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Busking and Covid: Quiet streets and unsung voices

Buskers were left jobless during the 2020 pandemic. Now they are back on track to find
their purpose once more

By Sara Valle-Martinez

The Musicians’ Union defines busking as part of many musicians’ lives, and says that for many, it can be a lifelong career. But this type of art is threatened by those who wrongfully see it as begging. Last year, it was threatened even further by a global pandemic that required everyone to stay at home.

In the art realm, music is one of the reasons people migrate to the world’s capital cities: any music fan can see history in the streets of London.

This includes Denmark Street “Tin Pan Alley” with its instrument shops and the studio recording where the Rolling Stones made their debut album, to the iconic zebra crossing featuring the Beatles on Abbey Road to Camden and its infinite display of urban tribe mementoes. Or even Koko, the music venue where Madonna played her very first UK show, which was engulfed by fire before the pandemic.

Living off your art seems like a dream and busking, according to the Musicians’ Union, can also be “a space to develop audiences, hone skills, and try out new material”. But events like the pandemic reminds us that all that glitters is not gold.

Sebastian Schub busking in Berlin. Picture credit: Oliver Visual Artist

“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but the price you pay for the freedom you get is that sort of security – it’s stability and routine, said Sebastian Schub, 23, a London busker who plays guitar and sings. “I don’t always know what I’m going to be doing in the near future.”

Sebastian Schub’s official Spotify page

Sebastian moved from Germany to London when he was 17, with musical and acting skills in his suitcase. He now works as a full-time musician who has released several EPs. Sometimes you can find him busking in Westminster.

Sebastian recalls the lockdowns as a “pretty shit” and “pretty horrible” time.

Sebastian Schub’s official Twitter page

“I was sort of lucky because I went home to my mum. I didn’t play live, so I didn’t make much money. I know many people just didn’t perform music. None of us did,” he said.

He remembers the time as a period of uncertainty that he used to practice. He had to work on other things to make a living. “It has had a massive effect on buskers,” he added.

Sebastian Schub busking in Berlin. Picture credit: Oliver Visual Artist

A report by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCOE) suggests that 1.3 million foreign-born people may have left the UK between 2019 and 2020. These numbers spiked after events like the Covid-19 global pandemic and Brexit, which forced people to return to their home countries.

Some of them had originally come to the country looking to fulfil their dreams.

Laura Silverstone, 26, a Spaniard based in Edinburgh, had to stop making music during the pandemic. Laura started her musical career when she was a teenager, when she said she was “obsessed with music bands and artists”.

Laura Silverstone performing at Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Picture Credit: Bleu Hope

Laura left Bilbao and moved to Manchester in 2013 to nurture her skills off its renowned music scene and, later moved to the Isle of Skye before landing in Edinburgh. In 2017, she released an album called The Fall of the Northern Star.

Laura Silverstone’s official Spotify page

“I think music is something that you don’t choose, it chooses you. Always, since I was a child, I’ve been playing instruments and I’ve always been amazed by it,” she said.

When the pandemic struck, Laura saw herself coming to her previous job as a social carer.

Laura Silverstone performing at Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Picture Credit: Bleu Hope

“I think our first instinct was to find another job and wait for music to come back. A lot of us felt like we had to hold our breath and power through to see what would happen,” she added.

Laura opened a live stream platform to help musicians find online slots to showcase their art.

“At the beginning of the lockdown it grew a lot quicker and then both musicians and audiences lost interest. Maybe because more people had to change their lifestyle to try to adapt,” she said.

The flip side of her story happened as social gatherings were allowed and bars reopened. It took Laura a few months to be booked for gigs in venues like The White Hart Inn, Captain’s Bar or Royal Oak, where she currently has residencies.

“When I started playing on the street after the lockdowns, I saw the best audiences. People were really thankful and really surprised to see live music again in a really pure way. You see that feedback from people and it is what gives you purpose.”

Laura silverstone, 26
Laura Silverstone in her caravan. Picture Credit: Philippe Monthoux

The pandemic was not a hindrance for everyone. Camix Nova, 29, who usually plays around Camden, was not a busker before the pandemic hit: he gained the courage before he started playing in August.

“More or less, I knew where people played because I used to see it. I even tried myself before even though I was not lucky,” he said.

“I went to Piccadilly and, for me, it was easy because there were fewer people. Before you had to queue up for a long time to play, so I made the most of it.”

Camix Nova performing in Piccadilly Circus. Picture Credit: Sun Limxueyang

Camix moved from Colombia 11 years ago. “I think it’s destiny,” he laughed when asked
why he became a musician.

“I’ve always liked music. When I was around 14 or 15 years old, I decided to start walking that path. And that’s where I am now,” he said. “My dad is also a musician and he’s lived off music for a long time, so I practically learned everything from him.”

Camix Nova’s official Spotify page

“Lots of people from other parts of countries left so I guess there are fewer immigrants playing now. Before there were more Italians, Brazilians, but now I feel most people are from here.

“There’s less diversity, I guess everywhere, in every kind of job.”

Live music reopened in the United Kingdom on July 19th this year. Here’s to hoping music doesn’t ever have to stop.