manage to handle them. Here is my experience regarding safety while busking.
Don’t Be Naïve
There’s really no room for naïvety when you perform on the street. There are people out there that will take advantage. When I used to busk in Southampton (about 8 or 9 years ago), there was this guy that would come up to me and talk for ages. Short, chubby, smelled slightly of booze and had a French accent. He was very friendly though. He told me he was French Canadian and told me this long drawn out story about his family in Canada and that he was trying to get back to see them. He would ask for like 20p at the end and the first time I gave it to him so he’d go away. After that I just said no. Then he would keep talking to me until a police officer approached and asked him what he was doing. Once you give a beggar money, they keep coming back for more. Over time I’d occasionally see him again and he’d tell me the same story again. I learned to ignore him or tell him to go away when he approached me.
In Southampton I’d get other people that would come up to me and look in my case and comment about how much money I had in there. One lady would tell me she was short some change to use the phone booth and asked me for 50p. I said no. When people see how much is in your case, some start to get greedy and see if they can take what’s yours. At the time I didn’t realise people thought like that. I just let money accumulate and didn’t think that people were looking in and imagining having that money for themselves.
Nowadays I just think how dare these people even ask me? I wouldn’t go up to a stranger and say can I have 10p for no reason, or try to con people out of their money. These people have guts to even ask. When I’m playing I tend to hide the coins I get when it starts to accumulate. Definitely hide notes immediately. Don’t want them blowing away. The one time I forgot to pay attention is when a lady decided to actually steal from me.
Of course this drew attention and the good people of Lincoln stopped her. (I couldn't walk away from my equipment). She was shouting something back, I had no idea what. I just kept saying, ‘I earnt that money, you've just stolen from me and it's not right.’ She threw a pound my way because the people around her pressured her to. Pretty sure she probably took more. Some guy put it in my case and asked if that was all she took. I said I couldn't be sure.
Other people seeing this were disgusted by her and gave me more so I'm sure what they gave had reimbursed me. Some guy afterward told me she was shouting racial slurs and saying she deserved my money because she's lived here all her life. He also said she seemed like she had mental health issues.
It’s important when you go busking to be conscious of what you are doing. It’s easy to start a routine and just go out without thinking about the type of people that might walk by. A person that’s standing on the street with sometimes 1000’s of pounds worth of equipment and money in their case is seen as an easy target. If robbed or attacked, the person can’t run after the attacker lest they lose their equipment. So they have to let the money go. I’ve heard of a few buskers who were robbed in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. It reminds you that you need to be careful and aware of who approaches you while you are playing. The majority of people are kind and want to support you, but not everybody.
I had another incident where I just felt uneasy. I often get surprised that sometimes the people who have the least amount of money are the most giving. Having said that there was one time where a woman who gave me money happened to see me as I was on my way home. She had a scruffy kind of look to her, like she could’ve been homeless and alcoholic or on drugs, but she spoke relatively like a normal person. I was walking past a park and she shouted to me that she had a question. So I walked over to her. As I got closer I noticed the guys she was with didn’t look too friendly and it worried me a bit. Even though all my stuff was packed away and easy to carry, I was outnumbered. At least I was out in the open and lots of people were around so I thought if something happens at least there are witnesses.
She wanted to know what I did with the pound she gave me. That’s a strange question. Not really her business anymore after she gave it to me? You don’t ask a waitress what she is going to spend her tip money on after you give it to her, do you? I may have said I got some lunch or put it in the bank, I can't remember. Either way I gave a short answer and left it at that. Then I got away as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to be rude by completely ignoring her, but my safety comes first!
I’m aware that as a young looking female, I’m especially vulnerable. I won’t go busking at night by myself because I’m not sure who is about. People tend to drink more then and you never know what they might do. There are some alcoholics that roam around during the day as well, though, and get too close. I have to ask them to sit on a bench and watch rather than stand in my personal space. There was one guy that stood watching us (I happened to be busking with another violinist) and he was trying to sing along but he was super drunk. I even saw him wet himself at one stage. I had to keep asking him to back away and pointed out the available benches. He did take my suggestion after we asked him a couple of times to go sit down. I have been approached by other alcoholics as well when I’ve been by myself. I don’t tend to get that problem if I play in the nicer parts of town like near a cathedral. It usually happens on the high street.
I also make sure I’m not going to make any Big Issue sellers angry (For those that don’t know Big Issue is a magazine that is sold by homeless people). I don’t want them to start fighting with me. In some places that ask you to get a license, they usually have a map of pitches for buskers and big issue sellers. I don’t always bother getting a license because the council don’t bother checking normally. But it’s a good idea not to get in the way of people who legitimately should be there. They might complain, or worse. I don’t advocate others busking without a license where one is required though, because you have to know the laws beforehand. I’ve heard some street performers have been thrown in jail for trespassing in the United States. Best to make sure you won’t make things worse for yourself. Also in some spots people might throw water or other things at you if they don’t want to hear your music.
I have gotten into problems before where I start playing and 20 minutes later some preacher comes over and starts shouting into a microphone. Well there was also a different occasion where it was a guy just spouting nonsense really loudly nearby. It’s very off putting and sends my customers away. In those cases I just have to turn up my volume and they go away after a little while. Usually they can’t compete with me and give up.
The More Crowded the Better
When there are crowds there are usually more police about and that means you’re less likely to get crazy people bothering you. If I see lots of families about with kids, I don’t tend to see many ne'er-do-wells. On the other hand, if there are too many people I’ve found you don’t earn as much. People aren’t concentrating on what’s around them, they just want to get from a to b. So you sort of have to weigh your options about whether to busk in those situations.
Make A Plan
When I go to set up my busking pitch, I will have already scanned up and down the area to see what is around. I usually take note if I see any police or community support officers in case I run into trouble. There have been times where I was grateful for them being there when I was being harassed by homeless people. The officers usually ask if the person is bothering me and then send them away. I usually try to avoid areas where I think troublemakers might hang out anyway.
My instruments and equipment are all insured, so I know that if something happens, I can concentrate on protecting myself first. The stuff can be replaced but I can’t. Sometimes people stand too close to me. If they want to ask a question I can usually tell. Sometimes they don’t have a question though; they just want to stand there and watch. That’s when I have to ask them to move. If I don’t feel comfortable with them being there, then that’s just the way it is. And they do move when I ask. Most normal people can watch from a distance.
It’s important to remember that some people won’t go away just by you ignoring them. You have to make them aware that you don’t want them there. It’s important to look ready to take action if need be. I concentrate on not looking like an easy target. Plus I go to places where I see regular people who can help me if need be (like market-stall owners). Because of that I get bothered a lot less than I used to, even though I’m out more often. A firm no and hiding my money usually does the job.
What are your experiences? Have you witness any performers being attacked or experienced not feeling safe while performing yourself? Let me know in the comments below!
Serena Smith is an American British violinist and fiddle player. I play full time as a street musician in addition to the live gigs I perform with several bands.