How To Become A Tube Busker

One of the tube's more peculiar buskers, by version3point1 in the Londonist Flickr pool.

One of the tube’s more peculiar buskers, by version3point1 in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Busking has been permitted on the Tube for 10 years now. The strict licensing process doesn’t quite fit the image of a bohemian street performer, and might disappoint the idealistic student who just wants to share his or her ‘gift’ with the world, something for which we should all be incredibly thankful. Yet the scheme remains popular, cheering up the Underground, giving the performers plenty of live experience, and perhaps some decent pocket money to boot.

So how does one become a Tube busker?

First you must submit an application and proposed set list. Then comes an informal interview that is “used to understand you better and your reasons for applying”. An audition follows, conducted by a panel of three. Panellists include professionals from the music industry, representatives from London Underground partner organisations and, rather vaguely, “key individuals from the London scene”.

The scoring process is under review by Transport for London, so the form (and application process) is currently unavailable. However, we’ve been told that the scoring is based on the performers’ presentation, performance quality, performance diversity and originality. So if a musician can somehow impress a fellow musician, a corporate sponsor and a Dalston hipster the only remaining hoop to jump through is that of an official security check, the costs of which are borne by Transport for London.

Last year’s auditions ranged from renditions of Metallica to JS Bach. The majority of applicants are singers with guitars, and we’re told the judges had to tolerate many different versions of Wonderwall and Yellow. Many buskers like to tweak their playlists on occasion, often for seasonal reasons. Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles experiences an uptick in June with all the usual Christmas songs becoming unmissable in December.

Green Park busker by McTumshie in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Green Park busker by McTumshie in the Londonist Flickr pool.

276 licences were granted in 2013-14, allowing buskers access to 40 pitches on the underground network (list attached), which are individually categorised on the basis of location and suitability of instrument. Amplification is confined to pitches in large stations with open areas, while acoustic performers can set up at any of the pitches.

Performers play in two-hourly slots, which they book two weeks in advance. We spoke to a number of buskers playing on the Central Line who told us that competition for their favourite spots can be fierce, but most seemed pretty satisfied with the process and all were fulsome in their praise for station staff.

Mock-up of a busker's licence.

Mock-up of a busker’s licence.

Our final question to each was to cheekily ask for a figure of how much an average weekend of performing could bring in, to which every single person responded with a smiling “No comment”. We’re translating that as ‘pretty good money but I want to keep that bit to myself’.

By Neil McComb

Pitch list (PDF)

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  • thmsbsh

    You neglect to mention the years-long waiting list to get the licence in the first place. As you can imagine, they’re competitive.

  • bonsai

    One point not mentioned is that you may never get an audition/interview even after returning a valid application form while the licensing process is active.

    The committee seems to have a secret formula which allows them to tell the suitability of a candidate without prior listening or interviewing them.

    My suspicion is that it might be age, but it’s a guess as the authorities in charge will not disclose their criteria.

    I would welcome any alternative suggestions as to the factors that lead to such early disqualifications.

  • Michelle

    The system for buskers in the New York subway is so much better! 3 judges?! How easy to be corrupt! In New York they have 20 judges. 2 hour slots? That’s nothing for a busker. In the New York scheme you get 3 hours. And – once you pass the audition you never have to audition again for it – the permit is for life! In addition, in New York one only needs a permit for the scheme’s locations. Anybody can busk whenever/wherever because it is people’s Freedom of Expression right. London should learn from New York – fight for your freedom of speech/expression right! Here is an example of a busker in the NYC subway http://youtu.be/lPvTTc7jAVQ I don’t know if she is licensed or not – but look at the joy on everybody’s faces!