is only allowed on public sidewalks.

The Future Of Busking

While it’s doubtful that traditional busking will go away anytime soon, the nature of the gig is changing. Performers are taking their acts online, to platforms like Youtube and TikTok. The benefit of going digital is buskers expand their audience to anyone with a mobile device. They can accept electronic payments, which are more convenient than cash, and there are no permits or local laws to worry about. On the other hand, busking on the street is a more intimate experience, for both the audience and performer. Buskers can “read” the audience to get a feel for how their performance is going and whether or not people are responding positively to their act. Performing on the street also allows buskers to make real-life connections with people, rather than just seeing the number of views their videos have gotten.

Buskers Are A Different Breed Of Performer

It takes a certain type of person to perform out in public. Buskers are putting themselves out there, being vulnerable. Some people find them annoying while others enjoy the entertainment they provide. It’s hard to say how many buskers make a living at their craft and how many are just hobbyists trying to make some extra cash. But regardless of their motivation buskers are very passionate about their art.