AskDefine | Define busker

Dictionary Definition

busker n : a person who entertains people for money in public places (as by singing or dancing)

User Contributed Dictionary



From busk + -er


  1. A person who makes money by passing the hat (soliciting donations) while entertaining the public (often by playing a musical instrument) on the streets or in other public area such as a park or market.


  • Finnish: katusoittaja (street musician), katutaiteilija (any street performer)
  • Italian: artista di strada

Extensive Definition

Busking performances can be just about anything that people find entertaining. Buskers may do: musical performance, clowning, comedy, improvisation, balloon modelling, dance, acrobatics, contortions and escapes, juggling, magic, fire eating, sword swallowing, snake charming, fortune-telling, present a flea circus, street theatre, street art (sketching and painting, etc.), puppeteering, storytelling or recite poetry or prose as a bard, or do mime or a mime variation where the performer stands still as a living statue.
People busk for a variety of reasons, including for money, for fun, the attention they get, to socialize or meet people, the love of their art, or to practice their skills or try out new material in front of an audience. Some buskers only work part time, while others make a full time living performing on the streets. Some buskers do professional entertainment gigs in addition to working the streets.
Some people manage only pocket change from busking, while others can amass substantial incomes. An act that might make money at one place and time may not work at all in another setting. A busker's income depends on many conditions, including the composition of the audience, the type and quality of the performance, the weather, and the time of day. Location can be the key, and competition from other entertainers can also play a role, both positively and negatively.
Busking can be the bottom rung of the entertainment industry, and some of the most famous groups and superstars started their careers as buskers. Examples include Jimmy Page, the Benise, Billy Bragg, the Blue Man Group, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Cirque du Soleil, Carlos Santana, Stomp, Bob Hope, George Burns, Eddie Izzard, Rod Stewart, Glen Hansard, The Violent Femmes, Eric Clapton, Simon and Garfunkel (as "Tom and Jerry"), Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan, Stephane Grappelli, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pierce Brosnan, Lucinda Williams, Robin Williams, Kaki King, Jason Alexander, the Opera Babes, Beck, Damo Suzuki, Gerry Rafferty, Penn Jillette, Susan Cagle, Jewel and Joni Mitchell. Many other buskers have also found fame and fortune.


There are several basic forms of busking. Circle shows are shows that tend to gather a crowd around them. They usually have a distinct beginning and end. Usually these are done in conjunction with street theater, puppeteering, magicians, comedians, acrobats, jugglers and sometimes musicians. Circle shows can be the most lucrative, but the busker may have to worry about the crowd growing so big that it obstructs pedestrian traffic. Walk by acts are typically with the busker providing a musical or entertaining ambiance. There is no distinct beginning or end and the crowds do not particularly stop to watch. Sometimes an intended walk by act will spontaneously turn into a circle show. A good busker will control the crowd so the patrons don't obstruct foot traffic. Cafe busking is done mostly in cafes, restaurants, pubs and bars. Musicians and balloon artists can frequently be found using this venue. Making a living on the piano bar principle is an experience well known by many musical keyboard artists. Perhaps the most famous of these is Billy Joel, who later rose to superstardom. His hit song "Piano Man" was written about a six month stint he did in 1972 at the "Executive Room" piano bar in Los Angeles.
A bottler is a British term (may also be known as the "hat man" or "pitch man" in other areas) that describes the person with the job to pass the hat, usually by circulating through the audience with the money hat to collect donations. The term bottler came from a device old world performers used for collecting money. It was made from a glass bottle and a shaped leather pouch designed to allow coins in but not allow them to be removed easily without being noticed by the jingling of the coins against the glass. The first use of such contrivances was recorded by the famous Punch and Judy troupe of puppeteers in early Victorian times. Bottling itself can be an art form, and the difference between a good and a bad bottler can be crucial to the amount of money earned on a pitch. A bottler usually gets a cut of the money made on the pitch, although it's not commonly a full share. In olden days it was common for buskers to use a monkey as a bottler. That practice has greatly diminished due to animal control laws, but as tribute to the monkey's service there is a device known as monkey stick which buskers use to get attention. A monkey stick is a long stick with bottle caps or small cymbals attached such that they make an attention getting noise when shaken. It is frequently topped by a small monkey doll or figurine.


