What is Busking?

Chances are that you have either asked what busking is or had to explain it numerous times to people. Busking, busker and busk are words that you don’t often hear in the United States. Primarily a British slang, busking is defined as a person who performs in public for donation and possibly came from the Italian buscare, which means “to gain or procure.”

Often times, buskers are portrayed as “street musicians,” but can encompass just about anything that a person wants to do publicly for money. Impromptu poetry, living statues, jugglers, puppeteering, snake charming, pantomiming, caricature drawing and sword swallowing can all be considered busking and are common in different locations around the world.

A Brief History of Busking
Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that has traveling musicians, comedians, gypsy carts or circus shows, traveling by cart, horse, or foot? Those are buskers and they have existed in one way or another since the time of antiquity. The term ‘busker‘ is fairly modern, being first noted in English literature in the late 1800’s.

Common Names of Buskers Around the World

  • France: trouveres, troubadours or jongleurs
  • Germany: minnesingers or spielleute
  • Mexico: mariachis
  • Russia: skomorokh
  • Italy: buscarsi
  • Japan: chindonya

Regardless of what you call them, they’ve all served a single purpose; entertainment! Many famous musicians and entertainers started off their career standing on a street corner with their hat and instrument. Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Bon Jovi, Joshua Bell, Guy Laliberte and Sheryl Crow are just a few names of musicians that started off busking before they made it big.

The Downside of Busking
Some people stereotype buskers as being unemployed, homeless or beggars. Most buskers are none of those things. Some people will heckle buskers and stigmatize them as such, regardless of the busker’s social status.

Conflicts and fights over location can and do happen. Career buskers may try to maintain a “right of location” over others. Generally it is considered first come, first served. Some buskers will send a person ahead of them to fend others off a pitch until they arrive. This practice is known as “squatting” and is greatly looked down upon by other buskers.

Beggars have been known to congregate around buskers trying to intercept those patrons who want to pay the busker for their services and convert the donation to themselves. They also may hang around the busker waiting for donations and then asking the busker for money themselves for bus fare, food, etc.

Buskers may find themselves targeted by thieves due to the very open and public nature of their work. Buskers may have their earnings, instruments or props stolen. One particular technique that thieves use against buskers is to pretend to make a donation while actually taking money out instead.

Editor’s Sidenote: Weather! I don’t think there is a busker out there that won’t tell you how devastating it is to frantically pack up early because you’re caught in a downpour.

Busking and the Law
In the United States under Constitutional Law the protection of of artistic free speech extends to busking. In the USA and most places, the designated places for free speech behavior are the public parks, streets, sidewalks, thoroughfares and town squares or plazas. Under certain circumstances even private property may be open to buskers, particularly if it is open to the general public and busking does not interfere with its function and management allows it or other forms of free speech behaviors or has a history of doing so.

While there is no universal code of conduct for buskers, there are common law practices which buskers must conform to. Most jurisdictions have corresponding statutory law. Some venues that do not regulate busking may still ask performers to abide by voluntary rules. Some places require a special permit to use electronically amplified sound and may have limits on the  volume of sound produced. It is common law that buskers or others should not impede pedestrian traffic flow, block or otherwise obstruct entrances or exits, or do things that endanger the public. It is common law that any disturbing or noisy behaviors may not be conducted after certain hours in the night. These curfew limitations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is common law that using material that is sexually explicit or any vulgar or obscene remarks or gestures is generally prohibited unless performing for an adults-only environment such as in a bar or pub.

In the United States there have been numerous legal cases about regulations and laws that have decided the rights of buskers to perform in public. Most of these laws and regulations have been found to be unconstitutional when challenged. In the US, free speech is considered an essential and absolute civil right of every individual, guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth constitutional amendments. It doesn’t matter if people practise artistic free speech for money. In the USA about the only reasons that can be used to regulate or ban busking behavior are public safety issues and noise issues in certain areas that require silence like hospital zones, around churches, funeral homes, cemeteries and transport terminals where announcements need to be heard. Such laws must be narrowly tailored to eliminate only the perceived evils by limiting the time, place and manner that busking may be practiced. They must also leave open reasonable alternative venues. The only exceptions to these free speech rules are sedition, as defined by the Smith Act, public displays of pornography or obscenity and criminal behavior such as fraud or defamation and the common laws talked about above. In the US, laws regulating or banning busking must be applied evenly to all forms of free speech. Busking cannot be prohibited in an area where other forms of free speech are not prohibited. For example if busking is regulated or banned but people are allowed to conduct free speech behavior for pickets, protests, religious, political, educational, sports, commercial or other purposes then the law is illegal. In the USA any form of regulation on artistic free speech must not be judgmental, and permits must not be so restrictive, complex, difficult or expensive to obtain that they inhibit free speech.

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