Festival Q&A: Kate Jones, Festival Director, International Busking Day Wembley Park
We’re big believers in the power of busking here at Hum, having featured several buskers on the blog in the past. So as you’d expect, we’re pretty excited for International Busking Day taking place on July 20th, and even more excited for this year’s International Busking Day event at London’s Wembley Park. This year’s event will feature some of the world’s best street performers and street food, as well as music-themed talks from experts.
With busking under threat from regulation, it’s never been more important to celebrate the astonishing talent and diversity of London’s street performers. Festival Director and Programme Director at Busk in London, Kate Jones, was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule and have a quick chat with us about International Busking Day and the importance of busking as an art form in a city like London.
Tell us a little about International Busking Day.
International Busking Day is a day global celebration of an ancient and fabulous artform. We’re across six continents, with people connecting across social media to stream and tweet the day, starting at midnight on the 20th and then working its way through the timezones.
Wembley Park is the central hub of International Busking Day, bringing together a snapshot of the types of performers that busk as part of their career, whether that’s full-time or part-time. The idea is very much about showcasing the talent and quality that’s around every street corner, and recognising that this is something to be celebrated.
The acts aren’t “hatting” their shows; we’re paying them. If you have a circle show and you haven’t got an “in” in the scene at Covent Garden, there are very few places to perform, and if you came from overseas, it would be a big risk to come here.
How did International Busking Day get started?
We decided in the first year that we needed to create a moment that united people, gave performers a platform and to showcase the breadth of talent in the busking community.
We started off with a national busking day, with people doing their thing around the country. We had an event at Trafalgar Square, but we were getting people from overseas saying, “What about us!?” so we thought, “Ok, we’ll go international!”
We’ve had people performing on Ayers Rock, on the Panama Canal, playing on top of a tank, up a mountain in the Alps, on the West Coast in California. It’s a really nice and really simple way of demonstrating the value of busking as an art form.
In London, we’re lucky to have an extraordinary range of highly talented artists and performers, and this was an opportunity to change perceptions about busking. That’s especially important today when there’s a dearth of smaller, grassroots venues in London. People don’t busk because they can’t do anything else, it’s not about begging, and it isn’t some sort of criminal activity, it’s a valid form of art. It’s a chance for performers to hone their craft, develop their performance skills and try out new material.
Busking has become sexy; you don’t know who’s playing where it’s always about surprise and discovery. What excites me most is that it’s an equitable and democratic arena for performers. People who’ve started out busking have grown their following and have gone on to be on the radio and television.
Tell us about your role in organising the festival.
I’m the Director of the festival, and I do a bit of everything! The team at Wembley Park provide the site, but I book stages, book artists, organise the sound and production, I put together the artists’ programme. We have a very small team, so I tend to be involved in everything, there’s no office of people sorting everything out!
How did you source acts?
I’ve been watching buskers for ten years now. I find new artists them through the Busk in London programme and ‘Gigs’, the Mayor of London’s busking programme. A lot of musicians came through the programme and from that went on to privately owned busking schemes.
I go up to Edinburgh regularly to see the amazing range of international and home grown acts performing at the Fringe.
What are the must-see acts at this year’s festival?
Difficult question! We have five stages running with some incredible artists and a series of talks about various aspects of music. The headliner is KT Tunstall, that’s got to be a must!
For street performers, if I had to pick, it would have to be Witty Look. They’re a unicycle and clown duo, and they’re incredible — they’re Japanese, they don’t speak much English, so all their communication is purely physical and theatrical. I defy anyone not to absolutely get it and love it! There’s also Lords of Strut, a hysterical, very funny Irish dancing act, and they’ve never done a show like this in London before. They tap into the child inside all of us
For the music section, outside of the main headliner, we’ve got some really great performers who’ve been through our busking programme. Natalie Shay came through Gigs, she’s only 19, and she performs regularly as a soloist and with her band. Another Gigs alumni Josh Gleaves is a singer-songwriter in the Americana style, we’re showcasing him with his band. He’s already starting to write with some pretty high profile people, and he’s only 17! My God!
Another artist, Hattie Briggs, is a fabulous singer-songwriter, she was busking on our Network Rail pitches at Paddington Station. Alfie Boe walked past her and saw her performing, later messaged her on Instagram, and invited her on tour. She opened his sold-out show at the Albert Hall and got a standing ovation. I was in tears watching her. And it was all from busking!
These days, when you look at a festival poster, you go down a few lines past the headliners, and you don’t really recognise anyone after that. But that’s part of the appeal; it’s about discovery. The music industry has a very high churn rate; people are always on to the next thing. But with busking, artists have a chance to be much more engaged with their audience. If you’re a busker, people can come up to you, they can engage with you directly, and that just doesn’t happen on stage. There’s much more of a human factor with busking that you don’t get elsewhere.
What are the must-have attributes for a good busker?
I think the key things for a busker are, firstly a thick skin because it’s one of the toughest gigs in the world. You start from nothing, with no one, but you almost have to visualise your own “Hello Wembley!” moment in your imagination. It’s not like doing a gig at the Barfly where you invite a few friends and family along, and you get a few people in the crowd. It’s a very stripped back environment, where it’s just you, your instrument and a battery-powered amp. It’s very exposed; there’s no place to hide and definitely no Pro Tools, you just have to be good enough.
The second thing is, you really have to read your audience. You can be there as the world’s best singer-songwriter, and all of your songs are beautifully sad. But on a bright, sunny day, surrounded by tourists, they’ll all probably want covers. So read your audience, change what you’re doing, get people to stop, listen, find some money in their pockets and put it in case. It’s no good playing your beautiful song about your long lost love!
What was your background before becoming involved with the festival?
I was a music producer at BBC Wales, producing large scale music competitions and events, mostly for television. My primary role was on events, things like Choir of the Year, Cardiff Singer of the World, BBC Young Musician of the Year, anything with a public-facing aspect of it.
When did you fall in love with busking?
After the BBC, I started freelancing, and someone asked me to come to meet the culture team in the mayor’s office, this was when Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London.
At the time, the culture team was writing a new music education strategy, showcasing great young talent in London. I created Gigs, The Mayor of London’s annual busking competition, which started in 2009 and ran until last year. We got TFL to agree to hand over some of their busking pitches for the competition. Then when it came to the Olympics, we supersized it! We had hundreds of performers playing in locations all over London.
The big thing for me was the ability to develop talent. I would see someone come through the competition or the Busk in London scheme, and the greatest joy was seeing them go from their starting position, where they might be a good player already, but the more experience they got they’d blossom as performers. There’s no greater pleasure than seeing someone you’ve watched develop just killing it!
I love the idea that, as a busker, you can be spotted by someone. You don’t know who’s walking past you on any given day, and you don’t know what’s on the cards. In this day and age, there’s still a strong pull from reality TV that says, “You just need to be on TV and then you’ll be famous!” And I like those shows, but that’s not really the case, it’s all about hard work and development as an artist. I prefer performers to be a bit old school; it’s about learning your craft.
What are your plans for the future of International Busking Day?
Who knows!? We hope that we’ll be back at Wembley next year. Last year we had one performance stage, this year we have five. So god knows what happens next year, I don’t want to think about that right now!
But when people see the event, they say, “Yeah, let’s do more!” There isn’t an age demographic for this; it’s not a brand that’s only for 18–22-year-olds. This is an idea that can track with a whole range of people and it’s something that they can fall in love with. So we’ll see where it goes.
Where to go to find out more about it?
All of the information is on the Wembley Park website. You can also find more on buskinlondon.com. We’ll be covering the whole day across our social channels on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @buskinlondon.