New world coming: Buskers have their say

Changes to street performance guidelines that could to come in next week could change the rules on what classifies as busking in the CBD.

Words and pictures

Buskers in the CBD face tighter restrictions after the City of Melbourne recently unveiled a proposal to govern the city’s street performers. 

The council will consider a range of new guidelines at its meeting next Tuesday, October 17. 

The  council says the aim is to raise the standard of Melbourne’s art scene and support talented buskers and artists, while creating a fairer space by having public auditions, and reviewing what kinds of acts are considered “busking”. 

This could mean acts like balloon sculpting and drawing are no longer considered busking, and might be reclassified as street trading or street entertainment.

Busker Kieren Lee, 23, says the proposed changes would be good for Melbourne’s busking scene as they would set the bar high and attract those who will “take busking seriously”.

But balloon twister Natasha Friel was concerned about the changes, and says she could not afford the higher fee she would be charged as a street trader. 

One of the recommendations includes changing the current busking permits to include a “premium” category that would include the Bourke St Mall, Southbank Promenade, Swanston St and Elizabeth St. These would cost $100 for 12 months, rather than $40 for other areas. 

Under the recommendations, buskers would have to go through public auditions, held quarterly. 

Mojo spoke to eight street artists. Most were either unsure how the suggestions would affect them, or were unaware of the changes.

Change for the good: Kieren Lee, 23, the lead singer of Big Words says the proposed changes would be good for Melbourne’s busking scene as they would set the bar high and attract those who will “take busking seriously”. The singer, who does his own stripped-back performances of instrumentals, has been busking for 10 years and is sure the changes would not greatly affect him. He believes most in the industry would adapt quickly.

Possibly the last straw: 13-year-old Xavier Thomas is generally supportive of the recommendations unless “it affects people’s livelihoods”. The electric guitarist says public auditions should not be mandatory as not everyone will be comfortable being judged by the public. If the proposed recommendations are passed, Thomas would either move out of the CBD or give up busking entirely.

The cream of the crop: New Caledonian soloist Jason Mist, 22, moved to Australia a few years ago as the busking industry was too small back home. After performing in a few states, Mist loves Melbourne and feels that it has the liveliest busking scene in the whole of Australia. He believes the recommendations would help in having an even better selection of buskers and says the $100 busking permit fee for 12 months is reasonable.

Not a big change: Professional busker Wylie J. Miller, says the proposed changes would not affect musicians like him. The animated artist, who has been busking on-and-off for the past few years, feels that there should be a level of professionalism at places like Bourke St. Auditions have been happening in recent years and one of the criteria in order to pass the audition is to perform more than 10 songs without repeating, though the audition is not judged by the public. Miller welcomes the change as he feels that the misconception that busking is an easy trade causes people to quit a few months after they start as they realise it was much harder than expected.

Pushed to the limit: Sarah Fenton, an Aboriginal street artist, is worried about her future as she cannot afford to pay $100 for a 12-month busking permit. The 34-year-old from South Australia is homeless, struggling each day to make ends meet. She draws Aboriginal chalk art on the pavement to help raise funds for her food and lodging. Fenton does not have access to the internet so she says she has little knowledge about the proposed changes. The Wamba Wamba member says it is “not right” for the council to force people like her to pay up “so much money” as she would rather spend the fee to sleep on a bed instead of cardboard.

Language barriers: Emma Qi, 49, who has been busking in Melbourne for five years, says she does not know of the proposed recommendations as she does not understand the emails that the Melbourne City Council sent her. The Chinese national is not too fussed about the public auditions or the increased fees for the busking permits as she feels it is reasonable, but her sole concern is her busking permit as it might not be renewed if the proposed changes are passed.

Grey area: Balloon twister Natasha Friel is one of the few buskers who falls in between the proposed definition of a busker and street art trader. The 36-year-old says the issue has been raised and she has tried working as a street art trader in the past, but she simply could not afford to pay $300 per month for her license. Friel says she only makes around $25 on a bad day, especially during colder months, and that she cannot survive even on donations alone. The balloon artist acknowledges that the Council of Melbourne is trying to “weed out the bad ones” and create a fairer industry for everyone by making the rules clear-cut to ensure no one abuses the busking permits, but it is difficult for people like her who fall between the lines. Friel says the Council of Melbourne knows of the problem and they are working with her to resolve the issue.


Unclear rules and destiny: Like Natasha Friel, street poet Angelina Stanton is one of the buskers who fall in the grey area of busking. The 33-year-old is unsure how the recommendations would affect her, but she is certain she cannot afford the street art trader license. Stanton, who has been busking in the city for three years, relies on donations to get by and might consider moving out of the city to continue her trade if she has to apply for the street art trader license in the future.