On 13 March, singer-songwriter Sherika Sherard completed her final busk at London Bridge. Given the increasing seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, her mum hadn’t wanted her to go. She did anyway. “We weren’t yet under lockdown – and it was one of the best sessions,” said Sherard. After three months on the government’s income support scheme for self-employed people, she was back on the capital’s streets on 16 June, entertaining the queue outside Selfridges’ Oxford Street store as part of its programme of “joyful experiences”. “People will really appreciate it now, as long as buskers are mindful,” said Sherard. “Buskers in London is a sign of the norm.”
The day before, in Manchester, Laurie Wright was on the first stop of his It Could Be Worse, You Could Be on Lockdown mini tour, performing covers and originals for the queues in Market Street to a noisy reception. “I came out because the shops are opening again, and there’s money to be made,” he said. “It’s good to be out and for things to be kind of moving back to normal, even if they’re not.”
Buskers know that their artistry depends on cooperation with local communities and councils, especially since they must now be mindful about crowds and social distancing. Despite pre-pandemic crackdowns on city-centre buskers, many councils have included busking in their plans for the public returning to the high street. Cardiff city council will create a number of “spill-out” spaces where managed social activities such as busking can resume. Cheshire West and Chester council stated that buskers can return “as long as they observe two-metre distancing and don’t attract a crowd of spectators that makes social distancing difficult or causes an obstruction”. The city has a street welcome team offering guidance to buskers on maintaining social distancing.
While buskers have been off the streets during lockdown, their music has not ceased. The charity, Keep Streets Live, which seeks to protect public spaces for “informal offerings of music and the arts”, invited buskers to live-stream performances on their Facebook page, where appreciative listeners could tip via PayPal. Classical guitarist busker Billy Watman has been virtually busking on Facebook, collecting tips through The Busking Project, which offers buskers an online showcase. Watman does not see this as a solution, but “the best we can do at the time”.
Sherard said she had been offered streaming opportunities on the social media platforms of several brands, who did not offer payment. “They were just wanting more content on their pages,” she says. The emphasis on exposure over payment is a sticking point: “Putting your phone to record and singing live is not really going to cost the companies that much.”
About 70% of Sherard’s earnings come from street performing. Because busking full-time has been her main source of income for four years, she was able to apply for government support – unlike some of her peers, who she said had “shot themselves in the foot by making the mistake of not paying their taxes”, leaving them unable to apply for financial relief. Keep Streets Live have suggested that buskers apply for the financial hardship fund offered by Help Musicians UK, which estimated that 25% of musicians believed they would be ineligible for the self-employment income support scheme.
The return to the high street brings with it concerns about the exchange of physical money. While the World Health Organisation countered claims that banknotes could transmit Covid-19, it has emphasised the importance of hand-washing after handling cash. Keep Streets Live’s Safe and Socially Distant Busking Guide recommends that buskers use “a box with plastic inside for your drops” but stresses the public health benefits of a cashless reader.
The iZettle has been a common sight among buskers in the capital since it was rolled out by Busk in London in 2018, and PayPal is an alternative if no physical device is available. Yet James Stephen, a folk busker from Stockport, said: “I can’t really see it [the use of contactless] coming up north any time soon.” He said that PayPal “has a few more steps in it than opening your wallet and throwing a coin in. People may think, ‘Oh well, bit of a faff that, I’ll just walk past.’”
On a sunny Monday morning in Manchester, the presence of Wright’s new contactless machine, positioned on a stand safely distanced from him, had not stopped some from throwing a few coins on top of his case. Shoppers said they were appreciative of buskers soundtracking their return to the high street. Chris and Kelly travelled into Manchester specifically to watch Wright. “He improved my day 100%,” said Chris. Wright was glad to be back: “There’s nothing like seeing the whites of people’s eyes, talking to them, and getting a round of applause,” he said. “I’ve missed it.”