Buskers at Covent Garden

Busking is a part of British culture and has been since the days of the travelling minstrel, a medieval entertainer who travelled from place to place, especially to sing and recite poetry.  For every famous pop singer or band you may have heard of, there are thousands of street performers and buskers who ply their art on the streets, and in the pubs,  markets and squares of Britain.  Covent Garden is just one of these places.  This article written by Rex Boyd, charts the history of street performers in Covent Garden. (Reproduced with permission).

The written history of street performers at Covent Garden goes back to the 1600s, but the scene in its current state dates from the late 1970s, when the covered fruit and vegetable market underwent its transformation into a tourist site. As a regularly worked busking pitch, its only rival world-wide would have to be the Pompidou Center in Paris. As an influence on the English speaking world of street performers, I would say that it is in a class of its own. Sure, there are nicer places to work. Sure, there are legendary festivals that we all dream of playing, but Covent Garden is worked by street performers nearly every day of the year. Many of these performers make the majority of their money working nowhere else. And likewise, many of them have been performing at Covent Garden regularly for 10 years or more.

The system of deciding who gets to perform and how to share the time slots fairly among the many performers who regularly work there has been through endless discussion and evolution to its present state. No doubt, it will change again in the future, but I will try to give you an accurate portrayal of what to expect if you to want to do a show at the famous Covent Garden. You must remember that any bright idea you have as a newcomer has been argued over endlessly many times before you ever showed up. So the first rule should be to patiently observe and learn from the old pros before you try to stir up any waves

The first thing you have to know is that street performing is illegal in London. The same is true of Paris, actually, but both cities are full of buskers who have to keep an eye out for the police or other authorities at all times. Covent Garden is an exception to that rule in that the Market Association pays a hefty fee to the city government for the license to allow street performing. What this means is that ultimately the Market Management have the final say in what happens on their property. In daily practice, it is not so oppressive though because the Management is usually happy to just let us get on with our shows, while they get on with running a market.

However, the performers are always subjected to being taken for granted; special events are sometime put on, which might take up the prime spots, often with little or no notice given to the performers. A prime example is the month of May every year when an opera festival takes place and there is little room left for the performers who give so much effort into making Covent Garden a lively place that would be desirable for holding an opera festival in the first place. Sounds annoying doesn't it? Well, there are lots of annoying things about any and every street pitch. If you don't like them you don't have to work the streets. I am just going to continue with this article to warn you of what you should know. It is up to you to decide if the hassle is worth it.

Market management requires that every performer must have liability insurance and must pass an audition. The insurance is easy to get. Just ask another performer for the address and pay your fee. (Be sure to ask your own insurer if they will cover you in England if you already have a policy.) The audition may be a little harder to get scheduled, but is not difficult to pass. You won't be judged on quality, as the market has a publicly stated policy of allowing all performers, including beginners, to have an opportunity to develop their shows. You also need to know that auditions are not held on the weekends when the largest crowds are around. Those times are reserved for the business of doing shows and making money as they should be. As mentioned before, the auditioned person doesn't need to prove he can get a large crowd to pass the audition. Certain rules must also be followed if you use fire or amplification in the show, but they are both allowed. The Management will fill you in on the details.

The real purpose of issuing permits (as is sometimes the case in other cities) is so they can be taken away if the performer ends up being a nuisance somehow either by being dangerous to the public or by being offensive. This scenario is very rare, but it has been enforced in the past. Trust me, the other performers are usually relieved to be rid of such a person as well.

So now you have your insurance and your permit... How do you schedule a show? Well, there are two very different locations in the market where performances are allowed. Well, three actually, but the third one is only for classical musicians and has a different set of rules. For variety acts, there is either the indoor or the outdoor pitch. The indoor pitch is scheduled every Monday for shows on the following week. The outdoor pitch is scheduled every morning for shows on that day.

First I will explain the indoor pitch. This spot is a gathering of three benches in a U shape creating a performance space about 12' x 12'. It is sheltered overhead by the market roof, but still has a very outdoor atmosphere to it. You never get rained on here and that can be a big advantage some days as the crowds run underneath for cover. However on sunny days, you may not be able to get them to join you in the shade. But, then again on very hot days they will.

On Monday afternoons, anyone who wants to play the indoor pitch puts their name on a list. These names are drawn to see who gets to choose the most desired time slots first. You are allowed four 30 minute shows over the next week. The shows are scheduled between 10:00am and 8:00pm. As each person on the list draws out of the hat and chooses their four time slots, there becomes less and less spaces available until either nobody wants the left over spots or all have been chosen. You then come back on your chosen days at the chosen times and hopefully have some good shows.

Now for the outdoor pitch. This spot is big. It is intimidating and it can be very hard for even the best performers to gather an audience. But, when they do manage to pull off a big show, you will not find a better street location anywhere in the world. Occasionally, if the performers vote on the day to do so, this area is split into two pitches for either part or all of the day depending on the politics. Sometimes that means that twice as many shows happen. Sometimes that means that some of the performers will try in vain to get an audience while someone else a few yards away is having a great show. It is all very unpredictable and depends upon how many audience members there are to go around and how good your competition is. On that note: you must also realize that there is competition for audience members between the indoor and outdoor pitches as well. There is no way of knowing which pitch will win. A less experienced performer can sometimes top the old pro. You just take your slot and do the best you can.

To play the outdoor pitch you have to have your name in the draw list by 8:15am. Yes, that is a.m., very early, unsociable, unreasonable for street performers to have to put up with. All true. All I can say is, if you don't like it, you should perform somewhere else. When your name is drawn out of the hat you choose your time slot. These time slots are 40 minutes long. Shows start as early as 10:00am and go as late as about 9:00pm in the summer, when it stays light out, or only until 3:30 in the winter. Yes, it gets dark very early in the winter. Not only is it harder to work in the cold, but there are less time slots available for what can sometimes be 20 to 30 performers hoping to get a chance to perform. Even on a winter weekday, there are often 10 to 15 performers there at 8:15am for the draw.

What does all this scrambling for a pitch tell you? Well you can safely assume that it means that there is money to be made if you play the game right. But remember; Covent Garden is more often than not extremely hard to work. The audiences are notorious for not coming forward when you are trying to build a crowd. Large portions of the people are European or even more exotic. Lots of them usually don't speak English. The weather is very unpredictable. And even when you think you are OK because it is hot outside, just then the audiences become zombies more interested in lying in the sun than having anything to do with your annoying show.

If you want to watch street shows, learn a lot about the art, and possibly have a go at trying what may be the best training ground in the world for street performers, then come to London and have a look. Whether you are just watching or wanting to perform, I would suggest that you hang out down there for at least a week to get a feel for the place. Do introduce yourself to the regulars, but don't expect them to lay out the red carpet on your first day. You've got to remember that almost every day in the summer some fresh-faced youngster shows up thinking he is going to take over. Trust me; it won't happen. However, I guarantee you that if you show them some respect and pay your dues, the Covent Garden performers will accept you into the most far reaching and prestigious alumni in the whole world of street performing.

Article reprinted with permission from Rex Boyd. Originally published at