Busk this! Music in the streets of Prague

Richard Cortés | 03.03.2012

Prague City Hall this week announced new rules governing how and where street musicians can ply their trade, signaling a fundamental change in approach — for the better. Among other things, “buskers” will have more open access to City Hall itself, as promised by Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda (Civic Democrats, ODS).

Without a doubt, the Buskerville initiative was instrumental (pardon the pun) in bringing about the changes, and Czech Position is proud to have played a part by cooperating with musician Vladimír Mertain in shooting a video for the cause (see below).

© YouTube / Czech Position

Up until now, Prague’s regulations on busking have been quite strict, relatively complex and costly in terms of the bureaucracy involved, when compared to rules in place in other capital cities across the globe. But that’s all finished with now. Many regulations have been replaced by “recommendations,” a list of which can be found (in Czech only, for now) on the city’s website.

A brief summary of the main points about busking:

  • it constitutes a live performance;
  • up to four people may take part;
  • busking is permitted from 10:00 to 21:00;
  • a busker can perform in one place, continuously, for at most two hours;
  • a busker cannot put up platforms, stands, etc. in public places;
  • the sound must be kept under 45 decibels (db);
  • performers may sell their works but not set up stands for that purpose;
  • they cannot block entry to nearby buildings, etc.;
  • they cannot inhibit the movement of passersby, but at the same time will have use of at least a two-meter performing space;
  • they cannot in any way disturb the staging of other authorized or previously announced events

Other limitations relate to types of places where busking is not allowed — nearby a church during time of worship; nearby schools during teaching hours; at cemeteries and playgrounds, at any time — as well as specific Prague landmarks. The latter include the Charles Bridge, and on Old Town Square in front of the Town Hall and Astrological Clock, or the site of execution of Czech noblemen.

In time for prime time

Spring is a time that street musicians celebrate more than anyone. In addition to sharing the joy of music, the departure of winter is good for filling the hat, guitar case, or what have you. It’s also a time for cashing in the investment in of long hours of intense study. Ask a member of a professional orchestra how much practice is involved, and what their pay is  — you may well be surprised at the answer. The four-person limit noted among the recommendations is a reasonable number. Imagine that on some Saturday afternoon the Czech philharmonic would pop up on the street.

What seems completely incomprehensible to me, though, is the proposed noise limit. Normal conversation is around 45 decibels (db). This Thursday, on Národní třída, I measured a constant noise level of between 70 and 75 db. Personally, I suppose this regulation is simply a way to get rid of an undesirable busker. After all, beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

© YouTube

By way of illustration, consider the famous experiment conducted by the Washington Post (see above video): Joshua Bell, one of the world’s top violinists, whose concert hall performance had sold out the night before, attracted little attention from passersby in the US capital’s subway.

On the other extreme, Prague’s new busking rules could lead to a boom in the number of homeless people, with dubious musical talents, looking for handouts (pure panhandling is discouraged through another set of rules). Hopefully, the changes will confirm the old saying: “Every Czech is a musician.” 

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