Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ask a Busker: How to Obtain Permits/Have Permits Created

Happy Holidays folks!

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday full of abundance, love and joy. I had a great holiday, myself and am not looking forward to going back to Toronto where it's apparently raining. Over the holidays, the questions have still been rolling in. Many thanks to everyone out there in Internetland who is reading and participating! I'm having a blast writing these posts, hopefully you're having a blast reading 'em.

Today's question comes all the way from Jessica Wagstrom in Texas. Hi, Jessica! Thanks for your email. Jessica's question was a bit more involved than the previous questions, and asked about a specific place. I emailed Jessica some information that will guide her in her quest, but to protect the privacy of her specific location, I'll be answering her question a bit more generally for the rest of the readers.

Jessica asks, "I'm trying to find out how to obtain a permit for busking in my city. I've been to the city hall, and asked the permit desk specifically about street perfoming, and they had no idea what I was talking about. So my question is, what permit should I be asking for, and are there any details I should know about obtaining one? Questions I should ask the city issuing it?"

Ah yes. My favourite cities are the ones that have soft law surrounding public spectacle. Gotta love the "if we ignore them, they will go away" tactic some governments use. Awesome!

in Jessica's town, there is no law either way restricting or allowing busking (at least no ordinance I can verify), which makes it really difficult for performers to work. This can be the best and the worst situation to be in, as a busker. Unfortunately, in her specific town, the local authorities shut down local performers every time they go out and claim that busking is not allowed. Yet, according to other locals living there, busking can happen successfully. A piano player that's local to Jessica's city is forbidden to giving hat lines, but allowed to put out a passive tip jar. Doing shows draws a crowd, soliciting for money is bad, but performing a walk-by act and passively taking tips is okay. Makes no sense to me!

In my personal experiences traveling through the Great American West, the more southerly you go, the harder it is to find proper laws surrounding busking quite possibly due to the large amount of itinerant folks, athough that's just my speculation. Beggers can get away with doing their thing because they don't draw a crowd; you, unfortunately draw a crowd and that scares police sometimes.

Now, as it seems there is no law allowing busking (my sleuthing and calling authorities came up with zilch--you're lucky I'm in the US right now for the holidays so it was easy!) Jessica really has only a few options:

1. Start a festival. It's probably the easiest way to start busking in your town. If you start a festival for performers it's considered a privately run event which means you get permits to do your thing and control everyone who is working. Authorities like to have control over who's working. It makes them feel special. Or, contact established festivals and ask if you can get permission to perform at them.

2. Lobby the local authorities down at the city hall to get a permit in place for buskers, CLEARLY outlining what you are allowed and not allowed to do. Make sure you write in provisions to allow hat lines, draw crowds and other details such as, allowing amplifiers, juggling machetes, height (such as a giant unicycle), if make-up and masks are allowed, etc. This may take a lot of time and a few years; but, all that hard work could pay off for not just you, but a lot of other performers. Get together with other potential or current street performers and see what you guys can do. Heck, you can contact the media and make it a big shebang! (just remember; you guys better be good because if they do a news story, you could ruin it for everyone else if you suck!) There is a lot of strength in numbers. And seriously, what an awesome legacy to leave if you are granted permits!

3. Create an informal street union. What time do you usually go out and get busted? In my experiences, buskers typically go out after 6pm to avoid getting shut down. Assemble the troops and go out to do shows and stick together. Self-regulate; if somebody is new to busking and inexperienced, make sure they aren't going to hurt anybody during their show. I don't recommend getting arrested or making sweeping statements about "the man" while you're performing and if you get interrupted, since that'll likely hinder as opposed to help your case. But getting shut down publicly could be good for getting that initial media attention. Especially if it continues. Suss it out and see how you feel. I need to stress: if you get shut down, just do it. Nothing will make you look less credible at city hall than being a rebellious kid 'sticking it to the man'.

If you are looking to starting the long process of getting permits for your town, the issues you need to raise with the local authorities when creating a license are:

-where you allowed to play/not allowed to play
-between what times show are allowed
-what kind of amplification is allowed, if any
-maximum crowd sizes
-how long are the shows allowed to be, before the crowd must move along
-are performers allowed to give hat lines/actively ask for donations

These are also questions you can ask the local performers, and authorities when looking to obtain a license in a city that definitley allows street performing.

If your local city doesn't understand the terms "busker" or "street performer" just explain that you want to give a public performance in a public space and solicit for tips after you finish your spectacle.

Hopefully, Jessica and her fellow performers can battle to have a proper permit put into effect. Remember, as I said earlier, there is strength in numbers, and if y'all approach the authorities with respect and determination, at the very least, they should hear you out and begin an open dialogue. In my experiences performing in cities in Europe, the very first line on many permits state, "We recognize the value and importance that street performers have for preserving the culture of our city." Street performing is important for many, many reasons: hopefully, you can convince your local authorities of that, Jessica, and will be allowed to put smiles on the faces of passersby legally and with protection!

I'll keep my fingers crossed for you! And do let us know how you make out.

If you have a question for 'Ask A Busker', please feel free to email them to me at:!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ask A Busker: Finding Venues!

Hi everyone!

I am currently 1500 feet above the ground somewhere over the Midwest of the US of A on my way to Salt Lake City, Utah for Christmas and potentially street performing shenanigans over the holidays. I trust you are all well and enjoying yourselves during this festive holiday season.

I just received an email from a Brendan and Stina with a question for "Ask a Busker"!

First of all, thank you both for a first question that wasn't from my Mom, boyfriend, or other street performers! I am happy for the overwhelmingly positive response this segment to 'Adventures in Gambling, Grifting and Street Performing' is getting.

