Ben Van Der Velde Stands Up For Camden’s Buskers

Ben Van Der Velde Stands Up For Camden’s Buskers

Written by Ben Van Der Velde

SIGN THE PETITION to support street performers in Camden

One of the saddest things about living in 21st century Britain is the homogenisation of the high street and the slow killing off of independent traders. Places such as Brighton and York – with vibrant, exciting and successful urban centres – are becoming the exception, rather than the rule. A further development in this baffling attempt to remove any sense of personality or joy from public spaces is Camden Council’s misguided attempt to license busking and enact draconian fines against any musician who dares to busk without a license. The joy of living in the age of inter-connected social media is that you are never far away from an ally.

ASAP! and KeepStreetsLive Director and Founder, Jonny Walker

ASAP! and KeepStreetsLive Director and Founder, Jonny Walker

When I read about this appalling piece of legislation on Facebook, I immediately contacted Jonny Walker, one of the main architects of the response to this law, and told him that as a Camden resident I wanted to help him out. Originally coming from Newcastle, I always saw Camden as my gateway to the rest of London. The first time I arrived in Camden as a skinny 14 year old, with my own cheap guitar strapped to my back, I immediately fell in love with its scuzzy, silly swagger and promise of all sorts of good times.

It was immediately obvious that it was one London borough that had music running through its veins and drains and bricks. Now it seems Camden Council no longer have any pride in this and want to actively discourage music-makers from its streets. Happily, I knew exactly who to call.

Mark Thomas

Comedian and political activist, Mark Thomas

I currently work as a stand-up comedian and one of my favourite acts is the political stand-up Mark Thomas. He has been a very funny and effective thorn in the side of political and corporate establishments for over two decades. His activism, and the subsequent shows about it, has exposed tax avoidance by MPs, blocked the building of a hydro-electric dam that would have displaced 78,000 Kurds and unveiled the full hypocrisies of the global arms trade. In his most recent show, 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, Mark has pledged to do exactly what the show title says in one year, or pay the forfeit of a £1000 donation to UKIP. He has already protested against a ban on sports leagues in Hyde Park, by setting up the world’s first Stuck in the Mud League and protested against the supposedly patriotic Daily Express keeping all its money off-shore and away from the British tax system. Clearly, this was a man who could help keep busking on the streets of Camden and away from licensing laws. Not only that, he could help us do it in a fun and inventive way.

I think that this campaign to license busking is another disgraceful step in the attempt to take personality and individualism away from the high street. Buskers are a different breed to many members of the public – a type of freelancer who uses the high street as their office – but the vast majority of them work hard to bring some joy, colour and excitement to the high street.

It will be a sad day when local government manages to legislate the right to play music in public freely. There is already too much repression of self-expression in this country and removing that in one of the most famously musical boroughs in the land would be an appalling mistake. At the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony a whole section of it was, correctly, devoted to our pride in Britain’s staggeringly diverse musical heritage. Licensing busking in this way would stem the flow of potential Lennons and McCartneys, Morrisey’s and Strummers, Bush’s and Winehouse’s and all the other singers, guitarists, flautists, beatboxers and djembe players that want to enrich themselves and their communities. If you want to take a cold, dead- eyed financial look at the situation, licensing busking is potentially depriving future British superstars – revenue makers – from learning their trade in the finest workshop out there: the British High Street. So don’t confiscate our guitars, don’t muffle our horns and don’t unplug our amplifiers. Let buskers in Camden, and the nation over, continue to help the public walk down the high street with a little swing in their step and a bop in their legs.

Visit: Twitter: @benvandervelde

Amanda Palmer Supports Camden Busking Petition

By Philippa Morgan Walker

Former street performer turned Dresden Dolls frontwoman and now solo artist, Amanda Palmer has shown her support for our barely-24-hours-old campaign via Twitter. To a million followers, she retweeted ASAP! Founding Director, Jonny Walker’s tweet calling for people to sign the new petition. The petition aims to collect signatures to support the KeepStreetsLive and ASAP! campaign against a draconian busking policy that Camden Council are threatening to rubber stamp.

Amanda responded to Mr Walker’s campaign directly:

“We are us RT @JonnyWMusic thank you for standing up for those of us who are still making a living on the streets. You are an inspiration…”

Mr Walker replied:

“@Amandapalmer when you are next in London we’d love you to participate in a mass, kazoo-led street protest against Camden’s new laws…”

Amanda is a key inspiration for the leading members of ASAP!, as a fellow agent in lending credibility to street performance and its many positive effects on the atmosphere of a neighbourhood. No-one quite sums up kick-ass artist extraordinaire, Amanda like TED Talks, who invited her to lead one of its famous conferences:

“The singer-songwriter-blogger-provocateur, known for pushing boundaries in both her art and her lifestyle, made international headlines this year when she raised nearly $1.2 million via Kickstarter (she’d asked for $100k) from nearly 25,000 fans who pre-ordered her new album, Theatre Is Evil.”

