BUSKING AS A WAY OF LIFE

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It takes patience, grit and talent to make a living as a busker in the London Underground--and a collection of 20 disposable mobile phones might come in handy. Gary Moskowitz reveals the quirks of the profession ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

“’Organised busking’ is sort of an oxymoron, really,” says Mike “Bucky” Muttel, as he taps and plucks his way through Pat Metheny covers on his amplified Chapman Stick deep inside London’s vast Waterloo Tube station. But to busk--the practice of performing in public spaces for tips--inside the London Underground, musicians have to play by the rules if they want to play at all. And Muttel is no exception.
 

Muttel's official busking license, good for one year, hangs visibly from a lanyard around his neck. It took six months of rigmarole to obtain that license, in which time he applied, auditioned for a panel of four or five London Underground staff members and agreed to a mandatory police background check. The process didn't cost anything, but took talent, patience and a little luck (audition judges are not required to have backgrounds in music). Still, of the 400 buskers that audition each year, 80% pass. Now that he’s in the system, Muttel is not required to re-audition; he just re-applies for his permit every year. He has been busking for almost three years.
 
A sticker, stating that he has checked in with a London Underground supervisor, is also clearly displayed on his tattered T-shirt (he will also have to check out). “Busking isn’t meant to be organised, but at the same time, this is a chance for me to book eight hours a day of serious playing. And I’m an obsessed performer. I record every busking session to see if I’m improving or not. I’m not really here for the money,” Muttel says. “I’m like a tunnel mole.”
 
A busker’s performance spot is a “pitch”. To reserve a pitch in London’s Underground, buskers must call in to an automated phone service on Tuesday mornings up to two weeks in advance. The process can be gruelling. On a good day, performers may be in a queue for about an hour and a half, hitting redial over and over again. But the task can take up to a day or two. Some buskers own multiple phones--Muttel knows guys with as many as 20 disposable ones--to maximise their efforts to secure a good pitch.
 
Of the 28 or so total pitches at 21 Tube stops throughout central London, some argue there are really only half a dozen ideal spots: two at Green Park, two at Tottenham Court Road, one at Piccadilly Circus and one at Leicester Square. If a busker shows up late for a spot, the previous busker is entitled to stay for the next two-hour time slot. Unsurprisingly, this can get messy. “I’ve seen guys call each other ‘bastard’ and ‘you son of a bitch'," Muttel says." It can get ridiculous.”
 
BuskerYou won’t see such antics from Phillipa Leigh. A demure 25-year-old, she can be heard crooning jazz standards such as “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “Fly Me to the Moon” into a microphone that connects to a lightweight amp. Though her six-month permit took her nearly as long to obtain, she’s genuinely happy to be performing. She plays the occasional private-party concert around town, but busking in London’s labyrinthine Tube system is her primary gig. She’s been at it for four months. “Rehearsal space is expensive and there's no better practice than performing live in front of people going about their day,” Leigh says. “But even here, I have to be careful. If I sing too loud or too fast, it doesn’t go over as well. People want to go about their day and not be bothered.”
 
If Leigh wanted to change her act in any way, she’d have to re-audition, something she intends to avoid. For now she’s happy to simply be singing. “I also work a few days a week in a shop but singing is my passion. I may not make a lot of money [busking], but I love it,” Leigh says. “This isn’t glamorous, but people will smile if they like it. They have no obligation to do or say anything else. I just show up and sing. There’s a real sense of freedom with that.”
 
The London Underground established its busking scheme in 2003 to manage what they previously considered an “illegal and unregulated activity.” Carling, the London Paper and Capital Radio all took turns sponsoring the busking programme at various times between 2003 and 2008, but the London Underground now runs the show. They claim that altercations involving buskers have dropped 300% at some stations, and that busking-related police calls are down 72%.
 
Roughly 250 of the 300 licensed buskers enrolled in the scheme are active, according to a London Underground official who asked not to be quoted for this story. The male-to-female ratio among buskers is about three to one.
 
Most buskers interviewed for this story seem to appreciate the scheme, however stringent it might be. "I can make a living doing this,” 32-year-old Ramon Fontecilla told me. He plays songs such as Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” on his keyboard five days a week. “It’s not always pleasant, but it’s better than an office job. I make more money doing this than giving piano lessons.” He’s been busking on the Underground in London for two years. Eventually, he says, he’ll stop busking and join a band that plays classic rock, “like Pink Floyd”.
 
Busking can feel solitary, lonely even. It can seem more like practicing than performing, given such a passive, transitory audience. By and large, customers of the Tube are hustling through the system and the lone busker is lucky to get a sideways glance. That said, it’s not uncommon for commuters to stop and smile, nod, wave, clap or snap a quick photo as they walk by. One evening, a group of women in their 20s stopped to form a circle around an accordian-playing busker, singing and dancing to his version of "La Bamba".

But occasionally passersby are more pernicious. Some have been known to grab buskers' earnings right from under their noses, according to Muttel. He regularly loops a cord through all of his gear--including his case full of coins--and attaches it to his belt, just to be safe.
 

Busking's unique social dynamic suits Matthew “Harmonica Matt” Griffiths, a harmonica-playing blues man. Wearing a black leather jacket with missing buttons and a crumpled black fedora, Griffiths perches on a low stool and holds an old, round microphone. A few self-recorded CDs are sprawled on the ground next to his amp. At his waist, Griffiths has a big black belt containing nearly a dozen harmonicas, each of which he has labelled with a letter indicating its key. Sometimes he taps his foot loudly to keep the beat of the song pushing forward.
 
Between songs, Griffiths describes getting into a knife fight, being kicked out of a hospital, and losing everything but his passport during a trip to New Orleans several years ago. Suddenly, he stares off into space and doesn’t say a word for more than a minute.

“Are you all right?” I ask. No response.

Another minute or two goes by. Finally Griffiths stutters his way back into a story about busking in Memphis, and talks about being a National Harmonica Champion of Great Britain. A minute later Griffiths jumps into a tune he wrote about governor Sarah Palin, someone drops a coin in his bucket, and he’s in his element. Busking is his business.


Picture and film credit:
Brett Van Ort

(Gary Moskowitz is a journalist and a musician based in London. Brett Van Ort is a photographer based in London.)