Buskers, Let It Be

An editorial about street buskers that appeared on The Sunday Times, March 29, 2009

No one should be surprised if buskers bemoan the slew of regulations which confine them to 109 designated spots, including 14 along Orchard Road. After all, the word ‘busk’ comes from the middle Spanish ‘buskar,’ meaning ‘to seek or to wander’. Surely the new rules constitute another symptom of regulation-prone, ‘fine city’ Singapore? Not quite. As Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lee Boon Yang has pointed out, busking should be done in an orderly manner ‘without creating disamenities to other users of public spaces’. The restrictions also come after complaints about noise pollution, especially from those performers who use sound amplification. Moreover, such regulations are not new. Ancient Rome banned public performances which parodied the government. Henry VIII in England ordered the licensing of minstrels and players; those who disobeyed were whipped. This, of course, won’t happen here.

It should be asked, however, whether too much regulation is a good thing. Busking, after all, is the free expression of someone’s talent and joie de vivre (for spare change, of course). As such, regulation should be light, and better still, self-regulating. A good dose of the free market might work: a so-so performance will see one’s takings go down; a bad one will see shop owners throwing out buskers altogether for turning their customers off.

Fundamentally, rules should be facilitative and not merely restrictive. A good example of the former is the New York subway’s Music Under New York, which arranges for buskers to perform throughout the underground. This is self-regulating and win-win: buskers get more money (much better than getting mugged at Central Park); commuters get to enjoy the musical interludes (it should be added that the legendary Paul McCartney dabbled in busking at the London Tube). Regulations seek to inject order into the creative chaos that is busking, but in doing so, the creative chaos should not be stifled.