Buskers on the tube make up the atmosphere of going underground, with everything from guitars to violins to steel drums echoing inside the corridors from Covent Garden to Kings Cross. What’s it like being an Underground busker for a living? We asked Kirsty, a busker from Angel who sings and plays guitar, for her thoughts.
Why do you busk?
I love singing, always have done. It’s very flexible. I’m too old to go down the popstar route, but it’s a good way of making money. It’s really fun! This is ideal. I love being in London, you feel a part of the fabric, travelling around and watching people. A lot of people get addicted to it, and do it for life. I wouldn’t mind playing up to the age of 85.
I did computer graphics and boring temping beforehand, but I’ve always done music. I was trained as a cellist at school. I’ve always sang other people’s stuff, and this has brought my own songwriting up to another level.
What do you play?
Mainly folk, a bit of classic. Both some of my own, and others. Angel is good for doing my own stuff, and they like new music. Other places like Elvis and the Beatles. You need to know what the people want. Keeping songs fresh is important, you need to keep doing new things.
How long have you been doing it for?
About four or five years. I’ve had a liscence for that long, but I took some time off to have a child.
How often do you work, and how do you get your spot?
I do it anywhere I can get a good pitch. I probably do about ten hours or ten pitches a week, depending on what I can get and how much time I’ve got. I fit it around my husband who works.
Every Tuesday at 9.30 the lines open, and you phone in and book what you can get. It’s first come first seved. Sometimes it takes an hour to get through, it’s a proper pain in the neck!
They have 2 hour slots, and they have about 8 per day, so that’s 8am through to midnight. It suits me, it’s money and flexible.
Where are the best pitches?
Piccadilly Circus, Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square. Anywhere where there’s big museums, and the tourists go. Rush hour and working around the theatre times is obviously better too.
How much do you earn in a shift?
It really varies. I’ve been at Angel before when it’s been packed and had nothing. But then I’ve heard stories that some people have earned two or three hundred pounds in a shift. I’ve never earned that much! The most I’ve probably earned in a shift was about £160. It’s seldom less than minimum wage. The ones where you get nothing are as rare as the ones where you get quite a lot. You get notes on occasion too.
Have you ever had any abuse, or anyone be rude to you?
Once, when you get the football crowd, you get a lot of people who don’t understand busking. One person asked me if I had somewhere to stay for the night! They probably thought they were being nice.
Someone once shouted ‘get a job!’ The guys get that a lot more, they get challenged more. Some people think it’s the same as scrounging or begging and put it in the same category. People who aren’t from London can be rude, you can be an easy target. It’s so rare though.
Once, someone came up to me and asked me to stop playing, they were clearly out for trouble. It can be quite scary, you’re quite vulnerable. You’ve got all your gear too, which can be quite expensive.
How hard is it to get a spot?
It’s very hard to get a licence now. I put my name down in 2005. It took about a year and a half to get the audition, I did that, and once you’ve got your licence and renew it every year, you’ve got it for life. I paid a one off fee of £10 for it.
It’s a ridiculous audition process, you all queue up and play in one of the disused stations underground, down near Charing Cross. I was really nervous, I only knew about 3 songs when I applied, I thought it would be like requests, but it’s not at all! They try not to take too many people who will really irritate the station managers… it’s a deliberate mix.
Thanks for doing this interview Kirsty!