Where the streets have no change

Drop­ping a coin in a hat? That’s, well, old hat. In our cash­less so­ci­ety, will buskers have to turn to con­tact­less card read­ers? Sam Wol­las­ton takes to the streets

The Guardian - G2 - - Food -

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. 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 the 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,

Clas­si­cally trained opera singer Nikki Foster sings on Glas­gow’s streets

Charlotte Camp­bell, busk­ing on the South Bank, Lon­don

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