Busking in Melbourne: The do’s and don’ts of street performance

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Busking in Melbourne: The do’s and don’ts of street performance

Words by Tammy Walters

Melbourne has always been hailed for its vibrant busking and streetlife.

Melbourne is ranked the second-best city in the world to be a busker.

From acrobatics to caricatures, dance, juggling, mime, magic, the wholesome one-man band and of course musical performance, the streets come alive with talented artists.

Keep up with the latest music news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

Whether you’ve seen Darth Vader shred on the Spencer Street/Bourke Street pedestrian footbridge after a football match at Marvel Stadium or experienced the vocal-looping extraordinaire of The Voice contestant, Tanya George, at the GPO clam at Bourke Street Mall, busking is a backbone of our bustling streets. It’s on these streets of Melbourne that the Pierce Brothers, Tash Sultana, and Tones and I forged their names, with busking being the launchpad of their respective careers.

It’s never too late to get started on the street. If you have a talent to share, the pavement stage might be your calling. Here is everything you need to know to get started on your busking journey.

How to get a busking permit

If you’re new to the busking scene or an old hat, street entertainers need to go through an annual permit process.

Different permits apply to the various mediums of street performance. They are divided into five categories including General Area, Pavement Art, Circle Act, Premium and Street Entertainment. Here’s a breakdown of which permit best suits your act:

General area busking permits

  • No dangerous goods
  • All general locations permitted except for premium busking sites, designated circle act sites and other restricted zones
  • Ideal for musicians, magicians, singers, dancers, mimes, puppeteers and living statue artists
  • Time limit: two hours per day (must move at least 50 metres after this time)
  • Fee: $30.60

Pavement art busking permits

  • Working directly on pavement with chalk or other approved material or working on paper/canvas
  • All general locations permitted except for premium busking sites, designated circle act sites and other restricted zones
  • Ideal for artists/painters
  • Time Limit: Pavement artists for four hours per day, canvas artists for eight hours per day (must move at least 50 metres after this time)
  • Fee: $30.60 

Circle act busking permits

  • Structured performances or routines involving dangerous goods that require your audience to stop, watch and participate
  • Designated areas only
  • Ideal for street theatre, puppetry, dance, comedy, fire manipulation, juggling and other circus skills
  • Time limit: one hour (must move at least 50 metres after this time)
  • Fee: $30.60 

Premium busking permits

  • Professional career buskers across all practices
  • Designated locations not available to general area including Bourke Street Mall
  • Ideal for the serious business buskers
  • Fee: $71.30 for new or renewal, or $50.90 for short term interstate/international artists

The Pierce Brothers are fighting the social stigma of busking

Street entertainment permits

  • All other performance types not applicable to the above trading permits
  • Designated areas apply
  • Ideal for portraiture, caricature, spray-painting vinyl records, typewriter poets, balloon twisting
  • Time limit: Two hours per day (must move at least 50 metres after this time)
  • Fee: $311 inc selling fee

All applications can be made online via the Permit Application Portal on the City of Melbourne website under Busking Permits. An additional fee of $101.80 is required for works wanting to be sold whilst busking including your new album or your art creation.

In addition to the online permit process, new applicants and buskers who have not attended a safety and performance review in the past five years may be required to attend a virtual seminar, live audition or safety assessment depending on their performance type to secure their street spot.

Where you can busk in Melbourne

Our lively landscape lends itself to live performance with a number of guaranteed places to lure in an audience.

Bourke Street Mall GPO

Bourke Street Mall is a hotspot for street performers. The aforementioned Pierce Brothers and Tash Sultana made a name for themselves on the GPO corner outside of H&M. This iconic shopping strip is bursting with onlookers as they pour from the tram stop into David Jones and surrounds. From violinists to one-man-bands and street painters, there is a plethora of talent on this street. At night the pavement is transformed again by guitarists, saxophonists and mimes adding to the atmosphere of the nightlife. With that in mind, only the cream of the crop get their chance to shine in this space with an audition process and a premium permit involved in securing a street spot.

