Breathing life back into the art of busking

Cultural Heart People of Adelaide

Bags in hand, he wanders down the retail strip, braving the frigid morning air that lashes his face. Jetty Road is virtually baron as only he and the local business owners have reason to be outside and facing the brunt of the sea’s breeze. Moseley Square will be his place of business for today. Now he waits, guitar case open, amplifier set and guitar in tune. The sun rises higher in the morning sky, bringing forth his audience and the lifeblood of his profession. It’s the career of a busker and the daily lifestyle he has embraced.

Yorke Heath is an Adelaide based musician who has been able to make his income from live music gigs and busking around Adelaide for over two years now. He says that his life has always revolved around music and for years he dreamed of the day that he could make it his number one priority by jumping headfirst into a music career. His workdays consist of early rising, pitching performances to local venues, creating a steady stream of content for digital platforms and busking amid Adelaide’s highest foot traffic locations. Heath radiates positivity for the profession of busking when asked to talk about it, bouncing about in his seat and constantly donning an air guitar when reciting his previous gigs.

Yorke heath in foreground

Musician Yorke Heath performing on guitar.

"I absolutely love the feel of busking. To me, it feels like such a natural and human thing to want to perform and spread joy amongst others," says Yorke. "It’s amazing to think of how many major artists started off like this … I just love the thought that busking has the power to propel people into the spotlight like that."

"The story around it is so interesting as well with it being one of the oldest forms of entrepreneurship."

The history of busking dates back to Medieval times, when wandering minstrels would be invited by local merchants to attract new business to their storefronts. With busking continuously being practised for the following century, it has fortified itself as an important part of music and popular culture. This accessible form of entertainment has been identified as a way for artists to gain feedback, motivation and exposure.

"I was initially scared to go out and perform in public because I was insecure with my own abilities and scared of potential hecklers making fun of me. Then I realised that’s exactly why people should busk; busking provides an audience and the chance to see how people react to your music. With a second set of ears in play, it can give you feedback so you can fine-tune your style. Plus, when someone comes up to put that loose change in your guitar case – boy does it encourage you."
Yorke Heath, Adelaide-based musician / busker

When pursuing busking as a career, a performer like Yorke has always known there is an element of risk, more so today than ever before. With the world’s changing landscape, busking like many other trades, faces the challenge of keeping up. Many buskers have felt that interactions of good feedback or monetary praise slowly disappearing.

The introduction of new payment technologies has led to a decline in the amount of physical money carried by the average Australian on a day to day basis. According to market analyst East & Partners; cash payments received by Australian merchants plummeted by 46 per cent between 2010 and 2016. With physical cash payments predicted to only make up 5 per cent of payments for Australian businesses in 2020, it is believable that Australia is converting into a cashless society. This phenomenon has been brought forth by a rise in popularity for wearable, contactless and mobile payments being further integrated into everyday life.

Busking in adelaide

Peter Clayton is a self-employed musician who regularly busks in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall. As a performer of Australian folk music for over two decades, he has noticed this change affecting the busking culture.

"I’m not getting the help I used to, I always put a few coins in, nothing worse than an empty guitar case," Peter says.

"The days of dropping a gold or silver coin in the case are coming to an end as there is a lot of people that say 'Aw, I would give you money, but I’ve got no cash on me'. The cashless society has had a huge negative impact on me, and most buskers are finding it very hard going."
Peter Clayton, self-employed Adelaide musician

As an optimist, Peter refuses to let the world’s shift away from physical cash deter his performances. Alongside his leather guitar case and wired up microphone equipment, a new technological addition has appeared in his busking setup. Clayton has introduced a tap and go EFTPOS terminal allowing him to accept digital currency.

"If someone wants to give me something, I enter the amount on the phone and they just PayWave," Peter says. "I think it will only be of benefit for CD sales and larger donations as I don't think people will bother with anything less than $5.00."

Peter believes that fewer people may also come up and interact with buskers nowadays because of how antisocial society is becoming in public.

By watching the people who walk down Adelaide’s Rundle Mall over the years, he has seen how the public has developed to always be deeply fixated on their smartphones.

Crowds of people flowing through the bustling epicentre of the city completely shut off and unaware of those next to them because of the allure of a world behind a screen and set of earphones.

Peter clayton image

Adelaide musician Peter Clayton

"I used to get a lot of smiles or thumbs up but that's not happening anywhere near as much," Peter says. "I suspect that maybe because they don't have coins, so they avoid eye contact."

Yorke Heath has developed his busking style to work with current-day technology. He believes there is an equal amount of potential for a musician's career to be developed on social media as there is performing in front of live crowds.

"Social media gives artists like me the ability to perform in front of crazy amounts of people," Yorke says.

"Using websites such as Facebook, Tik Tok and Instagram I have been able to gain over 18 000 views on individual music videos."

This ability to find an audience online has proven to be more critical in 2020 than ever before, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison imposing restrictions on non-essential businesses and banning gatherings of more than 500 people on Friday 13 March as a precaution to halt the Covid-19 pandemic. Australia’s social distancing procedures have crippled the live music industry and has prompted artists to switch performing in public for performing to a camera. Looking down the lens of a camera allows the artist’s music to be spread across the earth through viral video or live streams.

"With the pandemic forcing so many people to stay home, I have had to take a break from busking as it is relatively pointless with no one to perform to," Yorke says.

"I have had to use the extra time to up the production on the videos I put on social media. I’m very thankful for the support people have given me through this though, it gives me hope that we can all come together and appreciate the smaller things."

Busking has always been a raw form of expression dependent on the world around it. As the world that surrounds busking continues to change, it is interesting to see how it evolves to suit it. There is a chance that some may deem it as an annoying artform that the world is moving away from, but with the amount of joy that it can bring about, artists like Yorke and Peter should be encouraged for breathing new life into busking.


This article by Edward McCarroll has been published through a collaboration between the City of Adelaide and the University of South Australia aimed at sharing stories of the city and showcasing the work of emerging local writers.

Discover more engaging stories penned by aspiring Adelaide writers.

The views, information, or opinion expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Corporation of the City of Adelaide.

Unisa logo

UPDATE ON BUSKING IN THE CITY OF ADELAIDE

Good news for music makers and appreciators!

After a temporary suspension due to COVID-19, from Friday 10 July 2020, busking permits are again available through the City of Adelaide's Customer Centre and online.

Council has worked with SA Health and SAPol to reinstate busking safely and there are some changes to be aware of:

Busking is still not allowed in Rundle Mall, with this public space currently facilitating other COVID safe activities.

All buskers will need to complete a COVID-Safe Plan as required by the Emergency Management Directions.

Onlookers will need to keep 1.5 m apart when enjoying a performance.

++++++++++++++++++++

CATCH RUNDLE MALL'S BUSKERS AT HOME

Until busking returns to Rundle Mall, you can still catch tunes by some of your favourite city buskers - either in the city or at home!

Watch video performances by Walkabout Piano Man, Pipe Guy, Banana Man and Oscar Asbanu on the big screens set up along Rundle Mall on your next visit to Adelaide's retail heart or at home by tuning into the Rundle Mall Network.

Can't wait? Catch Oscar in action below!

Article by

Edward McCarroll

Edward McCarroll

Edward is a 20 year old freelance writer and radio assistant at Adelaide’s Triple M. Growing up in regional South Australia, Edward moved to Adelaide to study a Bachelor of Journalism and Professional Writing and a Bachelor of Arts (English and Creative Writing) at the University of South Australia.