LIRC Researchers Complete Study of the Operation of Busking Laws In Australia

LIRC members, Associate Professor Julia Quilter and Visiting Professorial Fellow Luke McNamara*, have recently completed Australia’s first ever study of the operation of local council laws governing street music and other forms of busking. Building on previous collaborative research on the criminalisation and regulation of behaviour in public places, as well as a shared love of music, Associate Professor Quilter and Professor McNamara set out to determine how successful councils have been in the tricky business of simultaneously encouraging and ‘containing’ busking. Drawing on field work in Sydney and Melbourne, Quilter and McNamara were surprised to find that, contrary to the assumption that ‘free-spirited’ buskers would resent being subjected to rules and regulations, most street performers were happy. While some buskers remain philosophically opposed to any sort of restrictions, most of the buskers they interviewed recognised that the laws were required and were fair enough. Some went so far as to say that they liked the rules – because they gave street performers certainty and legitimacy as a user of public space.

The project’s findings have been published in the latest issue of the Melbourne University Law Review.

These findings provide yet another reminder of the importance of sociol-legal empirical research of the sort conducted by LIRC researchers. If this study had simply examined the law ‘on the books’ it would have found that local council laws that govern busking are draconian and over the top. Certainly, on paper, they look that way – permit requirements, time limits, and big fines if you break the rules (up to $3000 in Melbourne and $2200 in Sydney). However, by speaking directly to council officers and rangers, and buskers themselves, about how things work in practice, Quilter and McNamara found that the risk of over-regulation has been avoided. Buskers generally reported feeling that their unique contributions to the urban streetscape were appreciated and supported. Gentle, education-focused enforcement by rangers and effective self-regulation by buskers are the magic ingredients of a regulatory model that, more often than not, gets the balance right.

This study has implications for street music across Australia and around the world. It shows that it is possible to introduce a permit system without stifling the capacity of street musicians and other performers to do their thing – including enlivening urban streets and malls and making a living.

*We would like to acknowledge the expertise and cooperation of the local council and authority employees who agreed to be interviewed for this research project, and the buskers who generously took time out from the business of enlivening the streets of Melbourne and Sydney to chat with us.

Associate Professor Julia Quilter

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