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The Rules of Freedom: The place of street music in the life of our cities – Jonny Walker


Today’s guest post is by Jonny Walker, singer, songwriter and founder of the Association of Street Performers. It comes in the face of recent moves against buskers by Camden council, which is considering draconian restrictions and fines. In advance of the council decision next week, Jonny outlines the ramifications of these proposals and the relationship of street music to city life.

 ‘…I heard a saxophone from around the corner and, following the sound, found the musician playing alone in a snow-covered square. The pleasure of the experience was that it was so unexpected’

(Minton, Ground Control)

Street music has the capacity to transform urban environments, fostering opportunities for serendipitous encounters and connections between strangers. Musical buskers can present an “urban ritual that challenges the way we think about public space by promoting spontaneous, democratic, intimate encounters” (Tanenbaum in Simpson, A Soundtrack…).  However, the presence of musical buskers on the streets of Britain is not always welcomed by local authorities and other bodies, such as the police. The place of street performers in the shared public spaces of our towns and cities is, at best, an uncertain one and, in recent years, there have been increasing moves towards legislating against the rights of people to perform art and music on the streets.


The idea that there is such a thing as shared public space that should be open to the community at large for a wide range of uses is a beguiling one but that is fiercely contested.  Public spaces have been defined as places where ‘’people interact with those outside their private circles” and a “space’s publicness can be seen as the extent to which people have access without permission, expressed or implied, and in which they can decide individually about how to conduct themselves’ (Ehrenfeucht and Loukaitou-Sideris, 2007 in Simpson). In reality there are only ever degrees of ‘publicness’ (Simpson, Street Performance). The idea that streets have ever been actually free or democratic spaces does not stand up to scrutiny (Jackson 1998 in Simpson). Rather streets are ‘‘domesticated’ from the incivilities of certain inhabitants through the regulation of difference, and the definition of acceptable behavior, and the resulting purification and privatization of publicly accessible spaces’ (Ffye and Banister 1998 in Simpson).

As a professional street performer with increasing concerns about the restrictions being imposed upon the use of public spaces I set up ASAP! (The Association of Street Artists and Performers) in 2012, to campaign for public policies that nurture and support street culture. In August this year was asked by Camden Borough Council to submit a response to a consultation about the future of busking in this iconic part of London.  The proposed Street Entertainment Policy for Camden Borough Council that sits in front of me now is 168 pages long in total. The consultation now over, it awaits final approval at the full meeting of the Labour-led Council that will be held on the evening of November 11th, 2013. Looked at from the perspective of street musicians, it contains perhaps the most comprehensive re-imagining of the nature of shared public space ever attempted in contemporary urban Britain. If the policy is adopted, busking without a license on any street or public place in Camden will become a ‘crime’ punishable by fines of up to £1000, the seizure of instruments and their sale to pay the fine after a period of 28 days.  Anybody who plays a wind instrument, percussion instrument or wishes to use any kind of amplification, will be obliged to pay £47, and wait for 20 working days whilst their application goes before a decision-making panel to decide whether they are a ‘fit and proper person’ to hold a license. Finally a licence MAY be granted which will contain strict limits upon where, when and for how long even this now licensed street performer might play their instrument. The licence comes with strict terms and conditions and can be withdrawn in the event of complaints from residents or ‘authorised officers’. Even a person wishing to sing unaccompanied on the street will be required to apply for a standard license at a cost of £19 and with a 5 working day waiting period. Labour controlled Camden Borough Council stand at the threshold of effectively criminalising anybody who wishes to perform music on the street without paying for the privilege first. Streets that are, at present, filled with a diverse range of impromptu musical performances could well soon be emptied of all but the few who are able to meet the requirements imposed upon them by the new legislation.

Street musicians are used to inhabiting a kind of liminal space in urban contexts whereby their presence is neither formally welcomed or specifically excluded (Simpson, Street Performance and the City). Camden’s proposals take this one stage further. Unlicensed buskers are to become formally excluded, and it is the law itself and the tangible threat of heavy fines and equipment seizures that are to be the primary instruments of this exclusion. In this way spaces which were once open become closed, what was once public now becomes an effectively private domain, albeit guarded and protected by public officials.

