Where the streets have no change: how buskers are sur­viv­ing in cash­less times

The Guardian Australia - - Science / Technology - Sam Wol­las­ton

It is a crisp, blus­tery, au­tumn af­ter­noon on the South Bank in Lon­don. Char­lotte Camp­bell stands with her back to the river play­ing an acous­tic gui­tar and singing Leonard Co­hen’s song Hal­lelu­jah, a buskers’ favourite. “Now I’ve heard there was a se­cret chord, That David played, and it pleased the Lord, But you don’t re­ally care for mu­sic, do you?”

Peo­ple stop, watch a while, film Camp­bell on their phones, or mouth along. “It goes like this: The fourth, the fifth,The mi­nor fall and the ma­jor lift, The baf­fled king com­pos­ing Hal­lelu­jah …” Some drop coins into her gui­tar case, or send their kids to do so. Pound coins, sil­ver ones, or just a few cop­pers.

Camp­bell is def­i­nitely a busker for the 21st cen­tury. She has cards, with in­for­ma­tion on how to find her on YouTube, Face­book, Twit­ter and In­sta­gram. And as well as the gui­tar case for coins, she also has some­thing that might make you look twice – a con­tact­less card reader. Be­cause hardly any­one uses cash any more – just like the Queen. (Even two years ago, a sur­vey found that the av­er­age Bri­ton car­ried less than £5 on them.) No cash? No prob­lem; tap Camp­bell’s card reader, to give a quid.

Al­though, in the half hour that I am watch­ing and lis­ten­ing – to cov­ers of Fleet­wood Mac, Christina Perri, Ed Sheeran, the Bea­tles, plus some of Camp­bell’s own ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing a song with the line: “I don’t need your coins, no, just your ear” – no one does tap their card, un­til I do. It doesn’t help that the sign has blown over. She gets more taps when she busks at train sta­tions, she says.

The pro­ject to en­able buskers to ac­cept con­tact­less pay­ments, still in its in­fancy, was launched by the Lon­don mayor, Sadiq Khan, and Camp­bell was one of a select few per­form­ers to be given a con­tact­less card reader (by the Swedish fi­nan­cial tech­nol­ogy com­pany iZet­tle). But only a tiny pro­por­tion of her earn­ings comes that way. (Buskers, like every­one else, I learn, are re­luc­tant to di­vulge ex­actly what they earn, but Camp­bell makes enough to live and pay rent in Lon­don.) For a while, she had been think­ing about how the move to­wards a cash­less so­ci­ety would af­fect her ca­reer, and no­ticed that more peo­ple were say­ing they didn’t have any cash on them. Her mu­sic is on iTunes and Spo­tify, and she has a web­site where you can do­nate by var­i­ous means.

Is con­tact­less in the spirit of busk­ing, I won­der? “There is a ro­man­tic thing about drop­ping a coin into a hat. That’s what peo­ple think they’re go­ing to miss,” Camp­bell says. “But if peo­ple don’t have cash any more, that’s never go­ing to be some­thing peo­ple will get to do ever again. There’s only two op­tions here – we ei­ther don’t have buskers or we drop a coin into a hat in a dif­fer­ent way. We have to ro­man­ti­cise the tap on the screens some­how.” And she laughs.

Camp­bell has not yet man­aged to ro­man­ti­cise the tap, or work it suc­cess­fully into her hat line. (A hat line is a busker’s end-of-set pat­ter, de­signed to ex­tract max­i­mum cash from au­di­ence. “If you could just take £1 or £2 out of your wal­let and give me the rest,” is an old favourite.) When Camp­bell says: “Also, I have a card reader,” she sounds al­most apolo­getic.

Michael Hen­nessy, a New Yorker now liv­ing and busk­ing in Bath, has also no­ticed that his hats have been down re­cently. Over the phone, he tells me he puts this down to mul­ti­ple fac­tors: global un­cer­tainty, Brexit, Trump, Bath and North East Som­er­set coun­cil’s un­help­ful park­ing re­stric­tions that are putting off the tour op­er­a­tors, and, yes, the fact that peo­ple don’t have money in their pock­ets any more.

Hen­nessy also has a card reader, al­though, so far, it has been more ef­fec­tive at gen­er­at­ing com­edy than in­come. Peo­ple point at it and laugh. To which he now re­sponds: “You know you wanna!” or “Come closer and I’ll empty your bank ac­count.”

Sherika Sher­ard busks on the South Bank and in Bath. She was a bit em­bar­rassed about her card reader at first. “But then I thought, ac­tu­ally, I be­lieve in what I do, and my tal­ents, it’s OK,” she says. “When you think of your­self as a mu­si­cian and you have mu­sic to show­case, it makes sense.”

She makes lit­tle jokes about hav­ing to keep up with tech­nol­ogy, peo­ple laugh. She has even had peo­ple give their cards to their kids to come up for a beep. “Peo­ple see that you’re tak­ing your­self se­ri­ously. It shows that you mean busi­ness.”