Busking is still quite common in Scotland, Ireland, and England with musicians and other street performers of varying talent levels. In the United States there has been a rebirth of this artform as the new millennium has started. Buskers are found on many streets and also in the underground and at train stations.
The place where a busker performs is called their pitch. Popular busking spots tend to be public places with large volumes of pedestrian traffic, high visibility, low background noise and as few elements of interference as possible. Good locations may include tourist spots, restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs, theater and entertainment districts, subways and bus stops, outside the entrances to large concerts and sporting events, almost any zócalo in Latin America, as well as plazas, piazzas, and town squares in other regions. Other places include shopping malls, strip malls, and outside of supermarkets and flea markets, although permission is usually required from management for these.
Some places require a paid license, a permit, or some other form of permission to busk. Some venues that do not regulate busking may still ask performers to abide by voluntary rules. In her movie and book, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York (Anthropology of Contemporary Issues),Susie J. Tanenbaum talks about the old adage "Music has charms to soothe the savage beast". Her studies showed that in areas where buskers regularly perform crime rates tended to go down. She also discovered that those with higher education tended to appreciate and support buskers more than those of lessor learning. Some cities are encouraging buskers because they can be a tonic to the stresses of shopping and commuting, and can be an influence which is favorable for shopkeepers. Some cities give preference to "approved" buskers in certain captive audience areas like subway stations and even publish schedules of performances.


These performers have not always been called buskers. The term busking was first noted in the English language around the middle 1860s. The word busk comes from the Spanish root word buscar, meaning "to seek" – buskers are literally seeking fame and fortune. In obsolete French it evolved to busquer for "seek, prowl" and was generally used to describe prostitutes. In Italian it evolved to buscare which meant "procure, gain" and in Italy buskers are called buscarsi or, more simply, Buskers (see loan word).
From the Renaissance to the early 1900s, busking was called minstrelsy in Europe and English-speaking lands. Before that, itinerant musicians were known by the French term troubadours. In old French the term jongleurs was also used to describe buskers. In northern France they were known as trouveres. In old German buskers were known as minnesingers and spielleute. The term busk is also used in music when a musician has to play something quickly from scratch, by ear or at sight, as in: I'll just busk it.


