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London’s buskers feel the impact of an increasingly cashless world

by Michelle Fredman

It’s a moody Monday morning on London’s South Bank and folk musician; Connor Roff is busy setting up his pitch. Roff has been busking at this popular tourist hangout for three years. But over time he’s noticed the spare change in his guitar case starting to dwindle.

“I don’t make nearly as much as I used to in terms of cash”, he acknowledged. “There was a period of time when I think all of us buskers were like, have we gotten worse? But no, it’s just that people don’t carry cash as much these days.”

To combat this problem Roff recently purchased a card machine. Yet he’s still not totally comfortable with the idea. “It kind of makes it feel a bit more like begging, which doesn’t really make sense because it’s the same concept.”

Roff playing on Southbank with Becky CJ who together form the band, Little Water

Chester Bingly is the founder of Keep Streets Live, a campaign that advocates for the rights of buskers and the protection of public space for the arts. He believes that cashlessness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I do suspect that the public are considerably less-inclined to tap a card than donate change,” he admitted. “Although people may now carry less cash, the fact that they also have cards means they are less cash-reliant and therefore more likely to part with it than when they had a fixed amount to last the day.”

It seems Londoners have gotten used to tapping their cards for everything these days, from a 60p banana to even public toilets. But to musicians like Roff, it feels like people are less willing to tap their cards for street music. He believes this might have to do with the general view that busking is anti-capitalistic. To mix it with Mastercard seems almost paradoxical. That being said, he’s adamant society can change.

“I remember at one point I did think, what am I going to do when cash actually goes away?” said Roff. “But it’s just in a bit of a transition phase. There are people who are obviously going to hate what’s happening because when you become used to something it’s harder to change but I think it’s just about learning to roll with it and make it work.”

However, not all buskers think a card machine is even necessary. Will Cashel who forms one part of the guitar twosome, Duo, is confident it’s still possible to make a decent living busking the old-fashioned way.

“To be honest we do pretty well without one. We sell our CD’s for cash. We did have a card machine before but no one used it,” he explained.

However while the pair travels around Europe playing music, he said they avoid the capital city like the plague. “London is far too flooded with other buskers. If you rely on foreign tourists, to be honest, they don’t cough up. They certainly don’t buy CD’s.”

In terms of whether he thinks the culture of busking is under threat, he’s not convinced. “To be honest we haven’t seen a change at all. I imagine in ten years time it might be essential to have a card machine but hopefully by that time I won’t be busking anymore,” he joked.

Although opinions on how the move towards cashlessness is impacting the busking community vary, all agree that busking is an art form and profession in need of preservation.

From the melancholy blues floating through the underground to the familiar wail of Oasis’s Wonderwall reverberating out of graffiti-covered tunnels, buskers add a soundtrack to the cities manic pace. For many they are an integral part of London’s cultural fabric.

“Street performance provides cultural offerings that everybody can afford and enjoy, and helps to build community,” said Bingly. “As venues close and budgets tighten it provides an income for experienced performers, and opportunities for beginners to hone their acts. As well as the positive aspects of busking it is also a fundamental right including freedom of assembly and expression.”

Duo performing in Oxford – Emily Reed Photography

Last year, in order to help sustain the busking culture in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan and Busk in London, a non-profit street performance programme, partnered with technology business iZettle to create card readers that allow street performers to input a fixed quantity so passers-by can easily donate a pound or two.

However, buskers like Roff have found these machines aren’t always easy to operate.

“The downside to my machine and probably most of them is that they many of them don’t do repeat payments,” he said. “It’s really frustrating actually. You’re only going to make a pound or two on the song and you don’t want to keep cutting the show to reset your machine.”

There is also the fact that the card readers generally take a 1.75% to 2% transaction fee, which over time can add up.

Yet despite the slow adjustment to this new form of payment and the hesitation from the public, the young musician is certain that society will soon grow accustomed to paying for street music with their cards, like everything else.

“I don’t think it needs to be black and white,” said Roff. “I think it can be something that we have to learn to adapt to and change and that’s why these card readers are great. It’s just about re-establishing our mentality, where this becomes the new norm.”