Brendan and Stina ask, "How do you choose your venue? Especially, if you're in a new city, how do you figure out where to perform?"

Well, Brendan, this question is an interesting one! First, are we talking street corners or theatre spaces? For street corners, typically, I spend a day scouting spots that would work for me, talking to the local performers (and making sure I tip them well, of course!), and lastly, checking in with the local municipality with regards to my newly acquired license to see which spots are legally available to me. Since I do a walk-by act, I have a lot more flexibility in where I play than if I had a circle show. You learn some very valuable stuff from other performers who have a similar act to you (although, this may earn me haters, but to be honest, I've met only a handful of living statues that are nice, most of them are dicks. Statues are like the ballerinas of street acts for some bizarre reason...), and spending a lot of time performing on the street you become more aware of what works best for your particular style. For example, while I perform a walk-by act, technically, if I am resigned to a "walk-by spot", I'm fucked! I generally work my act like a bigger show, and I gather fairly large crowds. Being asked to perform at a known walk-by spot will earn me less tips and I won't be able to grab a crowd as easily.

Typically, I share the main circle pitch with the bigger shows, trading off after an hour. Most street pitches are organized by the local performers and there is a draw at the beginning of the work-day so everyone gets a time-slot alotted to them. It's an awesomely civilized process. If my license is for a heavily regulated spot like a harbourfront, or a pedestrian mall, then I just sign in wherever I'm supposed to and go do my thing. If the street is a free-for-all (some places in Europe are like this: no license required, no real regulations aiding or hindering performers) then, I base where I set up shop on some critera;

-how many people walk by that particular spot in a minute
-is the spot near an intersection that creates a definite flow of foot traffic (are they heading somewhere in particular)
-is the spot big enough for people to stop and watch a show
-am I away from anything that has amplification so I can play my music?

The most valuable knowledge comes from talking to the locals. Make friends with other street performers! It's always better to be friends instead of enemies having nonsensical 'turf wars'. It helps to have somebody watching your back and watching your gear. Reciprocation is a wonderful thing. And most pros understand that and value the sharing system, which is where draws come into play. If you're in a new city and some jerk tries to chase you off a spot by saying it's "his", then, clearly, the guy is a hack. So long as you show up first then there's no reason why you can't share. If that performer continues to be a dick, then you can either move on, or defend the spot if you were there first. But, be warned; nothing is more unprofessional than having a meltdown on the street in front of your crowd!

If we're talking about theatre venues, then, the best bet is to again, ask other local performers (meeting people can be tricky or easy depending on where you know to look and when), look up internet groups for that city and their subcultural scenes; most major cities have a fairly decent and accessible nightclub scene that can, at the very least, point you in the right direction for open mikes, burlesque shows or whatever event is best suited for your act. Since I am sort of new to the theatre scene myself, I don't really have much to offer on this topic!

Hopefully this answers your burning question to how to go about finding venues in new cities!

Alright, folks, my computer is starting to fade and for some reason even though there's wireless on this flight, I can't plug in my laptop anywhere so I'll be signing off.

Feel free to comment, or, if you have a question for "Ask a Busker", send 'em off to me at: It gives me something to do when I'm on the road and gives you something to read. It's a win-win situation!

Happy holidays, folks!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ask a Busker: Why Don't You Busk in the Rain?

Hi folks!

Since my readership is starting to increase, I've decided to post a little interactive segment in between my activist-y ranting. If this goes well and I receive emails (aside from the ones asking me to marry them or telling me I'm a jerk) I'll totally make this a regular segment to my blog that will be updated more regularly than each time something in real life pisses me off or I find evocative and feel the need to stand on a soapbox over.
Today's question is one I get a heckuva lot: Why don't you create a character with an umbrella and waterproof costumes and busk in the rain? (also under this topic is 'Why don't you busk in the winter'?)

The short answer is, well, when it's raining, as much as I'd love to perform for you, if you're not interested in staying to watch, I'm not interested in staying to perform. Since a street show is the sum of it's audience, and a street show can't *happen* without an audience, then I'm pretty much shitouttaluck.

The long answer is well, I've done it and I have conflicting feelings about it. During the winter, I admit, I enjoy going out the week before Christmas to perform for busy shoppers down at a major shopping centre in the heart of Toronto (this year, unfortunately, I will be out of the country and unable to do that!) and while freezing my butt off for few chattering smiles may very well be worth a little bit, the general public oftentimes confuse me for a desperate homeless person in need of a couple of bucks. A couple of winters ago, I was busking before the holidays, and a woman from a shelter gave me a sleeping bag. I had to chase her down to give back the bag that should have been given to somebody who really needed it. Having a great apartment with awesome roommates and heating, I can confidently say I need the sleeping bag less than a homeless person.

I find, also, when busking during inclimate weather, it's harder to keep the crowd on your side loving what you do instead of feeling sorry for you. I'm not interested in feeling sorry for myself or feeling the pangs of having a lower social standing because I'd decided to go out and perform for the poor bastards who have no choice but to go out into that weather because they have to go to work. From my perspective, I feel sorry for anyone who has to go outside when it rains and I'd love to make them smile as they dash between raindrops! Yet, that is certainly not what the majority of the public seems to think. I suppose it's that whole 'transferrence of feelings' thing we tend to have as a collective consciousness.

Lastly, of course, it's all about the almighty dollar. If you don't want to stay and watch, you aren't going to pay. And I'm not prepared to stand outside and get soaked, or have my toes fall off from the cold for a few lousy bucks.

Well, folks, I hope this has cleared up any misconceptions you, the general public, might have about busking in the rain.

If you have a question to send to "Ask a Busker", please email them to: I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

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.