the Ethics of Licenses for Buskers

Hi folks!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted; had a great time in Charlottetown, PEI at the C.A.F.E conference, got embroiled in a questionable ‘situation’ that involved kidnapping and extortion, but, what else is new in the life of an itinerant street performer, really?

(don’t worry, while the kidnapping victim WAS an endangered species, it was a plush toy).

Today, I want to talk to you all about licensing. Busking and licenses, to be exact. There seems to be a divide among buskers: those who believe in and uphold the licensing issue and those that are pissed off by it. I fall into the category of the former as opposed to the latter, generally, although there are situations in which I rather risk it and follow the credo that it is ‘better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission’ to stand.

In Toronto, we have several licenses that are required to play in various parts of the city. For circus and typical street acts, we can take our pick of a variety of licenses including the regular city street license, a Harbourfont Centre license, permission from the Distillery District, and of course, the highly popular license for Yonge & Dundas Square. This doesn’t include the audition and licensing process required if you want to play music in TTC stations. Yup, we sure have a lot of choice in front of us!

The average regular city street license runs about $35 and covers a performer for an entire year. It would not take very long for a good busker to make that fee during a show and it’s a drop in the bucket as compared to some of the ridiculous fees I’ve had to pay in Europe (in Salzburg, Austria a city busking permit for internationals is 14€ per week!).

Now, I’ve toured a lot, folks. I’ve toured across Canada, toured through Europe, I’ve been to Asia, and while legally, a lot of my gigs that brought me to those places involved contracts with the government or festival organizers I have arguably spent a LOT of time on the hard street in all sorts of cities performing for locals and tourists alike and it’s allowed me to develop an informed attitude towards licensing and the whole notion of ‘free art’.

Let’s face it; busking is a fringe industry. We live on the outskirts of typical 9-to-5 culture, generally we are transient folks, or at the very least have a lifestyle that is conducive to living transiently, and as such, the industry attracts a lot of people who have a general disregard for the Way Things Work. And that’s fine: I’m all for circumventing the law, but, you gotta KNOW the law to circumvent it. I strongly disagree with the notion of circumventing law that has a rational reason for it’s inception. Busking licenses and the regulation of buskers, to me, is rational. It keeps the professionals on the streets and the kids who went to Burning Man once and didn’t bother to learn about fire safety first OFF the streets. It protects us buskers, and keeps us doing what we do best. Personally, I’m all for providing a C.V and demo-tapes of your work to local municipalities, not so keen on auditions but understand the importance of them. That way we know the person entertaining us on the giant unicycle isn’t going to fall and hurt himself along with his audience participant. In Covent Garden, performers require insurance to play. It.just.makes.sense. Even on the hard street, a license will protect each busker; we have a legal distance to keep separated, noise level requirements so everyone can be heard, and bylaw officers that yes, can HELP us (as much as they annoy us sometimes): for example, if some dickbag shows up while I’m performing and sets up shop beside me, I can ask them to wait until I’m finished, and, if they fail to comply, I can call bylaw who will be down at the pitch quickly to resolve the situation for everyone. It protects everyone involved. Admittedly, sometimes the bylaw officers flagrantly sweep areas and ticket regular performers for ridiculous and contrived offenses (‘blocking traffic flow’ is a classic one, if the officer is having a bad day), but in my personal experiences, I’ve had few negative ones compared to positive. And hey, if I feel like I’ve been treated unjustly, I’ll just take it to court, where I’m likely to win anyway.

Lots of buskers argue that busking represents freedom and refuse to get licenses on principle. I can agree with that statment when I’m touring through Europe and I’m not going to be in a city long enough to make use of a week-long, or month long permit, but, if you’re living in Toronto and making use of your OHIP, and contributing to society, COME ON. Grow the fuck up, already! As I said earlier, the city license is $35. We’re not talking $500 here. We’re talking a nomial fee that you can make in the first TEN MINUTES of performing (if you’re good. And I’m sorry, if you can’t make your license back in at least a day, get another fucking job). Personally, I refuse to obtain the Yonge & Dundas license. The cost is ridiculous compared to the amount of scheduled time a performer is ALLOWED to perform. It doesn’t make sense to me. If I’m going to pay a hundred bucks for my license, I better be able to play any time. It’s about getting a license that works for you.

Free pitches are becoming a rarity. In Ottawa, there’s some shit going down at the Byward Market, which, as far as I know, may very well be the last free pitch in Canada. For those of you who have never worked it, the pitch is pretty much performer-run, probably the best example of a performer-run space I’ve had the chance of experiencing: a draw happens every day for shows, and everyone takes turns sharing the spot. This is a rarity on a hard street pitch, as far as I am concerned. Regardless, the market has created a licensing program for performers there, but failed to allow the main pitch on George St. to be included on the roster of designated pitch areas. Internationals will still get licenses fairly easily, but what does it matter if they can’t do shows on what has been the main pitch for many, many years? This sucks, definitely, but the only way to fight this situation is legally, not by continuing to get tickets and getting arrested. Personally, I don’t mind having to pay a license, but I DO mind not being able to perform on a spot that has been used for years by performers. I do believe that cities should consult performers while planning their busking spaces, and if they don’t, I don’t mind spending my winters in court fighting a bylaw if it means I get a better summer out of the deal. While a space may work from an urban-planning standpoint, it may not work for performers. Governments should have an open dialogue with it’s city’s buskers. And from my experiences performing in Canada, most do; Harbourfront in Toronto is super for taking consideration of the opinions of other buskers.

