Although Camden and Hillingdon hit the news in 2014 for having anti-busking bylaws that empower police to arrest street performers and confiscate and sell their instruments, busking is not illegal in the UK, and other parts of London take a different approach.
For many years, musicians, street artists and novelty acts have entertained London. Passers-by throwing small change into a guitar case or hat have long been a common sight, but there is more to London’s street entertainment scene than barely adequate singers strumming sad songs on battered guitars.
Regular travellers on the Tube will be familiar with the buskers who frequent the miles of corridors, serenading them with everything from Mozart to Ralph McTell. Famous musicians, such as Ray Davies, Bob Geldof, Jessie J and Ed Sheeran have busked there, alongside impoverished students and aspiring singer-songwriters. However, London Underground busking is no longer the free-for-all it used to be.
Transport for London introduced licensed busking in 2003, inspired by the scheme that had been running in New York for more than twenty years.
Numerous special busking pitches are marked by semi-circular areas painted on the floor, and have backdrops, sponsored by businesses and organisations. The pitches are granted to licensed buskers, who have been auditioned by a Transport for London panel.
While it may stifle spontaneity, the scheme provides an estimated 100,000 hours of live music for travellers each year, and has been popular with those who have gained licenses. Some have gone on to work in the wider music industry, contacted via the scheme by events organisers, agencies or for private bookings. Others have worked with major artists or signed recording contracts.
The South Bank, around the London Eye and the Royal Festival Hall is another top spot for free entertainment. On any given day, you may find Disney characters, giant balloon blowers, unicyclists, comedy drag ballet dancers, illusionists or a huge variety of innovative and interesting entertainers.
If you have a penchant for high-quality classical music, circus and variety acts, Covent Garden is an excellent place to go and browse the upmarket shops before settling into one of the bars or bistros for a spot of lunch and people watching. By lunchtime, the street artists are ready to entertain the crowds.
If you want to hear didgeridoo, bagpipes or singer-songwriters, Covent Garden is best avoided, as the rules do not allow any of these on site. Performers are auditioned in special sessions, and those fortunate enough to be approved by the panel are allowed to perform in the Courtyard, the North Hall and West Piazza.
Classical musicians (no wind or brass instruments, accordions, electric guitars or drums allowed) vocalists and variety or circus acts are expected to meet exacting standards, and to be able to build a rapport with their audience.
These stringent requirements ensure that visitors are treated to a variety of high-quality performances, from the likes of Fandango Flute and Strings, Courtney Orange, the obviously named Man with Big Balls and the less obvious Tom off Blue Peter. (Check out www.netbet.org)
Make your way to the Courtyard for classical music and vocalists, or to the North Hall and West Piazza for circus and variety acts.
Perhaps the most bizarre collection of entertainers can be found in Trafalgar Square. Morris dancers, men in gorilla suits and a man blowing a traffic cone have all been spotted here, along with the bagpipers and levitating men who were turned down for Covent Garden.