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Busking is a beautiful thing but in Sydney the scene is rapidly fading. WTF Sydders?

Sydney busking

The city of Sydney is evolving into a rule making beast, steering the demise of busking on the streets.

Musicians are finding it difficult to survive in an expensive city under the curfew of lockout laws, whilst regulations are discouraging buskers from serenading strangers when the mood strikes. Could this be driving buskers out of the city, and into hiding?

Sydney Busking

We explore reasons Sydney’s busking scene is on its way out, and offer up some solutions to this ongoing issue in the music world.

Paris is swarming with buskers, creating soundtracks for the city’s strollers who wander between endless entertainment venues free of charge. New York City’s parks are bustling with Hare Krishna performers and amateur musicians at every turn, and the crowds love it.

Evening buskers are disappearing as Sydney’s lockout laws are turning party hubs into ghost towns. The reggae dude in Sydney’s Kings Cross who blasted Bob Marley from his green and yellow boom box, as boozed up crowds bopped and swayed beneath the coke sign, is gone. The guitar legend that jammed in his cowboy hat at Taylor Square’s bus shelter as bar hopping friends sung along out of tune – also gone.

Busking brings a different kind of peace to the streets of Sydney than what the lockout laws allege – unity through harmony – whilst small time buskers reflect the true blood of the city. Australian busker Ziggy McNeil has had handfuls of run-ins with police and noise complainers in Sydney. “Authorities always stop busking,” says Ziggy.

“I’ve been taken off the streets twice at the ‘Manly Food and Wine’ Festival in 2015 and 2016 because I was making too much money, attracting too big a crowd, and the authorities said I would attract more buskers. Another time, when I busked at Rialto Square, an old prick complained so the council took the square off the busking map – that’s why I’m going to busk in Europe.”

Busking contributes to the emotional health of city streets and is a spontaneous musical gift. Sadly, buskers can be likened to beggars, rather than creatives bringing vibrancy and verve to the metropolis. Some Sydney locals make noise complaints as readily as Pauline Hanson drops racist slurs.

Restrictions are placed on performers, who cannot crank their amplifiers if a nearby pedestrian has to raise their voice during conversation. How fucking precious is that? The authorities succumb too easily to petty complaints, and love shutting shit down, simply because crowds are innocuously rocking out to street music.

Musicians, including children, are obligated to purchase a permit before they can busk anywhere in Sydney. The City of Sydney website states that buskers are limited to 5 individuals per group, unless a special request is made “6 weeks prior… [providing] full details of the performance.” Busking permits in specified areas require Public Liability Insurance to the value of $10 million. Meanwhile, failure to comply with the city’s busking laws can result in a $2,200 on-the-spot fine.

Paying for a permit to busk, whilst having to reserve performance spaces and limit group numbers, contradicts the essence of spontaneous and free street performing – a culture that ameliorates urban living. As Josie Appleton says, “Anything informal and spontaneous – whether busking, leafleting, or impromptu games in the park – is increasingly being subject to formal licenses and procedures.” Overbearing rules discourage busking in Sydney, which greatly contributes to the effervescence of the city’s streetscape.

On the City of Sydney’s website for Pitt Street busking, a vast region chock-full of potential busking sites, there are only 3 pitches allocated for legal busking. “Buskers may perform for a maximum of 1 hour per pitch on one day. This includes setup and pack down time… and each pitch can be occupied by one performance/act at a time.” If buskers on Pitt Street put on a show that grows into a vibrant festivity, it must cease because of a one-hour time limit dictated by The Man.

It is understandable that the Government wants busking plots to be shared, but tight regulations make it “hell competitive in the city, it’s almost not worth bothering,” says Ziggy.

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In reality, it makes sense that laws are in place to prevent buskers from blocking entrances to businesses or private property, whilst standards need to be set to ensure public safety. Busking is a legitimate source of income, and numerous musicians performing in close proximity to one another creates convoluted noise pollution, meaning talented individuals will not profit. But how many rules can we throw at buskers before they pour out of the city or give up on performing altogether?

Music is one of humanity’s truly beautiful creations; a gift we can spread to each other with greater ease than most mediums. A suited up businessman strolling to work might stop in front of a busker for five minutes and feel stimulated. A crowd uniting to hear the songs of a stranger could vivify their day. Sydney should be soaked in buskers – playing music on the streets should be easy and free.

Instead, Sydneysiders are serenaded by sirens, honking road-ragers, clattering business shoes and dut-dut-dut-duts at pedestrian crossings. Over-regulation makes busking difficult and Sydney’s streets are becoming cultural wastelands.

Noise complainers need to chill if they are unable to hear a pin drop in their surrounds. Police need not interfere when buskers are connecting with audiences – let them rip! And the government should moderate compulsive rule making so that busking is encouraged, and street cultures can persist in the open. Sydney should be a musical megalopolis.

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August 3, 2016