Growing up in Red Deer, my exposure to buskers was limited to my occasional visit to the farmer’s market. Now, I am serenaded on every journey to and from work.
Unlike many cities that still liken buskers to pests no better than beggars, London took encouraging strides forward when they decriminalized street musicians in 2003.
The London Underground Busking Scheme is just one part of a citywide scheme that permits blossoming artists to perform before an audience of 3.5 million tube passengers.
However, the privilege does not come easily. Not unlike talent programs like American Idol, want-to-be-buskers must audition before a judging panel to earn their busking licence. Only then are they allowed to add their name to the 3,000 weekly time slots scheduled for 39 ‘stages’ across 25 Central London stations.
With only 400 buskers admitted to the London Underground Busking Scheme at any time, that gives every successful applicant 7.5 hours a week to win over fans and promote their work.
And though thousands of passing pedestrians ignore the talented amateurs, those who take note could find themselves the closest they’ll ever be to the next international superstars. James Morrison and John Butler are among the chart-toppers who launched their careers beneath the streets of London.
Yet, not everyone who performs in the underground network is looking to build their profile. World-renowned Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins recently filled one of the sought-after stage times while disguised as a brunette. She raised £16 for charity in a 45-minute set and gave thousands of commuters an unexpected treat.
Celebrities have graced London’s public stages above ground as well. Covent Garden is a prime busking location and the hotspot’s performers are managed in a similar audition scheme. Bon Jovi once drew impressive crowds on this site, while Simon and Garfunkle famously made appearances at Leicester Square just around the corner in the 1960s.
Still, despite the remarkable success stories of many busking regulars, the unsolicited performances continue to provoke heated debate across much of London.
The City of London — a square mile at the city’s core that maintains its own bylaws as a marker of its historical independence — continues to deny busking within its boundaries.
In anticipation of the Summer Olympics to be held in East London in a few months, further restrictions on these controversial performances have been made in key Olympic boroughs. While sports, businesses and arts are welcoming huge potential for recognition and investment as a result of the event, street buskers will not be able to reap the same benefits.
I suspect applications for the London Underground Busking Scheme will see an unprecedented rise this year, and the lucky 400 will be battling it out for the affection of the 5.3 million tourists predicted to visit London for the Olympics.
I encountered one busker recently who is making a promising start by practising his charm on London’s locals. He demonstrated precisely what makes busking such a beneficial addition to Britain’s capital, as late night commuters dropped their bags, let their hair down and danced together to a cover of the Oasis’ hit song Wonderwall.
Daily commuter Benjamin Williams is regularly greeted at Holborn station by a range of musicians from jazz singers to the station’s popular one-man and symbol-playing-puppet band. Williams says “buskers liven up my day with fresh and interesting takes on timeless classics.”
The classics are a favourite with the buskers, too, as an undercover reporter recently discovered that The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, The Doors’ L.A. Woman and Nick Drake’s River Man swept up the biggest profits.
I’m counting up my pennies for the Holborn puppet duo, who played my favourite cover of Santa Baby over the recent festive period. Terry Fator, the America’s Got Talent winning ventriloquist, faces rising competition from London’s prospering underground talent show.
Brit Kennedy grew up in Red Deer and graduated from Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School. She attended university in Scotland and is now living and working in London, England.