Busking left ‘decimated’: The Christmas the music died due to Covid

Buskers not permitted to perform on Dublin’s streets due to public health guidelines

David Owens with his piano on Grafton Street, Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

David Owens with his piano on Grafton Street, Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

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One of the greatest pleasures of Christmas shopping in Dublin city centre is the atmospheric sound of buskers. This festive season, however, will be vastly different as artists will not be permitted to perform on the streets due to public health guidelines.

Buskers were not permitted to perform on streets during the initial lockdown, and as restrictions were lifted during the summer they gradually returned to the capital’s streets. However, as further restrictions were implemented their permits were again suspended.

In a letter to street performers, dated November 27th, Dublin City Council said “unfortunately due to public health reasons Dublin City Council cannot lift the temporary suspension of your street performers permit until further notice . . . stay safe and stay well and we hope to welcome you back to the streets of Dublin in the not too distant future.”

'Busking has been such a big part of my life, it’s got me to where I am today and so many other artists'

David Owens, a pianist and street performer, said the sector has effectively been “decimated” this year, and this Christmas would be very different for him.

“We all busk a lot over Christmas. A lot of us kind of do it every day from the 12th or so until when the kids go back to school. Even on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, and that’s how you make enough money to get by because there’s nothing in January or February usually.”

He said income from busking in December was around double that of a normal month, meaning they could spread the money out over the quieter months to sustain themselves.

Even when they were allowed to perform earlier this year, Owens said things were very different from pre-Covid times.

“They let us back after the first lockdown, and they gave us some guidelines on what to do. They encouraged contactless payments. I use a Revolut sign and a card machine to try and have less cash. And you weren’t allowed big crowds, which was fine; you’d just have to stop when there was a big crowd and disperse them.”

He was “lucky” to be able to pivot and teach piano online in order to have another income source. Most street performers didn’t have this option, with many leaving the sector.

Scared

Full-time busker Dylan Harcourt temporarily moved to Berlin in August in the hope he would get more business there.

“Usually Berlin is better for me anyway but it still wasn’t where it usually was. People are scared. Even the idea of approaching a case to put money in is probably scary for people, so it definitely affected the money we make. It [Covid] has damaged the pockets of all buskers in some way.”

Dublin City Council agreed at its recent monthly council meeting to pass an emergency motion to come up with a “creative solution” to support street performers affected by the continued suspension of performance licences.

Allie Sherlock performing on Grafton Street. Photograph: Mark Sherlock
Allie Sherlock performing on Grafton Street. Photograph: Mark Sherlock

However, Harcourt feels it is unlikely busking will return to profitability until international tourism resumes.

Tourists are money-makers. I have Irish people tip me but they’re definitely not the majority of people tipping me or buying CDs. A lot of tourists buy CDs for keepsakes. Even if things get back, tourism is where the strength is in busking.”

He believes other buskers might follow suit and move abroad, but thinks it is an important part of Irish culture. Many top Irish musicians, including Dermot Kennedy and Glen Hansard, began their careers busking on Irish streets.

Other artists

Allie Sherlock, a 15-year-old busker who has more than 4 million subscribers on YouTube and who appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show in 2018, said her career would not exist if it wasn’t for busking.

“Busking has been such a big part of my life, it’s got me to where I am today and so many other artists. It’s not only a great starting platform to get higher in the music industry, but it’s also a great way to build up your confidence as well. It has so many great things about it.”

She still receives income through her YouTube account but acknowledges other buskers are not that lucky.

“I feels so bad for those buskers whose only income is busking . . . it’s been difficult for them.

“When I walk up Grafton Street I love to hear musicians playing. It fills the silence. I love the sounds of the musicians playing Christmas songs and then the Christmas lights. I think, definitely, it will take away some of the festivity.”

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