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
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