The proposal to license busking throughout Camden is being presented as a response to an escalating cycle of complaints about noise from residents with 108 complaints received in the last year about buskers  (A more detailed look at the complaints shows that 56 of those complaints were made by the same 9 people which does raise some interesting questions about the real impetus for this new legislation). The policy document asserts,

All forms of street entertainment are viewed as an important part of the musical and cultural heritage of the borough, providing a means for new talent to be discovered, while adding to the vibrancy and character of the area (sic)’

After this promising preamble the real context of the document soon becomes apparent,

‘Camden is however concerned with the numbers of entertainers who are using amplifiers and loud musical instruments on the street…Camden believes that nuisance has been caused to local residents and businesses, and that there is potential for nuisance to be caused in any part of the borough’

So busking is both an important part of the musical and cultural heritage of the borough and yet has the potential to cause nuisance in any part of the borough, and at any time. Only one thing for it then, compulsory licenses,

‘The policy…takes into account the priority of harnessing economic growth by creating a light touch regulatory framework that permits most street entertainment to take place, whilst taking a proportionate approach on necessary restrictions’.

This ‘light touch’ framework consists in the mandatory licensing of any kind of public musical activity in Camden. It is based upon optional powers in the London Local Authorities Act 2000, little noticed at the time it was put into law, which enables local government to legislate against buskers if it can be demonstrated that they have caused nuisance or, that they have the potential to cause nuisance to residents or premises occupiers. Given that one person’s music is another’s noise nuisance, this hasn’t been difficult for them to achieve.  In a city of over 8,000,000 people it is difficult, on reflection, to think of any activity that does not have the potential to create nuisance for somebody somewhere, but such is the basis upon which far-reaching powers can be granted.


The legislation currently in the final stages of approval in Camden is part of a wider trend in which the distinction between privately owned and managed spaces such as the designated pitches on the London Underground and Covent Garden, and the shared public spaces of our towns and cities is becoming increasingly blurred. New types of urban administration imported from the USA, in the form of ‘Business Improvement Districts’, or BIDS, have proliferated across the towns and cities of Britain. A BID is a private company which collects an extra layer of rates from local businesses and then uses the revenue to improve the ‘trading environment’ in a given area. BIDS are accountable to property developers and retailers and not local electors, and, ultimately their focus is on the bottom line rather than innate value (Minton, Ground Control). The lines between public and private policy become increasingly unclear with BIDs occupying an increasingly quasi-governmental role. Late in 2011 Liverpool’s BID lobbied the City Council to legislate for a ‘street activity management plan’ which introduced mandatory licenses for busking, strict limits on where, when, and for how long people could perform, and included such contentious measures as the threat of trespass prosecutions against people playing music on the public highways of Liverpool, and the requirement for all would-be performers to hold public liability insurance to the value of £10 million. It was to oppose this particular piece of legislation in particular, and to campaign for the rights of performers to have fair use of shared public spaces in general, that I first set up ASAP! in June 2012. On the day that the new licence scheme became active in Liverpool in July 2013, we organised a ‘spontaneous celebration of Liverpool’s vibrant and living street culture’ in the heart of Liverpool’s retail centre. Musicians sang ‘All You Need is Love’ and other Beatles songs, whilst the Chief Executive Officer of Liverpool BID and senior local government officials looked on under the watchful eye of representatives of the local news media. An online petition was started which gathered over 3500 signatures and was backed up by a legal challenge which asked the council to abandon the legislation on the grounds that it was ‘coercive, irrational and oppressive’. Under legal pressure, the Council voluntarily withdrew the policy and agreed to negotiate on a new best practise guide with performers and professional bodies such as the Musicians’ Union.

In Camden the Chief Inspector of Police in the Borough of Camden Penny Mills strongly backed the plans to introduce compulsory busking licences in her response to the public consultation. She makes some extraordinary claims,

‘The growing presence of buskers and unlicensed street traders is changing the character and nature of the town centre and are attracting large  crowds (sic) these have become a target for opportunist criminals as well as organised criminal networks.’

She goes on to write,

‘It is recognised that performing arts can bring diversity and richness to an area, but this has to be balanced against risks posed to pedestrians moving in a confined space… the diminishing quality of life for local residents and businesses created by these un-regulated acts has led to the situation where Police believe the implementation of this legislation… should not be delayed’.

The precise relationship of buskers and musicians to ‘organised criminal networks’ is never made explicit but her claims echo the policy document’s introduction that busking ‘has the potential to cause nuisance anywhere in the borough’. Freedom of Information requests to Camden Council and the Metropolitan Police about specific recorded incidents of buskers causing crimes to occur or danger to pedestrians have, at the time of writing, have so far gone unanswered.

Chief Inspector Penny Mills sits on the board of a Business Improvement District, Camden Town Unlimited, alongside at least three elected Councillors, one of whom, Theo Blackwell, the Labour Cabinet member for Finance, has written an acerbic blog post justifying the busking policy. Whilst there is no suggestion that Camden Unlimited have lobbied directly for the introduction of these new laws, the crossover on their board between private interests, policy makers and elected representatives is quite striking.