There have been performances in public places for gratuities in every major culture in the world, dating back to antiquity. This art form was a common means of employment for entertainers before the advent of recording and personal electronics. Prior to that, a living human being had to produce any music or entertainment, save for a few mechanical devices such as the barrel organ, the music box, and the piano roll. These would develop into the organ grinders and the one man band performing in public.
Christmas caroling can also be a form of busking, as wassailing included singing for alms, wassail or some other form of refreshment such as Figgy pudding.
In Ireland the traditional Wren Boys and in England Morris Dancing can be considered part of a busking tradition.
Busking is a common form of employment among some itinerant groups of the Roma people, also known as Gypsies. Mentions of Roma music, dancers and fortune tellers are found in all forms of song poetry, prose and lore. It is believed by many that the Roma brought the word busking to England by way of their travels along the Mediterranean coast to Spain and the Atlantic ocean and then up north to England and the rest of Europe. The distinctive sound of Roma music has strongly influenced bolero, flamenco, and jazz in Europe. European-style Gypsy jazz is still widely practiced among the original creators (the Roma People). Salsa, rumba, mambo and guajira from Cuba, the tondero and marinera from Peru, mariachi music from Mexico, and even American country music have all been influenced by their plaintive vocals, mournful violins and soulful guitar.
Mariachis are Mexican street bands that play a specific style of music by the same name. Mariachis frequently wear ornate costumes with intricate embroidery and beaded designs, large brimmed sombreros and the short charro jackets. Because of their great popularity many Mariachis are in mainstream entertainment doing professional gigs. Mariachi groups busk when they perform for gratuities as strolling minstrels traveling through streets and plazas, as well as in restaurants and bars.
In the USA, medicine shows proliferated in the 1800s. They were traveling vendors selling elixirs and potions to improve the health. They would often employ entertainment acts as a way of making the clients feel better. The people would often associate this feeling of well-being with the products sold. After these performances they would "pass the hat". Few medicines sold at medicine shows had curative or healing properties.
Around the middle 1800s, Japanese Chindonya started to be seen using their skills for advertising, and these street performers are still occasionally seen in Japan.
Folk music has always been a dominant presence in the busking scene. Cafe, restaurant, bar and pub busking is a mainstay of this art form. Two of the more famous folk singers are Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. The delta bluesmen were mostly itinerant musicians emanating from the Mississippi Delta region of the USA around the early 1920s and on. They spread the gospel of the blues to many.
The counterculture of the hippies of the 1960s occasionally staged "be-ins", which resemble some present-day busker festivals. Bands and performers would gather at public places and perform for free, passing the hat to make money. The San Francisco Bay Area was at the epicenter of this movement — be-ins were staged at Golden Gate Park and San Jose's Bee Stadium and other venues. Some of the bands that performed in this manner were Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape, and Jimi Hendrix. The hedonistic pursuits of the hippies, including the controversial free love and illegal drug use tainted the image of busking, especially among the religious right.
One of the latest things to enter the busking scene is Cyber Busking. Artists are posting work on the Internet for people to download, and if people like it they make a donation through PayPal or snail mail.


Some people stereotype buskers as being unemployed, homeless or beggars. Most buskers are not, and these terms are normally derogatory when referring to a busker. Some people will heckle buskers and stigmatize them as such regardless of their social status.
Conflicts and fights over pitch do happen. Career buskers may try to maintain a "right of pitch" over others. Generally it is considered first come first serve. Some buskers will send a person ahead of them to fend others off a pitch until they arrive. This practice is known as "squatting" and is greatly looked down upon by other buskers. At times, a compromise may be reached between competing buskers and a pitch will be shared on a rotational basis.
Beggars have been known to congregate around buskers trying to intercept those patrons who want to pay the busker for their services and convert the donation to themselves. The buskers refer to these types as "spongers". Beggars may also try to extort money from buskers by being obnoxious and harassing people until the busker pays them to go away.
Buskers may find themselves targeted by thieves due to the very open and public nature of their craft. Buskers may have their earnings, instruments or props stolen. One particular technique that thieves use against buskers is to pretend to make a donation while actually taking money out instead, a practice known as "dipping" or "skimming". George Burns described his days as a youthful busker this way:


The first recorded instance of laws affecting buskers were in ancient Rome in 462 BCE. The Law of the Twelve Tables made it a crime to sing about or make parodies of the government or its officials in public places; the penalty was death. Louis the Pious "excluded histriones and scurrae, which included all entertainers without noble protection, from the privilege of justice". In 1530, Henry VIII ordered the licensing of beggars who could not work, as well as pardoners, fortune-tellers, fencers, minstrels, and players; if they did not obey they could be whipped on two consecutive days.
In the United States under Constitutional Law and most European common law, the protection of artistic free speech extends to busking. In the USA and most places the designated places for free speech behavior are the public parks, streets, sidewalks, thoroughfares and town squares or plazas. Under certain circumstances even private property may be open to buskers, particularly if the management allows or it is open to the general public and busking does not interfere with its function and it allows other forms of free speech behaviors or has a history of doing so.
While there is no universal code of conduct for buskers, there are common law practices to which many buskers conform. Most jurisdictions have corresponding statutory law. It is common law that buskers or others should not impede pedestrian traffic flow, block or otherwise obstruct entrances or exits, or do things that endanger the public. It is common law that most places require special permits to use electronically amplified sound and have limits on the volume of amplified sound. It is common law that any disturbing or noisy behaviors may not be conducted after certain hours in the night. These curfew limitations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is common law that "performing blue" (i.e. using adult material that is sexually explicit or any vulgar or obscene remarks or gestures) is generally prohibited unless performing for an adults-only environment such as in a bar or pub.
In most English-speaking countries, it is common law that unless invited to do so, busking for a captive audience where people cannot move away is generally not acceptable. In some locations, like the London and New York subway platforms, preference is given to "approved" buskers but performing on the trains is not allowed. Throughout the rest of world, busking on public transport may be commonplace.


