Reflections on Busking Western Europe (part 3)

Let’s do a little more talking about this summer, shall we?


As you read in the first post, we learned a lot about what it means to travel poor in a foreign country including get used to eating bread and cheese and learn how to collect bottles. Right, that’s covered.

We also learned a lot about what it means to busk Europe. And that is…

…busking Europe is very similar to busking the United States.

waterfallzaragozaEurope does have certain advantages: the cities are closer together, so there are more viable busking options in a shorter distance. Going on tour is a quicker operation.

But the same challenges apply: cities where busking is illegal or frowned upon and euros stretched thin due to competition.

Tom Senkus in the London UndergroundChallenge 1: Where to play

We could easily make this a formula. Out of 12 pounts…

Start with location:  Three points for a coastal/port town.

One point if town has ‘traditional’ architecture and historic downtown.

Another point if it’s possible to busk on the historic downtown streets.

Add a point if busking is legal.

Add a point if city is between 70,000 and 400,000 people.

Subtract two points if you find more than one gypsy in downtown area.

Add two points if town has been recommended by other buskers and travelers.

Add a point if downtown has multiple pedestrian-only streets.

Add a point for double-decker tour bus.

Add a point if city is/is near to wealthy metropolitan area.

For example…

There’s a reasonrain, rain go away you're never going to stop anyway! San Sebastian, La Rochelle and Lubeck were all really great places to play. Coastal port towns, hassle-free busking, larger than 70,000 but smaller than 400,000. Mostly gypsy free. Recommended by other buskers. Filled with tourists on tour buses. Near to wealthy metropolitan areas. Historic downtowns in doll-house size that funnel visitors by the music.

Then there are places like Manchester (not coastal, not recommended, no tour buses, lots of gypsies) where you can work all day and do OK, but you wouldn’t seek it out to make your fortune.

And then there are places like Mataro. Don’t go, you’ll just get shut down anyway.

Even within a town it takes some trial and error to find the right place to play. Here’s one where other buskers are not always right: what works for them may not work for you!  We always avoided the most popular spots, i.e. Glasgow’s Buchannan street, Covent Gardens (London), Paris in general, Spitalarstrasse in Hamburg. In order to really thrive in these places you have to have to have good amplification. And some talent.

IMG_20131006_131911Challenge 2: A Creative Angle to Defeat the Competition

In Europe you’re not likely to find a classic rock playing guitarist on every corner, so my guess is that you could easily show up with your classic and indie rock repertoire and impress.

Possibly, maybe, we’ve heard. But then again, that’s not our angle.

On the other hand, there’s at least two accordionists per city block so best to just throw that instrument into the river.

Leave the Django at home. And if for some reason you were tempted to play Autumn Leaves only do it as a bad-ass punk cover: this has got to be the number one over-busked song in Europe.

Creative busking always wins. Costumes, novelty instruments, odd but palatable songs, children’s acts. Put on a good show and people will love you.

Or say fuck it all and become a “bubbler.” Minimal set-up, maximum crowd interaction, and all you have to do is wave your arms around. Who doesn’t love bubbles?!?!?!?!

downtown rostock buskers

Downtown Rostock

Challenge 3: Icky City Laws

Shockingly (and maddeningly) busking is not legal in all European towns! Legality is not always easy to learn ahead of time, either. You have to trust word-of-mouth busker warnings and outdated musician blogs so every time you approach a new place you could be taking a risk.

Luckily, it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, especially if you’re foreign. The risk is worth it on the chance that the cops won’t give a shit.

We never once were fined/jailed or had our instruments confiscated. We were warned, we were ID’d and we moved on, but it’s the same as in America, cops have bigger problems like drugs and crime and stupid tourists. We just follow the ‘always apologize humbly’ to a police officer motto. And if you can, add some bubbles to ease the tension.


Busking is a lifestyle as well as a career.

No, I don’t mean that we’re destined to live out or days digging through trash and jamming on three-stringed guitars.

We busk in order to travel and we travel in order to busk and underneath all of this is the gleeful feeling that we are actually making money off of playing music.

It’s possible, it’s possible, it’s possible!

It’s not easy. Before we left we had this misconception that it would be easier than America. Why? Who knows. You can’t ever get away from competition, mistrust, local government bans, bad weather, and that unmentionable busker flaw that prevents us from getting ahead.

So fuck easy, enjoy hardship. Stimulate your artist neurons. Force yourself to learn that song so well you end up re-harmonizing it because you got bored of playing the same chords every day for three months.

Many have gone on extravagant busking tours before, many will do again despite all the warnings that say: you’re going to run out of money and fail and get stuck or deported.

And that’s exactly what happened to us!

It was so worth it.

We got to fail spectacularly and plan to do so again. And again. And again. Until one day failing becomes the new success.


3 thoughts on “Reflections on Busking Western Europe (part 3)

  1. Hi I’m staying in Zaragoza at the minute and I got paid to play in a bar the other night- but I’d really like to have a go at busking here- do you think I should risk it?

    • Risk it? Sure, why not I don’t think you’ll get fined. But the cops are pretty quick to shut you down, one song may be all you play. If you speak really good Spanish maybe you’ll be ok? Or go try to get the permit from the City Hall!!!!

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