One of Camden Town Unlimited’s five aims is ‘increase political commitment to delivering change in Camden Town’. The proposal to introduce mandatory busking licenses is an unwelcome political commitment from all who value the possibilities engendered by a vibrant and diverse street culture. An online petition calling upon Camden Council to rethink their plans has so far attracted over 3900 signatures. The Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra (CKO) has been formed as a way of expressing peaceful dissent with the additional restrictions placed upon wind instruments in particular, and the confiscation powers embedded in the proposed legislation in general because kazoos are much easier and less costly to replace than most other instruments. Comedian and activist Mark Thomas has supported our campaign and invited his friends Billy Bragg and Bill Bailey to a recent protest busk where the CKO performed impromptu kazoo-led versions of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’ to a crowd of slightly bemused onlookers.

The next gathering of the Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra will take place on Monday 11th November as Camden Council meet to make their final decision on whether to adopt the contentious busking laws. In the event that they do, ASAP! advises street performers not to give the license scheme legitimacy by signing up to it and to instead find creative, peaceful and constructive ways of opposing it. We envisage simultaneous, multi-location Kazoo-led busks across Camden to highlight the absurdity of criminalizing an activity that so enriches the lives of our cities. For in so much as busking ‘has the potential to cause nuisance in any part of the borough’ it has far greater potential to cause spontaneous outbreaks of joy and for that reason it deserves to be protected and cherished.


Relevant Links

Online Petition for Camden

Campaign Website and Facebook Group for Camden

ASAP! Homepage


Minton, A 2012 Ground Control Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City, Penguin Books

Simpson, P A Soundtrack to the Everyday: street music and the production of convivial, ‘healthy’ public places

Simpson, P Street Performance and the City: Public Space, Sociality, and Intervening in the Everyday

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6 thoughts on “The Rules of Freedom: The place of street music in the life of our cities – Jonny Walker

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  1. Jonny Walker is very thoughtful in his approach to the rights of artists and the positive effect that use of public space for art has.
    Street I Am has written numerous article on Jonny, busking law around the world and the importance of free expression for artists and the importance of the public space in the development to a free, creative, dynamic, enjoyable culture.
    While noise and an annoying badly executed repertoire should not role the day every day by the same token some people often young people have a right to live in a more noisy and fun environment and should not allow a few people to change the culture of an area because they have political and/or economic clout.
    In Venice Beach CA US there are is license required. You set up you start plauying at about 1pm and when the sun goes down you go home. Anybody who doesn’t want to live where there is noise and people and music all day lives somewhere else.
    In the mall of Santa Monica a mile down the road there is a small fee for perform till 10pm use amps whatever. There are designated areas anyone can play in for an hour then you move on. Performers take turns and no one feel oppressed at all. The patrons are often generous and the performers are very diverse. Different communities need different regulations to suit them. Camden could learn a lot from successful street arts communities.

  2. This is an articulate piece, which highlights the apparent hypocrisy of some councils who say that they value members of the public performing music in open spaces, yet who seek to control, licence (tax) and suppress the activity.

    However, having read the above article, I have no clearer understanding regarding about what it is actually that local councils are afraid of concerning busking. Is it noise, vagrancy, petty crime, people gathering together, and indemnity from accidents involving the public? What is it (the problem), exactly?

    Take noise. I am all for an abatement of mindless noise — pneumatic hammers, revving car engines, incessant alarms and sirens. There is too much of it and, to my mind, *councils do not do nearly enough* to silence mindless noise. Music, however, is NOT mindless noise by definition and good music will always bring joy to most if not all people. So, to me, the only point of council involvement in this respect is to assist in helping musicians make good music.

    What does “good” mean, here? Engaging, entertaining, captivating, skilful, intense, sonorous, mellifluous — all those things that make music good anywhere, not just in streets and parks. Now, you may prefer jazz to classical, or beat-box over flamenco, but that is just a personal listening preference and most often one has the choice to listen, or not. If the music is good and members of the public are engaged then it is antisocial to complain and spoil their fun, surely?

    Being a vagabond is not an offence and busking shows intent, living by exploiting one’s skill as a musician. I far prefer buskers to beggars in the sense that beggars trade on nothing except pity. So, if a vagabond is busking, it makes no sense to deprive them of their means – their instrument – to earn a crust — it’s dumb. Rather, local councils should be supporting those who want to get on and support themselves by offering a skill that entertains the public.