Throughout history there have been restrictions on busking, and there are some jurisdictions that regulate busking. Some of the complaints brought to local officials may include that some buskers are a safety hazard by obstructing foot traffic, or may be unskilled, repetitive, or noisy and therefore hurt nearby merchants.
One town in Scotland began requiring licenses for all buskers after numerous complaints about one particular busker, who repeatedly played The Archies "Sugar Sugar" on a penny whistle. It turned out to be the only piece he could play, but not very well. Other towns in the British Isles limit the licenses issued to bagpipers because of the volume and difficulty of the instrument. Places requiring licenses for buskers also often require auditions of anyone applying for a busking license.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, busking had grown to be quite a controversial enterprise in New York. The country was in the midst of a horrible economic depression and many people had turned to busking as a source of income. Buskers were everywhere and fights over pitches were alarmingly common between the buskers themselves and the buskers, merchants, and vendors. In fact it is said there were even several murders during arguments over pitches. Out of frustration over the complaining, fighting, and violence, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned busking in New York on the grounds of safety issues regarding the escalating conflicts. Busking went on, but on a much smaller scale. If anybody complained about a busker, at their discretion the police could order the busker to move on or could even arrest him or her. In 1970 poet Allen Ginsburg challenged the constitutionality of this ban. The ban was lifted in 1970 after being found to be unconstitutional by NY Mayor Lindsay.