Dr Paul Simp­son is about the near­est there is to a pro­fes­sor of busk­ing. He is a pro­fes­sor of hu­man ge­og­ra­phy at the Univer­sity of Ply­mouth, but he has done lots of re­search into street per­for­mance, as well as busk­ing him­self. And he is scep­ti­cal about con­tact­less busk­ing. “Through­out his­tory, there have been at­tempts to leg­is­late, reg­u­late and or­gan­ise, restrict,” he says. But part of a busker’s value “is the in­for­mal­ity, the nov­elty, the ex­cite­ment, the po­ten­tial for un­pre­dictabil­ity that they can bring to ur­ban life”. Visa debit doesn’t quite cap­ture this mer­cu­rial spirit.

Simp­son, who used to busk in Glas­gow, says the sound of a coin hit­ting a pile of change helped get him through. “If it was a chilly day on Buchanan Street, driz­zle in the air, you’d been there for hours, the sight of the coins in­side your case gave you a sense of how you were do­ing, it was a ma­te­rial man­i­fes­ta­tion of ap­pre­ci­a­tion. Be­cause peo­ple don’t tend to clap or stop, it was the equiv­a­lent of a round of ap­plause at the end of a song.” He won­ders if the beep of a card ma­chine would feel quite the same.

Plus, he has is­sues with the fixed rate – tap to give £1 (£2 for Hen­nessy in Bath, no won­der they are laugh­ing!). Busk­ing, says Simp­son, is a “demo­cratic sort of per­for­mance, any­one can see it, there’s no stan­dard charge; if you choose to do­nate, you do­nate what you want to”.

But for Nick Broad it is adapt or get a job. “There’s no mid­dle ground where you can­not take cash­less pay­ments and still earn in a cash­less so­ci­ety,” he says. Broad, with his part­ner Lil­iana Maz, runs the Busk­ing Pro­ject, a non-profit

or­gan­i­sa­tion that ex­ists “to pro­mote, cel­e­brate and de­fend buskers with tech, ad­vo­cacy, re­search and op­por­tu­ni­ties.” In­ter­viewed by Broad for a film, street per­form­ers in var­i­ous coun­tries told him their hats were get­ting smaller, and some at­trib­uted this to a move to­wards cash­less. That was in 2011, since when Broad and Maz have de­vel­oped var­i­ous sys­tems to try to make it eas­ier for buskers to take pay­ment via card, Paypal, Ap­ple Pay and Google Pay, via a tip-me but­ton on on­line per­former pro­files.

Now they are tri­alling a new tap-t-otip sys­tem, where you tap your phone against some­thing – a process that should take no more than a cou­ple of sec­onds. Broad’s not say­ing too much about it, as it hasn’t been shown to work yet.

One thing he and Simp­son do agree on is the im­por­tance of buskers. Simp­son says they can make unin­spir­ing places more en­gag­ing, threat­en­ing places more hos­pitable, and can bring peo­ple to­gether and make them smile. Broad talks about their place in the mu­sic in­dus­try, in which live venues are be­ing closed down, and all the money goes to a tiny per­cent­age of artists while every­one else picks over the crumbs. “Street per­for­mance, in my opin­ion, may be the only vi­able way of mak­ing a liv­ing as an in­de­pen­dent artist,” he says. It is not un­heard of for buskers to get spot­ted and signed. Ben­jamin Cle­men­tine, from Ed­mon­ton in north Lon­don, was dis­overed while play­ing on the Paris Metro, and went on to be short­listed for the 2015 Mercury mu­sic prize. BB King, Tracy Chap­man and KT Tun­stall are among oth­ers who started play­ing on the streets.

I need to talk to more buskers out­side Lon­don and Bath, with their mayor-friendly schemes, lotteries for prized slots, rules and li­cences. So, I head to Glas­gow.

Busk­ing is big in Glas­gow, big in its con­tri­bu­tion to the at­mos­phere of the city cen­tre, big in the num­ber of peo­ple do­ing it. If you walk along the eastern half of Sauchiehall Street, then all the way down Buchanan Street, then left on to the pedes­tri­anised part of Argyle Street, you will be ac­com­pa­nied – un­less it’s chuck­ing it down – by mu­sic. Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here fades out and in comes a piper, per­haps, Bob Mar­ley’s Redemp­tion Song or the sound of Oa­sis be­ing mur­dered on a beaten-up gui­tar. It would be sur­pris­ing if you made the jour­ney with­out hear­ing Hal­lelu­jah.

David Burns ad­mits that Hal­lelu­jah is in his reper­toire; I hear him do Blur’s Cof­fee and TV, and a song by Marshall Chipped, his own in­die band. Softly spo­ken, but with a big, deep singing voice, Burns has been busk­ing in Glas­gow for 15 years. When he be­gan, there were just a hand­ful of them, now it has reached sat­u­ra­tion point. To­day, his usual spot out­side Costa was al­ready gone – at 9am on a Thurs­day in Novem­ber – so he is fur­ther down the street by the Co-op.