Swanston Street

The picturesque stairs of the State Library double as a stage for performers. You’ll often catch a violinist serenading streetpasses. While this is a favourite spot, there are several spots along Swanston that are the perfect busking base. The Chessboard on the corner of Swanston and Little Collins invites a multitude of performances, particularly with the street piano screaming to be played. Coupled with painters immortalising the sunset and hula-hoopers hijacking the crowd, Swanston swarms with talent. Just note that there are some restricted areas along this Swanston between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane.

St Kilda Road

St Kilda Road is a foot traffic frenzy as the mouth of the arts and culture precinct. With NGV, Arts Centre Melbourne and Australian Music Vault, Hamer Hall and Victorian College of the Arts housed on this main road, along with the Queen Victoria Gardens and trail to outdoor amphitheatre, Sidney Myer Music Bowl sitting opposite, St Kilda Road attracts both local and tourist traffic. There are guitarists atop the Southbank stairs, karaoke on the Princes Bridge, violinists in the green, and caricature artists in the outdoor seating area. 

Buskers are what gives Melbourne its vibrancy

Southbank Promenade 

Ascending the Hamer Hall stairs beside Princes Bridge, Southbank Promenade is the ideal spot for a stroll and a feed. Sometimes Darth Vader will venture onto this Yarra River setting to shred, but Southbank Promenade is the place for aerobic entertainment. Jugglers, acrobats, skipping and magic can be witnessed along this walk and in front of the iconic red stairs of Queensbridge Square.

Spencer Street/Bourke Street Pedestrian Footbridge

Two things that Melbourne froths are live music and live sports. When the two are combined, everything in the city is *chef’s kiss*. Whether it’s on your way to a football clash at Marvel Stadium or heading back to the train station after an on-ground slaughter, music will lead you there. From saxophonists to singer/guitarists, there is always someone hyping up the crowd.

Princes Walk

Another sporting and music moment, the walk from Flinders Street station to Olympic Boulevard stadium precinct is littered with buskers. The matched atmosphere to the Marvel footbridge after game day or post concert is an advantage point for buskers. Are Red Hot Chili Peppers in town? Whip out some Under The Bridge for a crowd singalong!

Almost Everywhere in Between

Melbourne streets are plastered with people around every corner and in every alleyway. There is ample opportunity outside of the hotspots to find a crowd to win over so explore and find your spot.

However, be aware that there are designated areas where busking is not permitted. They include, Federation Square, Queen Victoria Market, Yarra Promenade at the Crown Entertainment Complex between Spencer Street and Queensbridge Street, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, including South Wharf Promenade, privately owned laneways and streets, privately managed shopping arcades, and train stations. An additional list of no-go zones are outlined here.

The rules of busking in Melbourne

As with any public-facing entertainment transaction, there are certain unspoken rules of etiquette surrounding the art of busking. They are:

  • It’s a first in best dressed scenario with busking. You don’t own the pavement so move along if your favourite spot is occupied
  • Share the space – again your name is not engraved in the pavement to mark your permanency so be sure to not hog the best spot in town. (Different time limits apply to different permits, for instance general area and street entertainment permit holders have a two-hour time limit per day on busking at one location. Check these rules via City of Melbourne website)
  • Make sure your setup isn’t impeding on the flow of foot traffic. Yes you want to be in amongst the bustle but have awareness of the setting around you
  • Know what is on in the city. Check the events calendar to know of any planned public events and protests, and plan accordingly
  • Thank everyone that chucks a dollar in your hat! A little appreciation may be the difference between turning a bypasser into a fan

Buskers are also responsible for the following, under the City of Melbourne busking conditions:

  • Comply with any direction given by Authorised Officers of Council or Victoria Police
  • Observe maximum sound levels
  • Observe performance durations and location limits
  • Not busk or place equipment against building frontages in main and intermediate streets
  • Keep out of restricted areas including train station entrances and steps, Swanston Street (Flinders Street to Flinders Lane) and some super tram stop shelters
  • Limit the use of amplification to approved areas and designated times

A Busking Handbook is also available for the best busking practice.

Any further information on busking in Melbourne is available at the Busking Permit page on the City of Melbourne website. See you on the street!