Busking codes aim to keep peace on streets

buskerNever mind the dawn chorus, at the start of summer increasing numbers of buskers come out of hibernation to entertain audiences on our streets.  While their sounds might delight passers by, street performers have potential to cause concern for listeners in neighbouring buildings – shops, buisnesses, homes – who are forced to listen – sometimes for hours on end.  Buskers are an integral part of the street scene in many city centres – bringing entertainment to tourist hotspots.  Busking is contentious in some areas – with battles being fought between performers asserting their right to artistic freedom and to earn a living versus their unintended audience and authorities citing laws that protect people from unwanted intrusion of noise.  So how can cities keep streets vibrant and businesses and residents content?

When it comes to the law, the Environmental Protection Act 1990 states that noise in the street from musical instruments may be a statutory nuisance and the local authority can take action to abate the problem – including issuing a notice and the seizing any equipment being used to create the noise.  However, in noise as always prevention is cheaper than cure, and better for keeping harmonious relations between performers, neighbouring residents and businesses and enforcement authorities.

In an effort to keep the peace on the streets London launched a new code of practice for buskers last week, that mayor Boris Johnson says will put “a scythe through the acres of unnecessary bureaucracy”. On noise the code says:

  • Performers with varied repertoire are more popular and attract fewer complaints. If you only know a few songs, move to a new location when you’ve played them.
  • The biggest cause of complaints is sound. Many good busking locations are surrounded by flats, shops, offices or hotel rooms. The people inside can’t walk away, so be mindful and keep your volume at a very reasonable level.
  • Some sounds carry over long distances and all sounds can be annoying after a while.
  • Some sounds can become annoying more quickly. For example: repetitive sounds like some types of percussion or beatboxing; loud sounds like highly amplified guitars; hard ‘attack’ sounds like drums; piercing sounds like bagpipes. If your act has these you are very welcome to perform in London, but please move regularly or find locations away from flats, offices, shops or hotels.
  • If you use amplification, set your volume just above the level of background street noise and check your sound is not distorted.
  • Big equipment like generators is hard to haul around and can cause complaints.
  • Keep backing tracks unobtrusive and turn them off when you’re not performing.

In the run up to the general election – some commentators chose to court controversy by interpreting the code as an singling out the bagpipe as a sound to be kept out of earshot ignoring the fact that other repetitive and loud sounds are included.

Meanwhile in Bath, busking caused particular controversy last September when performers drowned out evensong for 200 worshippers in Bath Abbey. This has led to a consultation on whether an order should be placed banning amplified entertainment near the Abbey. As a tourist hotspot and a high earning mecca for buskers the incident incited expression of some strong views on either side. However, this could be viewed in the context of current lobbying by a sector of the music industry for an Agent of Change principle. This would put the onus on incomers to an area for reducing any impact of noise. It might be argued that, given there has been an abbey on the site since the 7th century, it might seem reasonable that the buskers adapt to accommodate the abbey – which was there a bit before them. With the busking tradition firmly established in Bath, the city has long has its own code of practice. Some Bath buskers themselves recognise the need to keep streets in harmony and have set up a website for the busking community and produced their own guidance.

So, to avoid culture clashes this summer – for outdoor performers in any town or city, heeding guidance on site, duration and volume of performance can only contribute to harmony on the streets.


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