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The role of street music for the ‘creative city’ – Karolina Doughty


In an introduction to new joint research taking place at the Universities of Brighton and Stockholm, Karolina Doughty, from Brighton’s School of Applied Social Science, looks beneath the surface of busking and street music to provide an account of the different cultural and policy debates surround the practice and how they fit into the ‘affective management’ of modern cities.

Together with my colleague Maja Lagerqvist from Stockholm University in Sweden, I am researching live street music in urban public places. We are using the term ’street music’ to mean any kind of live musical performance in a public place, such as on a street corner, outside a train station, in the underground, by a tourist attraction, or in any other public place where people are moving around freely. We are interested in anything from very competent musical performances to beginners strumming out their one and only song to the darker end of begging where it is more about making noise than making music. We are interested in the contrasts and the contradictions and when music on the streets makes us feel something, whether it is good or bad. By doing this research, which is still in its early stages, we hope to contribute to an understanding of how street music, and its more or less fleeting presence in the urban soundscape, affects our encounters with the city and its role in the creation of the city as a place where we live, work and play.

Cities today are permeated by music. In shops, on the underground, in pubs and in restaurants and cafes; music is all around us when we move about in public spaces whether we like it or not. Music is a significant element in the constitution of urban space and is an element of the urban landscape which is changing, invisible and difficult to pin down, while it has a strong impact on the individual and the way we act, think and feel in these spaces. Music in public spaces has different functions and is often managed (more or less carefully) to enhance a particular pre-conceived mood or atmosphere and the desired behaviours that go along with that. We are all familiar with some of the different uses of recorded music in this regard, from so-called ’lift music’ or ’muzak’ to carefully designed soundtracks used to enhance spending behaviour in shopping malls, where what is referred to as atmospheric variables, including sound, lighting, temperature and smell can be managed to create a specific atmosphere. These are examples of the way that recorded music in public space is controlled and managed in order to (by extension) control the way that people act, interact and feel in these spaces.

The significant experiential effect of the urban musicscape has brought about many and varied attempts to regulate and control music in the city, especially when it comes to live music. Although the modern city is a sonic landscape where we expect a certain amount of sound and noise, and the sound of street music is a common addition to the soundscape, music in the city is also the focus for competing attitudes and discourses. Street music can on one end of the scale be regarded as art and as a highly positive addition to urban life. At the other end of the scale, it can also be regarded as noise pollution, begging  and as something that ought to be regulated and policed. Music in the city is therefore something that can be encountered and valued in many different ways. It can provide a sense of well-being and happiness, seem calming, inspiring or inclusive, but equally could be experienced as invasive, excluding and limiting, almost like a physical barrier. Regardless if the encounter with street music is positive or negative, music in the city has the potential to affect the practices and movements of those who live in, work in, or are visiting, the city.

Based on the differing status and valorisation of street music and its effect on inhabitants and visitors in the city, it is also relevant to consider, on a broader scale, how music in public space has been regarded and dealt with by the public and by governing bodies. This is why we started our research by looking at regulations and at how music is used in different marketing strategies, especially in so-called place-marketing. There are strategies involved in marketing whole cities, where street music, or busking, plays a key role. Just the fact that busking is subject to so much debate and regulation illustrates its potent force within regeneration, place-marketing and tourism agendas.

Arguably, discussions around the status and value of street music have increased around the globe in recent years. These discussions are above all related to if and when street music should be considered sound pollution and a public disturbance. This has led to the creation of policy and laws around the performance of music in public spaces. There are currently, in many parts of the world, attempts to limit sound pollution in public spaces and often this means regulating the performance of music on the city streets. At the more liberal end, local authorities have introduced codes of conduct for street performers, like time and place restrictions and at the stricter end, street performers have either to audition for licenses, a way for the authorities to increase or influence the quality of the music, or have been banned completely. However, there are also competing trends in existence, where street music is encouraged both from a political and planning perspective and seen as a way to build creative and marketable cities, examples of such cities include Taipei and Nashville. But, while cities are increasingly expected to be creative and have a buzz, there are also moves towards, in Nigel Thrift’s (2004; p. 58) words, an “affective engineering” of spaces to load public spaces with a certain buzz. And to regulate, but also to use or promote, street music can be a part of this.