There’s something wonderful about artists and like-minded people uniting and saying ‘hang on a minute’ to the powers that be. Blocking culture from taking place on the streets is a dangerous sign of things to come, unless we take notice NOW, and engage with the policy making process, our high streets risk becoming clone-like and dull at best and lifeless corporate shells at worst. Let’s clear up a popular point of tension; if a busker is causing a genuine threat or nuisance on the streets then there are many existing laws to tackle such issues: like the Public Order Act, Environmental Protection Act and Highways Act, to name but a few. Ring-fencing a public space with an empire of law and ‘order’ is a direct assault on grassroots culture, artistic freedoms and a basic human right to ‘get up, ‘stand up’ (to borrow from Bob Marley).

The Camden Keep Streets Live campaign is going to be one tough battle and we’ll need to draw upon a lot of support. The streets belong to everybody and, yes, that includes human statues called ‘The Eight-Foot Bride’, clarinet players, penny whistlers and beat-box groups – not just powerful brand names or the usual retailers we see up and down the country. Cleaning up the streets should refer to bin collection etc, rather than the forced removal of musicians and artists from promising paving stones. Camden Council are gathering suits and clipboards, so we need to assemble a more colourful crowd…

Camden’s Street Culture Under Threat

Camden’s Street Culture Under Threat

Street culture in Camden is under imminent and real threat. Under plans being drawn up by Camden Council, Street Performers face a fine of up to £1000 for the ‘crime’ of busking without a license. Council officers will have the power to seize musical instruments and other equipment, the tools of a busker’s trade, and to sell them if the fine is not paid within 28 days. ASAP has set up a petition calling on the council to rethink their plans, you can sign it here.

They are currently conducting a public consultation on their proposals to introduce a draconian licensing scheme for busking. If this scheme is introduced, it will be one of the most restrictive busking policies in the entire United Kingdom. Buskers will have to pay an annual fee of up to £123 to perform on the streets. A presumption against the use of wind instruments (including flutes and recorders), as well as any form of percussion (No bongoes or bins) or amplification (regardless of volume level) will apply.

The ‘right’ to seize instruments and equipment will also extend to private contractors working for Camden and is NOT dependant on a public nuisance having been demonstrated. Under this policy, busking without a license is itself criminalised. This could lead to a situation where people’s most prized possessions are taken from them by force and sold for no other reason than strumming a guitar in the street. This is not an acceptable use of state power or public resources.

These proposed regulations will have the effect of making it almost impossible to busk in Camden as well as settting a damaging precedent for other parts of the country. They are an assault on the freedom for people to use shared public spaces for grassroots expressions of art and culture and the ability of musicians to share their art with the public. The restrictions are particularly unnecessary in light of the fact that there are many statutory powers available to the council to deal with genuine episodes of nuisance without invoking new laws (Such as the Environmental Protection Act 1990 or the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993). At a time when local authorities are being forced to make large cuts in spending, it is, at best, unfortunate, that Camden are proposing to spend scarce public resources on a policy like this when there are so many other issues of pressing concern relating to poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol dependency, the closure of essential services for social care and genuine crimes againt the person.

My name is Jonny Walker. I am a professional street performer, singer songwriter and the Founding Director of the Association of Street Artists and Performers (ASAP!) a body that exists to campaign against policies that threaten street culture and to promote the idea that our shared public spaces belong to all of us and should be protected for the common good. We campaigned againt a busking law in Liverpool that would have seen buskers prosecuted for ‘tresspassing’ in a public space and facing other stringent limits on their freedom to perfrom, and we won. We asked York City Council to review their busking permit scheme because of the many restrictions it imposed on street artists, and they listened and made changes involving street artists and performers in that process. Now we are asking the same of Camden Council.

Camden is one of the most dynamic and culturally diverse areas in London. It hosts many iconic music venues and is home to MTV studios and many record labels. It is famous worldwide as a vibrant centre for the arts and live music, as well as for its famous markets and nightlife. The council’s proposals to introduce draconian busking regulations threaten to damage Camden’s reputation as a local authority that nurtures and supports the arts as well as to damage the enjoyment of thousands of people, both visitors and residents, who enjoy the dynamic street culture scene in this iconic London Borough. The Council’s plans in their current form lack imagination and stifle creativity. At best they represent a heavy-handed response to complaints about noise and the use of a whopping great sledge hammer to crack a very small nut, at worst, they are a damaging attempt to restrict freedoms attached to the use of public space at a time of austerity and the closure of many live venues.

As a local authority that values its proud artistic and musical heritage, Camden should abandon its plans to license busking, and instead consult with street performers, residents, professional bodies like the Musician’s Union and Equity, as well as educational establishments like the London College of Music to come up with a supportive policy framework for busking that builds and improves upon Camden’s already vibrant street culture scene, deals proportionately with the issues that arise from busking from time to time, and, in-so-doing,  benefits the well being of the entire borough and the city beyond it.


The consultation runs until October 4th. People who are concerned about Camden’s plans can fill in the on-line consultation here.

Please also sign the petition asking on Camden to think again.

And join the facebook group here:

Keep Streets Live!