He still makes enough to pay the bills, he says. It gets him out of the house, he only sings the songs he wants to sing and no one takes a cut. “Busk­ing is the purest form of this,” he says. “It’s tak­ing your mu­sic di­rectly to peo­ple. You’re out here on the streets and if some­body likes you they’ll throw a coin in, if they don’t they’ll walk on past.”

Burns has thought about peo­ple car­ry­ing less cash around – he is guilty of it him­self – but thinks it will be more of an is­sue fur­ther down the line. In the mean­time, he is keep­ing an eye on it. He doesn’t rule out hav­ing a con­tact­less card reader one day.

I speak to Andy Bargh, who has only been busk­ing for five years. He thinks a card reader would look ar­ro­gant, al­most as there is an ex­pec­ta­tion. He reck­ons that if a busker were pho­tographed with one in Glas­gow and it went on so­cial me­dia, they would be torn apart.

In Buchanan Street, Malachy has bagged the prime spot out­side TGI Fridays. As he did yes­ter­day. He gets here early and sets his equip­ment out (al­though, as he won’t play for sev­eral hours, not every­one ap­pre­ci­ates that). Malachy is from Western Aus­tralia, and has busked all over. Glas­gow’s a fan­tas­tic place to do it, he says. “Peo­ple have time for it here, they will lis­ten and ap­pre­ci­ate orig­i­nal mu­sic.”

He plays what he de­scribes as “long­hair wanker mu­sic”. Malachy isn’t a fan of Hal­lelu­jah. “If you walk up and down here, you’ll here Hal­lelu­jah about eight mil­lion fuck­ing times.” Malachy says he will prob­a­bly get a card reader next year. I won­der how that will go down with Glas­gow’s other buskers. Malachy has busked in the US, where it is al­ready far more com­mon for buskers to take pay­ments by card or phone. In China, it is not just buskers but beg­gars, too, who are now ac­cept­ing dig­i­tal pay­ments.

Here is an­other fa­mil­iar tune – Cham­pagne Su­per­nova – played by Con­nor Ste­wart on the sitar. Ste­wart, a bouncer by night, is from the Go­van area of Glas­gow, but spent four or five years in Varanasi, In­dia, learn­ing the sitar. In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic is his pas­sion, and he plays it on the street as well as his sitar ver­sions of Oa­sis and the Stone Roses. He hasn’t been do­ing it long enough to no­tice any change in hats or cash-car­ry­ing habits, but he seems to be do­ing OK to­day. And do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. I think the mu­sic is more im­por­tant than the money for Con­nor: he is on a higher plane.

Round the cor­ner to Argyle Street, past Bobby Hamil­ton, “the Bowie and Bolan Busker Bloke”, is segue­ing seam­lessly from The Man Who Sold The World to Hot Love. And here is Hal­lelu­jah, again, be­ing sung by Nikki Foster. Foster, orig­i­nally from County Durham, came to Glas­gow to do a mas­ter’s in mu­sic at the Royal Con­ser­va­toire of Scot­land. She is a clas­si­cally trained opera singer, but the op­er­atic voice be­gan to grate, she says. “I felt I wasn’t be­ing my true self, like I was do­ing it just be­cause I knew peo­ple would like it rather than be­cause I wanted to.”

Now she sings what­ever the hell she wants to sing – Moon River from Break­fast at Tif­fany’s, I Dreamed a Dream from Les Mis, Leonard Co­hen’s Hal­lelu­jah. And it’s not a cry that you hear at night, It’s not some­body who’s seen the light, It’s a cold and it’s a bro­ken Hal­lelu­jah.

Singing on the street has taught Foster a lot. “I feel busk­ing has re­ally helped to re­veal who I am,” she says. “I just let go of the bull­shit in my mind.”

She doesn’t do badly from it. If the peo­ple of Glas­gow aren’t car­ry­ing much cash around any more, then most of it seems to be go­ing into Foster’s hat. No one told her about not re­veal­ing earn­ings. It’s re­ally good, she says. “You ob­vi­ously get your off-days, like some­times if I’m not feel­ing that good. The low­est I’d ever make is £20 an hour, if I’ve got a cold or some­thing and I don’t want to be here, I’m forc­ing my­self. But, gen­er­ally, when I’m in the flow, it’s about 50 quid an hour.” Cash only. Hal­lelu­jah in­deed.

Busker Char­lotte Camp­bell on the South Bank, Lon­don. Pho­to­graph: Linda Nylind for theGuardian

Ben­jamin Cle­men­tine, who was ‘dis­cov­ered’while play­ing on the Paris Metro. Pho­to­graph: Moreau Lionel/ABACA Press France

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