To explore this in more detail, we looked more closely at documents and texts about the regulation of street music in Sweden and in Britain. We did this alongside our own observations of busking in Stockholm and Brighton, where we made video recordings of buskers performing. A reading of how street music and its influence on people and place is framed in various documents from state authorities, politicians, campaigners and media in both Sweden and Britain makes evident the complex nature of street music and its role in the affective management of encounters with urban public spaces. Affective management, or ‘engineering’ of the atmosphere of places, is implicated in a recent shift in urban planning from past restrictive measures to efforts to attract desirable behaviour through what Christine Henschel (2011) terms the ‘charming out’ of that which is undesirable. She describes this as a shift away from the exclusionary, prohibitive and moralising techniques of the past to a focus on the powers of seduction and atmosphere, which has given rise to a regime of spatial management through what she calls ‘flirty surfaces’. From a planning perspective, urban feelings are taken seriously, not only in terms of addressing issues such as crime and safety but also in efforts to enhance desirable aspects of the city, attracting those visitors and citizens that are wanted and ignoring or ‘charming out’ those who are unwanted additions to these city spaces. Street music becomes a key dimension within such efforts, especially where a vibrant, lively, creative atmosphere is desired as a defining feature of the city, or specific places within the city. This overview of affective stories about busking in the city illustrates the complexity of the affective functions of street music and the difficulties of controlling something like live music on the city streets.

The following points illustrate the most prominent ways of understanding the functions of street music in the contemporary debate. The first category we identified was when street music is seen as problematic, for various reasons, for example:

  • when street music is seen as disturbing because it is experienced as noise pollution and affecting wellbeing (this is of course contextually bound, depending on the situation/context/time/place).
  • when street music is seen as disturbing because of bad quality (low artistic value, not an expression of culture, just for money).
  • when street music is seen as disturbing because of repetitiveness (and thus not infusing place with spontaneity and creativity)
  • Problematic connections to begging or street-trading. For example, in Brighton no signs asking for money are allowed, no sale of CDs is allowed and no shaking of a collection pot is permitted. Disturbances are caused when these regulations are broken, for example in aggressive begging.

And more implicitly:

  • Street music becomes problematic when it is seen as incongruent with a desired place identity
  • And it is seen as attracting the ’wrong kind’ of cultural diversity. In Sweden, there is a sub-text to the debate around begging, where begging is not only a problem in itself but associated with ethnicity and national identity as many buskers seen as problematic are from the travelling community or eastern Europe. This has meant that the right-wing anti-immigration party has been an active voice in this debate.

Street music performances can sometimes be revealing of social injustice and social problems, literally giving them an aural as well as visual presence in the urban landscape, which can render the experience of the music itself as problematic or uncomfortable. This can be the case when people who are (or appear to be) homeless or destitute play, absolutely regardless of their musical ability. There are certainly hidden agendas around who is deemed to ‘belong’ in the busking landscape, determined along the lines of age, ethnicity, socio-economic status and class, and this underlies much of the regulatory debate around busking.

However, much of the debate portrays street music as a positive influence on the city:

  • it is associated with spontaneous culture, provides a sense of freedom, spontaneity and culture to the streets, and this is often a key aspect in the marketing of lively cities
  • it creates a counterweight to the commercial city
  • it creates conviviality and creates meeting places. An example of this is New Road in Brighton (an example of so-called ’shared space’)
  • It is seen to liven up places and create good atmospheres (which is seen as important in tourism, place-marketing and serves commercial interests)
  • It creates attractivity and ‘charm bubbles’ or ‘flirty surfaces’ where citizens or visitors can be seduced
  • It enhances vibrancy and is taken as a sign of a ‘vibrant art scene’
  • it is portrayed as a force in regeneration, social inclusion and participation

Our analysis shows that there is a multifaceted way that busking and its influence on people and place is understood. Moreover it is often perceived, or represented, as positive in itself but when it comes down to actually encouraging street music performances, it is often seen as problematic, sometimes due to the characteristics of the music, the musician and/or the reasons behind the performance in the first place (whether it is seen as too close to begging or whether it has other political motives). We also found that street music plays an important role in the production of the idea of ‘The Creative City’ and that we need to be asking questions about what kind of creativity is desired, enabled, or made possible by these marketing strategies and to what degree they succeed or fail in regulating the busking scene, or encouraging buskers to establish a certain atmosphere. There are certainly many interesting questions to be asked about the nature of street music in itself and its potential to be subversive or political rather than serving commercial interests. But arguably it is so popular with the ‘marketing-machine’ because it is to some extent self-regulating in the sense that there are unwritten rules about what kind of music is played and how it should be performed to be successful.

It is still early days for this research and we are excited to see where it will take us in the future and we are hoping to do more video recording and interviews both with buskers and their audiences.

Karolina Doughty

Karolina is a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Brighton and she works on this research with Maja Lagerqvist who is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Cultural Geography at Stockholm University.


Hentschel, C. (2011). ‘Outcharming crime in D(urban) space.’ Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies 37 (1), pp. 148-164.

Thrift, N. (2004), ‘Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect.’ Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86: pp. 57–78

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