Love them or hate them, buskers are, and always have been, a vital presence on the streets of Dublin. From the old man who looks like a fisherman playing the violin to the guy with the weirdly soft voice who only seems to sing Passenger’s “Let Her Go”, they all blend into the background of this bustling cityscape. I think Irish people sometimes forget how unique Dublin is as a city with multiple buskers on every street, at any time of day. When I went busking in a town in Denmark people would ask me what I was doing, and some jokingly called it “begging”, since they don’t have a word for it in Danish. The live music scene in Ireland was a big reason why I moved here. I still get a kick out of walking into college and getting four or five free concerts as I stroll down Grafton Street.
But then, of course, there are the Friday afternoons when I’m late for class and the last thing I need is to battle my way through the huge crowd formed around a street performer on a ridiculously high unicycle. People stare at him transfixed, and I wonder why, since I’ve seen the same guy do the same trick three times that week. The performers of Dublin have become familiar to me; I can’t imagine not seeing them around the city centre, or not having my walk into Trinity accompanied by the familiar strains of a Spanish guitar. However, for the last two years, Dublin City Council has been trying to regulate street performances in the city and since then there has been a decrease in the amount of buskers, particularly acoustic musicians, in the city centre.
“Fionn, a busker who plays the uilleann pipes, all but stopped busking after the bylaws of 2015 were enforced..”
The first form of regulation introduced for street performers in Dublin was a “Voluntary Street Performers Code”, introduced in 2012. This outlined for the first time matters such as the distance between two acts, designated “amp-free” zones, a one-hour time limit and the requirement to have a large repertoire (to avoid repetition of the same song). However, this was deemed unsuccessful by Dublin City Council, due to “poor uptake” and proper legislation was drawn up. In 2015, the first set of bylaws described the need for a street performer to pay €30 per year for a licence, and twice that if they’re using an amp. Then in August 2016 these laws were updated and yet more restrictions were put in place. Several zones in the city centre have been named “prohibited places” for buskers, such as Temple Bar which now exclusively allows acoustic buskers. Finally, the use of backing tracks is not permitted under any circumstances.
Fionn, a busker who plays the uilleann pipes, all but stopped busking after the bylaws of 2015 were enforced, and says he isn’t the only one, putting this down to the cost of a licence favouring professional buskers: “If you’re acoustic you’re probably making less money. You’re not going out as much, you’re not professional. I used to have my friends come over to Dublin for a day or two, we’d just go busking for the craic. They’d make all their bus money back, and we’d be able to go out that night. It’s just ridiculous that you need to pay €30 for a yearly licence”. Fionn also finds the time limit of one hour absurd: “You’d be lucky to make 15 quid in an hour”. Although it depends when you’re playing: “Sunday mornings are the best, people are taking their time strolling around, and are more aware of their surroundings. It’s quieter too, there’s no noise battle. But Tuesdays and Wednesdays are rubbish.”
Fionn is, however, a little conflicted when it comes to the backing track ban: “I’m not particularly impressed with backing tracks, unless if it’s a solo singer. Musicians were just using them to attract attention to themselves, which they shouldn’t need to do anyway. On the other hand, I’ve heard some people do incredibly artistic things with them.” The issue with amps is a harder one to solve because, as Fionn says: “some instruments just need them.” But if somebody has an amp licence, they can legally be drowning out an acoustic busker 50 metres away. It’s all very well having an 80 decibel limit but according to Fionn it’s “impossible to regulate. If they’re told to turn it down, they’ll wait and then just turn it up again.”
The impact of regulation on art
“The laws are unnecessary and poorly thought through, a lot of the issues are being viewed as black and white. Blasting amps – that’s covered by a noise pollution law, and anti-social behaviour is also covered by law already.”
Fionn has also noticed a decrease in traditional Irish music being played on the street. When I asked him how tourists react to his music, he told me there’s no end to the requests: “The amount of Germans asking for Danny Boy, and Americans requesting The Wild Rover…”. His favourite anecdote from his busking days is also an insight into the universality of trad music: “I was out busking with my friend who’s a bodhrán player, it was just uilleann pipes and bodhrán. We see two metal heads with soles higher than their actual boots and crazy mohawks listening to us. They came up to us said they’d really enjoyed it and would look up trad when they got home!”
I talked to an electric guitar player who often busks on Grafton Street. He told me he can no longer play in Temple Bar since the new bylaws, which give him the impression that “they’re against art and free will. It’s like they’re trying to end busking”. If busking is your only income, it’s a tough job. I asked him what the hardest thing about busking was and he said: “the weather. Today I was waiting at home for it to stop raining so I could go out and busk. We’re in Ireland and it’s nearly winter so it’s only going to get worse. Then there are junkies as well who will go by and try to steal your money”. On top of fending off the rain and the thieves, the busker has even stranger things to deal with: “One funny story was when I was playing in Temple Bar and a couple stood next to me and started to take off their underwear. They swapped underwear next to me. I was really trying to concentrate on my playing but kept messing up.”
Essentially for Fionn it all comes down to this: “the universal law of don’t be a prick. The laws are unnecessary and poorly thought through, a lot of the issues are being viewed as black and white. Blasting amps – that’s covered by a noise pollution law, and anti-social behaviour is also covered by law already. Genuinely I found that before the laws everyone was a lot friendlier than afterwards. It used to be a personal thing, not ‘I’ve got the law on my side so you have to move’”.
We can’t let busking become a dying art, it’s what makes this city of ours so unique. Buskers have so many stories from standing on the sides of the street, watching the world go by and giving us the gift of their art. Their trade is one that depends solely on their talent and the kindness of strangers. Many great musicians started out as buskers, so the next time you’re walking past one, or battling your way through a crowd, think that they might be the next Tracy Chapman or Damien Rice. Dublin wouldn’t be the same without them.