Governing Melbourne’s Soundtrack18 July 2017
On Melbourne’s Bourke Street, an elderly Japanese man in a two-piece tuxedo drips with sweat as he reaches the virtuosic crescendo of his violin concerto. The lilting tenor of a bearded hipster soars above his reverberating Stratocaster, intermittently broken by the rattling of trams and a burly Big Issue salesman’s pitch. Metallica riffs are furiously plucked by a man in a Super Mario costume, the distortion biting the frosty air and the bourgeois sensibilities of rushing professionals.
Across Melbourne’s CBD, buskers provide much-needed melody to the rhythm of hurried footsteps and hurtling trams. For Regan Lethbridge, guitarist for blues-roots band Bonjah, this soundscape was his Melbournian baptism. “When we first moved to Melbourne from New Zealand in 2006, we couldn’t get a gig,” he says. “We were walking through the city one day and we just saw buskers everywhere. We said, ‘We’ve gotta do this.’”
“I am a bit sick of really badly talented buskers, let me tell you,” Doyle told 3AW in 2008.
For the next seven years, busking was Regan’s main source of income. “These are some of the best memories for us as a band,” he says. “It was literally our livelihood.” Bonjah later toured the world, were promoted by Triple J, and supported The Who, Paul Kelly and other big names in concert.
However, some fear Melbourne’s world-renowned busking scene is losing accessibility. Late last year, the Melbourne City Council faced public backlash from the CBD’s buskers and music fans, fed up with changes to zone boundaries which shut down popular busking locations. A petition demanding the lifting of CBD busking bans soon reached over 27,000 signatures, and a silent protest was held on Bourke Street. One protester’s sign read, ‘I’d rather be entertaining you than protesting against absurd rules’.
As the populations of urban centres swell, reconciling the rights of buskers and the amenity of residents has proven increasingly problematic. Internationally, cities such as Dublin and Wellington have seen strict busking laws watered down after community backlash, whilst US courts have ruled most busking restrictions unconstitutional, interpreting public performance as a form of free speech.
The Melbourne City Council is currently reviewing the city’s busking regulations, with a new regulatory framework expected before year’s end. Will the Council follow the global trend of championing street performance, or kowtow to noise complaints?
“Fair enough there are other businesses around, but you need to support young people starting out their careers,” says Lethbridge. “They need to embrace the arts a bit more. I think most people do, there is just a select few that don’t. Thankfully, we got in just before the clampdown started to really happen.”
The clampdown began with one man – Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. Following his election in 2008, the former Victorian Liberal MP had promised to crackdown on “loud” and “annoying” buskers. “I am a bit sick of really badly talented buskers, let me tell you,” Doyle told 3AW in 2008. “We are… just assaulted by a whole lot of different sounds every 10 metres along the footpath. I don’t want the city to be a bogan magnet.”
In August, the Council unveiled a three-month trial of a ‘Non-Amplification Zone’ on Swanston Street, following 264 noise complaints in the preceding three years. In one of Melbourne’s most popular busking locations, performers were barely audible above the chattering masses, and the city’s urban soundtrack was effectively muted.
“The amp ban was awful,” says Patrick Coyle, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter. “Swanston Street is one of the busiest busking spots in Melbourne, and you can’t be heard without an amp in that area, because it is so noisy.”
Tensions flared again in December, when the Council banned busking outside the Myer Christmas windows. As the apex of the Melbourne busking scene, where performing is most lucrative, the vicinity requires special licenses to ensure performance quality. Whilst families splashed cash on Christmas presents for loved ones, Melbourne’s most talented buskers had far fewer coins in their cases.
“Busking supports people’s livelihoods – they can buy groceries, they can go on tour.”
“It was the same deal when they banned busking outside Myer over Christmas,” said Coyle. “Everyone flocked to all the other busking spots, and it caused a lot of chaos and competition for those other spots, so it was harder to make money.”
Coyle finds the Council are otherwise very supportive. “The Council workers who work with us directly are amazing,” he says. “I think they just want Melbourne’s buskers to be of a decent standard, to maintain good relationships between the businesses in the city and the buskers.” Coyle’s comments echo a recent study by the Melbourne University Law Review, which found that most buskers in Melbourne and Sydney support the fair and clear regulation of their profession.
Initially, the Council showed no remorse. “I ring up our street trading people and tell them to go down and shut them up,” the Lord Mayor told the Herald Sun. However, the Council eventually backed away from making the Swanston Street ban permanent, and have remained tight-lipped on the matter since.
Greens Councillor, Rohan Leppert, is now leading the push to rewrite Melbourne’s busking rules. As a musician who formerly busked in Canberra, he is a strong supporter of the local music scene. “Melbourne is a very musical and creative city, and I think that is one of our city’s great strengths,” he says.
Leppert is quick to distance himself from last year’s controversies. “I was dead against the trial of the amplified busking ban,” he says. “”Unfortunately, the decision was made under delegation and no vote was taken on the matter.” That trial has been and gone, and I’m pretty sure given the serious backlash, not just from buskers themselves but from music industry representative bodies, we’re not going to see this sort of thing happen again.”
“Melbourne’s CBD didn’t used to be a place for residents, but now we have tens of thousands, and their amenity is important,” says Leppert. “The amplified busking ban was just a bit of a blunt way of dealing with their amenity complaints. I think we can go about this in a much more nuanced way, after proper community consultation. What I don’t think we’ll be looking at is any more blanket, street-wide bans.”
For Melbourne’s performers, this is music to their ears. “Common sense will always prevail,” says Lethbridge. “The public generally like walking through the city and hearing good music. It puts a smile on people’s faces, and more importantly it supports the arts and supports people’s livelihoods.”
According to The Australian Guide to Careers in Music, a high-quality performer in a favourable location and season can earn $200-300 per day in Australia’s major cities. Thus, legal restrictions can significantly impact professional buskers’ material wellbeing. As Lethbridge says, “Busking supports people’s livelihoods – they can buy groceries, they can go on tour… not everyone can get a grant or get signed to a label, and busking is a way of giving young acts a start.”
Lethbridge now manages buskers-turned-superstars Tash Sultana and the Pierce Brothers. “The proof is in the pudding, with Tash having global success on a major level, and the Pierce Brothers touring the world,” says Lethbridge. “They cut their teeth on the streets of Melbourne and that should be embraced and supported, rather than saying ‘You can’t busk here, and you can’t do that.’”
On Swanston Street, a Bolivian pan-flutist with a black cowboy hat serenades passing shoppers. A harmonicist’s bluesy chords mingle with the dulcet baritone voice of an acoustic guitarist. The Japanese violinist is still perspiring profusely. This eclectic cornucopia of sounds washes over a ceaseless flurry of rushing-about, a brief musical reprieve from the daily grind.
With a more positive note struck by authorities, Melbourne’s buskers are continuing to do what they do best. “It is one of the best things about Melbourne,” says Leppert. “Everywhere you go there is music.”