Case law

United States

In the United States there have been numerous legal cases about regulations and laws that have decided the rights of buskers to perform in public. Most of these laws and regulations have been found to be unconstitutional when challenged. In the USA about the only reasons that can be used to regulate or ban busking behavior are public safety issues and noise issues in certain areas that require silence like hospital zones, around churches, funeral homes, cemeteries and transport terminals where announcements need to be heard. Such laws must be narrowly tailored to eliminate only the perceived evils by limiting the time, place and manner that busking may be practiced. They must also leave open reasonable alternative venues.
In the USA laws regulating or banning busking must be applied evenly to all forms of free speech. Busking cannot be prohibited in an area where other forms of free speech are not prohibited. For example if busking is regulated or banned but people are allowed to conduct free speech behavior for pickets, protests, religious, political, educational, sports or other purposes then the law is illegal. In the USA any form of regulation on artistic free speech must not be judgmental, and permits must not be so restrictive, complex, difficult or expensive to obtain that they inhibit free speech.
  • Judge rejects Seattle Center rules on buskers, April 23, 2005. "Magic Mike" Berger, a magician and balloon-twisting busker, took the Seattle Center to court and won injunctive relief and a court ordered settlement of over US $47,000. Seattle Center had some of the most liberal rules regarding busking but even they could not pass constitutional muster. The Business Improvement District formed to manage Seattle Center claimed that 62 square blocks in the center of the city was theirs to manage like private property. They wanted to limit the time, places and numbers of buskers performing. The judge rejected the regulations, pointing out that... "while a street performer cannot offer a meek oral request for a donation from passers by, a beggar who does not perform can solicit Seattle Center visitors with relative impunity, subject only to general criminal prohibitions on aggressive panhandling."
  • District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. issued an injunction barring the city of St. Augustine, Florida from enforcing a recent ordinance banning street performances on St. George Street. Judge Adams' order states, "Street performances are a form of expression protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution." Merchants got the city to ban busking for alleged safety issues. After public outcry, and a lawsuit with Judge Adams decision, St. Augustine acceded and as of March 2003 allows busking.
  • Street Performers win lawsuit in Waikiki, Hawaii (2001). The local businesses got the city to push through an ordinance to ban busking on a very popular area, allegedly for safety reasons. Buskers prevailed in court by proving the safety concerns were not founded.
  • Turley v. NYC, US 2nd Cir Appeal 98-7114 (1999) This case, in New York City, was won partially on the grounds that permit schemes and costs were unreasonably high, complex and difficult to obtain.
  • Harry Perry and Robert "Jingles" Newman v. Los Angeles Police Department (1997) Buskers won their right to perform and sell their original music CDs and tapes. Local businesses had complained about the competition from street artists and tried to prohibit busking.
  • Bery v. New York, 97 F. 3d 684, 2d Cir. (1996) - A case in which visual artists won the right to sell their art.
  • Friedrich v. Chicago 619 F. Supp., 1129. D.C. Ill (1985) A case where busking was restricted in certain areas of Chicago. The buskers won injunctive relief from the cities enforcement of the ban in some of the contested areas. They also obtained relief from a permit scheme on the use of amplifiers because the scheme was judgmental and at the discretion of the issuers.
  • Davenport v. City of Alexandria, Virginia (1983) A ban on busking and other business related activities on the streets of the central city area was found to be unconstitutional. Several courts found that there was no legitimacy to the cities allegations of safety issues.
  • Goldstein v. Town of Nantucket (1979) The Town of Nantucket tried to regulate buskers as vendors, which the court did not accept as valid.


  • Benjamin Franklin was a busker of sorts. He composed songs, poetry and prose about the political situation and went out in public and performed them. He would then sell printed copies of them to the public. He was dissuaded from busking by his father who convinced him the stigmas that some people attach to busking were not worth it. It was this experience that helped form his beliefs in free speech which he wrote about it in his journals.
  • Paul McCartney of the Beatles fame donned a disguise and went busking. He reportedly did very well. In an interview on Britain's Radio One he revealed: "It was for a film thing (Give My Regards To Broad Street, 1984) and it was something I'd always wanted to do, so I scruffed myself up a bit, put on a false beard and shades, and went down to Leicester Square tube station. It was really cool. A couple of people came up and said, 'Is it you?' but I just said, 'Oh, no'. But I got a few shillings and I thought, 'This doesn't feel right,' so I gave it to charity."
  • It has also been reported that Sting has also donned a disguise and gone out busking. He reportedly made £40. "He pulled a hat down over his eyes, but one woman said: 'It's Sting.' The man behind her said: 'You silly cow. It's not him. He's a multi-millionaire.'"
  • The world-famous classical violinist Joshua Bell played as an incognito street busker at the Metro station L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. on January 12, 2007. Among 1,097 people who passed by, only one recognized him and only a couple more were drawn to his music. However, every single child who passed by attempted to stop and listen, before being hastened on by their parents. For his nearly 45 minute performance, Bell collected $32.17 (not counting $20 from a passerby who recognized him).
  • Singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey recorded an entire album down in the Boston Subway, where he was a regular busker. In most cases, songs were recorded in one or two takes.
  • Bon Jovi has been known to take to the streets from time to time. Among the most famous Bon Jovi busks were those at London’s Covent Garden and Moscow’s Red Square.


External links




busker in Bulgarian: Бъскер
busker in German: Straßenmusik
busker in Japanese: 大道芸
busker in Dutch: straatmuzikant
busker in Norwegian: Gateartist
busker in Norwegian Nynorsk: Gateartist
busker in Finnish: Katusoittaja
busker in Chinese: 街头艺术
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