Fresh: Art Fair - Cosmopolitans by P J Crook (detail)


Cheltenham Busking – Street Economics

Cheltenham has quite a few buskers, concentrated around High Street and the Prom. Obviously it’s hard to know how many there are, but over 370 people care enough to join a Cheltenham Buskers Facebook group. We set out to find what you can expect to earn, which are the most lucrative tunes and what reaction buskers get from passers-by.

We’re talking about Cheltenham’s everyday buskers, not the assorted performers (from steel panners to tin flute players) who line the streets every 20 yards during Race Week. And we’re not here to take the piss – people busk for different reasons: to get by, for the love of music, to express themselves and we’re not about to knock that. Having said that, not all instruments are born equal and sometimes you ask yourself: when does practice become busking?

It seems takings for an hour can fluctuate wildly between nothing and, say, twenty quid. A technically difficult Eric Johnson guitar number can earn you 50p off a fat bloke with a Pink Floyd T-shirt, but he’ll probably want a long conversation about the time he saw Steve Vai in return. Give them Wonderwall on a sunny day and you’ll up your hourly rate significantly.

So we took to the streets to see who was doing what on a typical day.

Busker A: Wait, Is that Alex Turner?

Cheltenham Busking

N’ah, trick of the light. Still, interesting guitar and nice touch to play a rockabilly tinged track outside M&S. This guy knows his demographic.

Busker B: Trumpet Man

Man, this bloke is loud. Favours, er, trumpetable options from the Beatles or similar, but you wonder how suitable the trumpet is as an instrument for busking. Draws some pretty heavy looks from the Farmers Market stall holders if he plays outside Cavendish House on Market Friday. The trumpet revival starts here.

Busker C: ‘Hits from the Shows’

West End songs in a light opera style, plus the odd bit of Elton, from this Cavendish House regular. It’s a popular but flawed busking pitch, the width allows people to pass by on the other side. This guy’s voice carries. You can hear him even as you go up the escalator to the first floor of Waterstone’s opposite, through some freak of acoustics in the building.  Has a repertoire (Les Mis, etc) and a degree of boyish charm that pulls in cash from the 45+ female demographic.

Busker D: Plinky Plink

This chap has two distinct styles. He’s enough of a Cheltenham busking regular to be known in our house by style i) which is a kind of a plinky Irish jig thing. Personally, we reckon he should sing/play chords more – he’s got a good voice.

Busker E: Pavement Poet

Pavement Poet

Busking doesn’t only have to be music, after all. ‘The Written Word is not Dead’ is this West Country based poet‘s subtitle as he chalks up some street wisdom. It’s interesting to watch people react – many of whom stop and take time to read short poems. The PP brightens people’s day and hopefully he gets no grief from the local Cheltenham establishment – Swindon Borough Council, on the other hand, attempted to ban him.

Cheltenham is said to be more relaxed about busking than many other places. Busk for long enough in Cheltenham and you’ll get to know people, maybe even pick up a bit of a following and a few coins from the same passers by – regulars, no less.

Cheltenham Borough Council has a policy on busking that is simultaneously both apparently thought through and also seemingly random and also apparently random. The basic approach shows a bit of a light hand – a licence is not needed and there is a voluntary code of conduct. It covers volume by saying that ‘noise’ should not be so loud that it can be heard at a distance of 50 metres’. It covers the state’s fear of repetitive beats by saying that ‘drumming should only be a minor part of the act’. There’s a one hour per location time limit and obviously sensible clauses on obstruction and blurring the line between a genuine performance and appeals for money through ‘sympathy’. And Cheltenham busking should ‘not make public telephones unusable’ (through volume), which is rather quaint.

Busking is one sign of a healthy town culture – any town needs more than just restaurants, cafes and cinemas to have a heart. If a council is cool enough not to seek to ban it, there’s still hope (see Swindon for the grim alternative). You can play your part by stumping up a few quid rather than just walking by – it takes guts to perform.