    I have never met a busker whose primary motivation in busking is to engage in petty crime — no, no, never… not once. On the contrary, buskers are sensible, decent citizens who want to engage with the public who, in turn, show their appreciation. Antagonising the public is completely counterproductive, and I know from experience that if buskers suspect there are pickpockets operating around their pitch they will expose them and chase them off.

    People gathering in public spaces, especially people gathering without forewarning, is a phenomenon that the Police hate, so it seems. If a gathering is benign, what’s the problem officer? Answer — none, whatsoever.

    Rather, I think Police fear a crowd because they feel outnumbered and therefore a potential for “loss of their control” so the instinct is to always disperse and “regain our authority”. In having drawn an audience, I would say that there is an onus of common sense and responsibility on the busker for *their* audience. Clearly, if people are in danger of getting hurt – squashed or trampled, say, because of sheer numbers gathered – a busker must stop busking immediately and address the danger, asking people to move away from danger safely — that is common sense. Writing a tome and charging buskers for a licence will not increase their common sense levels — and why isn’t that obvious to councils?

    Conversely, if a local council really wants to charge buskers why not do it to gain useful training in how to “work” properly with a crowd, in a workshop guided by more experienced musicians … and a local bobby, if that makes the Police feel more secure?

    As the saying goes, accidents will happen and I can think of a lot of more far dangerous scenarios, like slipping on a banana skin, than listening to music with others in a public space. Sure, there are public spaces (e.g. right by a pedestrian crossing) where being distracted by music crossing the road may constitute a danger — but how many sensible buskers do I know who will want to pitch there, where there is conflict for the public’s attention for the music? That’s right — none.

    It seems true that society has become more litigious, with ‘sue for you’ law firms openly touting for business on daytime television. Perhaps, as a consequence of being sued too often by the public, local councils demand that busking musicians indemnify them against all responsibility for accidents by taking out public liability insurance (PLI). So, where does such an eye watering £10 million pound figure for PLI cover, that some local councils demand buskers possess, come from?

    I have heard a story that there once was a musician busking in a shopping mall who used a petrol generator to power his musical equipment and that the said generator caught fire and burned the shopping mall down killing some people caught inside, and that the local council got sued for £10 million. A Google search on “busker + shopping mall + fire” produces no hits for such an incident, and so I suspect that this story – unless anyone really can point to such an incident – is just an urban myth. Incidentally, maximum £10 million of PLI cover for musicians performing in the UK comes in at around £150 to £200 per annum.

    One thing not touched upon in the article, yet that is a root cause of a lot of friction apparently between buskers and local councils, is the selling of merchandise, typically the busking musician selling copies of his/her own self-produced CD. Many councils view this as trading and require busking musicians to hold a street traders licence, as if they were a regular market stall holder, say, using the same pitch week-in, week-out. Of course, that scenario does not suit buskers, who need to travel and perform a variety of pitches in many different towns and cities. If a traders licence was paid for each location the cost would quickly become unviable. Yet, for many musicians trying to earn an extra crust through entertaining in public spaces, busking only makes financial sense if they are allowed to sell their own recordings.

    • Selling something is indeed trading, regardless of who made it. Knitted tea-cosy, batch of scones, cd of own music – still trading. Why should buskers be exempt from laws on street trading? Buskers don’t often bother with this where I live – they can make up to £100 per hour from busking.

  3. As a Street Performer of 3 years now, working outside London, in a variety of places including Birmingham and Stratford upon Avon I know that the picture of Buskers created by Camden Council and a ‘minority’ of residents is misleading, unfair and needs to be challenged along with the ‘new’ licencing scheme.

    I gasp in disbelief at Mrs Justice Pattersons recent words in the High Court apparantly justifying Camden Councils ‘new’ busking measures on the grounds that they are both proportionate and necessary. Any experienced performer knows that in fact the opposite is the case and that it is her decision backing council policy that is both unnecessary and disproportionate especially when you compare the successful ‘civic’ schemes and busking codes currently working in other UK towns and cities with whats now happenging with regards busking in Camden.

    Lets draw upon our rich and diverse collection of experiences as Street Performers, Artists, Buskers & Entertained Public and begin to paint the comparative, alternative picture that shows in fact that Camdens policy is wrong, Street Performers are badly represented, the High Courts decision is poorly inferenced and that there are plenty of examples of ‘un-licenced’ civic busking schemes out there that are not only running successfully, but also welcomed by the wider electorate. Simply look around you, search further afield to whats happening in places, towns and cities outside London and you can clearly see that Camdens ‘new’ regulatory regime regards busking is ‘extreme’ by comparison.

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