For some, it’s a bit of fun on the weekend or a way to make a bit of beer money. But for other musicians, busking is a way of life – and occasionally it’s the first step on the road to recording contracts, social media stardom and playing the world’s biggest festivals.
Here are some of the best cities to catch a streetside symphony – or spot The Next Big Act.
K-pop’s now-global popularity has inspired a new generation of musicians hoping to be the next Hyukoh or IU. In Seoul, you’ll find them busking in Hongdae, a hip district in the capital’s northwest anchored by the artsy Hongik University and surrounded by cafes, bars and trendy shops and stalls. Young hopefuls crank out choreographed K-pop routines, while soulful singer-songwriters strum guitars and street magicians and caricature artists ply their trade along Eoulmadag-ro, which runs north to south through the area.
Shoppers browsing high-street brands along the Irish capital’s Grafton Street are the perfect potential audience for buskers. The street is the epicentre of the busking community, with a diversity of acts on any given day: rock guitarists, jazz bassists, Celtic folk bands, bagpipers. One recent success story is 13-year-old Allie Sherlock, a Grafton Street regular whose cover of Ed Sheeran’s Supermarket Flowers went viral on YouTube, securing her an invitation to Ellen DeGeneres’ chatshow in the US and a recording contract with Patriot, the label of One Republic’s Ryan Tedder.
Covent Garden is one of London’s liveliest street music scenes. While both a permit and an audition are required, the charming pedestrianised area in the fashionable West End is hugely popular for musicians and showmen. Elsewhere, one-man rock’n’roll and blues act Lewis Floyd Henry has made a stretch of Brick Lane his own, cranking out covers of Motörhead and Jimi Hendrix on his electric guitar via an amp squished into a pram and a miniature drum kit which he plays with his feet. You can also catch live music on the Underground, where buskers have been given pitches at several stations – including Liverpool Street – to entertain commuters.
The city’s French Quarter is known for its bourbon bars, jazz clubs and freewheeling, spontaneous vibe – which is also helped by a generous smattering of street musicians. Keep an eye out for Doreen Ketchens, a clarinettist who regularly puts on Dixieland and more traditional jazz performances with her band. Other sights include human statues – nude, body-painted women; and more lap-steel and neo-folk bands than you can shake a tumbler of bourbon at.
With an estimated 2,000 buskers thronging the city, there are plenty of chances to encounter Melbourne’s street musicians. Since last year, all public busking requires a licence, but that hasn’t dampened the musicians’ ardour. Top spots include Southbank Promenade, along the Yarra river, and Bourke Street Mall in the city centre, where you’ll find musicians young and old with instruments slung across their bodies and all manner of amps, guitar pedals and keyboards propped up on colourful milkcrates.
3 who made it big
The stages only got bigger and brighter for these hardworking buskers-turned-megastars
The most streamed artist on Spotify in 2017 has admitted he was once ‘sleeping on the [London Underground’s] Circle Line and doing gigs in the evenings’. But in 2010, actor and musician Jamie Foxx invited him to perform on his US radio show. Shortly after, Sheeran’s EP reached number two in the iTunes charts and he signed with Atlantic Records.
Few realise the Cleveland-born singer-songwriter got her start busking around Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while studying at nearby Tufts in the mid-80s. A fellow student, Brian Koppelman, introduced her to his record exec father, and not long after she cut a record and the platinum discs and Grammys followed.
South Korean singer Ahn Ji-young and singer-guitarist Woo Ji-yoon started out performing their cutesy indie-pop on the streets of Yeongju, two hours southeast of Seoul. The childhood friends entered TV talent show Superstar K6 in 2014, which helped them land a recording contract. They released their first studio album, Red Planet, in 2016, and regularly feature in the South Korean charts.