Sometimes, however, governments don’t pay attention to performers and do their own thing. It may suck at the time, but unless you invest your time in fighting it from the inside out, sometimes y’gotta suck it up and look at it in a different way. I’ve heard the argument about fighting a ‘fascist government’ as a reason for not getting a license. Let me tell you folks something: people who say shit like that don’t have a fucking clue, and I advise them to get off their fucking lazy asses and go traveling. I’ve bought licenses in cities in Europe where a right-leaning government is in power, and have had military police shut me down, RIP UP the licenses I bought, cuff me and cart me out of town on the next train. Now THAT, folks, is bullshit. It sucked. But do you know what I did? I got on the train and got off at the next city and set up shop there. I was a guest in their country, taking advantage of their economy, who gave me the right to complain about mistreatment? Remember: as a busker, if you’re not claiming your busking earnings on your taxes (which, as a disclaimer, I would *highly* reccommend you do if you are legally a resident), you are taking advantage of an economy. Who gives you the right to complain about mistreatment, really? You’re already doing something illegal. And if you don’t believe in supporting a societal structure in the city you’re living in, cut up your health card, unlearn everything you were taught in public school then, you ungrateful piece of shit. I may be generalizing here, but, having met a lot of people, it always makes me laugh to hear this argument because, many folks whom I’ve met that have this attitude come from a privileged background (to a certain degree) and thinking this way is a luxury for them.

And lastly, if you STILL don’t support the notion of getting a license after what I’ve had to say, then go work the festival circut where you don’t have to worry. At least then you get billing and are treated well by festival organizers. There’s a lot of festivals out there, many abroad that take care of work visas and all that for you, too.

Permits and there for a reason. It helps us and it helps you. It allows us to perform in a designated area and protects you from some yahoo who doesn’t know how to use his juggling machetes. Admittedly, there are kinks to the system: auditioning regulars over and over again is annoying, ticketing performers for minor infractions is stupid, and creating designated pitches that don’t work for performers’ needs is retarded, but in the end, it’s so that everyone can play in the sandbox nicely.

And if you have a problem with it, don’t go and get yourself arrested, for godssakes. That just prevents you from traveling and wastes your money and time. Go fight the laws in the courts.


  •    Reply
    Anthony Jameer April 15, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    This article started really nicely then it got really hostile and unappealing halfway through, “your already doing something illegal” made me feel upset and the notion that were taking advantage of the economy is silly to me also. You most likely will spend the money in the town your in which helps the economy doesn’t it?. Playing music is the same as breathing to me, how can you say that it is illegal to express yourself. You have to play for people to truly improve as a musician and how you said if you cant make the $35 back then get a different job is the most discouraging thing I’ve ever heard just saying Im sorry beforehand doesn’t make it alright. Calling people lazyass’ and babies because of their opinions is wrong. How your treated in those others countries sucks right? Well it will happen here too slowly if you stop complaining about laws. Its ok to be grateful but not docile and complacent. People don’t need police for petty issues like this, you can’t walk over and talk to the guy like a regular human being, are you that scared of confrontation? In closing, MLK once said that “its every persons civil duty to follow just laws and to break unjust ones.” I think that creative expression and money/law have no place together and will end up destroying one or the other in the end.

  •    Reply

    Hi there!
    Thanks for taking the time to comment! It appears we have different opinions on the matter and that’s wonderful! I love having meaningful discussion.

    First of all; it appears you are making assumptions that I suggest that busking is illegal; while factually, it is illegal in some countries (although, thanks to such wonderful things as busker festivals, countries–such as Singapore–are warming up to the idea. Last time I was performing over there, I saw buskers on Orchard Road!) it is not illegal everywhere. And I am happy that it is legal.

    I’m not saying if you can’t make the fee for a permit back then to move to a different career; what I’m saying is, don’t balk at having to pay for a permit. If you want to make money at what is “the same as breathing” for you, then, you’ve already crossed the line into a business, sorry. As much as I appreciate the sentiment of art being a part of somebody’s life once you start asking for money, you’ve entered into a different territory. It’s not enough to claim entitlement over art if you are turning a profit. You need to respect the business side of things. By all means, go play on the street without a license if you really want to practise and have people excited about your work. But once you start asking for money, get a license.

    I don’t know about you, but as a solo act AND being a small female when I speak to other performers who are disrespecting my pitch, I get intimidation at best and physical threats (or violence) at worst. And while I don’t mind bopping a dick over the head every once in a while, I pay for my permit so I don’t HAVE to act that undignified. I’m not 19 years old anymore, I have no interest in getting into pitch wars. 🙂

    As to the ‘taking advantage of the economy’ comment…well, I don’t know about you, but in my last gig overseas, I would have had to pay for a five-star hotel for about two weeks and dine at the fanciest restaurants to pay that money back into their economy…so, yeah.

    I’m sad that you don’t believe creative expression and money have no direct relationship; to me, that sounds like you’re justifying yourself out of a possibly amazing career full of growth and financial opportunities. But, to each his own. I’m grateful and happy that I am making a living making art that I am 100% behind and is entirely my own. It’s a fine balance, but, I think it can be struck. Money does not necessarily mean creative ruin. After all, the Brothers Quay made coke commercials and Salvador Dali managed to brand himself into celebrity status.

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