Can you name a town you’ve visited where at least one busker hasn’t filled the streets with the sound of their acoustic guitar? Probably not. But for the past year, the world has been a strange place. While we are starting to see a way out of lockdown, our once-lively city centres are still ghost towns. The sounds of the streets are gone.
Success as a full-time busker relies on a public audience for income. So, what are these musicians doing now and how have they been able to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic?
Max Stockin and Owen Mccreesh are two solo buskers who, pre-pandemic, were used to performing regularly. In the blink of an eye, and through no fault of their own, both musicians went from busking three to five times a week in a packed-out town to nothing.
Mccreesh started busking when he was 15. “I learned to play an instrument to impress girls,” he admits. “I had my head stuck in that American TV sort of ‘all girls are attracted to musicians’ type thing. But I stuck with it because I realised that, while I wasn’t getting any girls, I was getting money for it and enjoying myself, so even better.”
After a video of Mccreesh performing in his hometown of Armagh in Northern Ireland went viral, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a musician and continued to busk throughout his time at school and university. Until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Mccreesh regularly performed on Manchester’s bustling Market Street and Liverpool’s Church Street.
“Busking was my life,” says Mccresh. “It’s so much better than having a [regular] job because you are your own boss. Instead of working long 12-13-hour shifts, you go out and earn a few day’s wages from a day’s busking and that would do you for your week’s worth of pay.
“You enjoy what you do while you’re working. It’s [almost like you’re] not technically working. You’re getting paid to do what you want to do.”
Stockin began his busking career in 2014 after he read a newspaper article about busking and thought, “why not? It’s got to be worth a try”. Since then, he has become a full-time musician and, for the past five years, has predominantly performed in his home town of Worcester.
While both musicians perform covers of their favourite songs, they also have original work and projects in the pipeline.
“I am writing songs at the moment,” says Stockin. “And I have a project which is going really well. I love the covers I play and I like to think my original songs reflect [a similar] sound and style.”
Before lockdown, the atmosphere around a busker was never dull. Mccreesh describes his experiences as “surreal” and “unlike anything he’s ever witnessed before”.
“Sunny, summer days are always busier and better and the atmosphere is fantastic,” agrees Stockin. “But it’s not always the case, of course. Sometimes a day that you think won’t be good can be amazing.”
Mccreesh adds: “Around lunchtime, you’d break out all the bangers that everyone knows. That was the rush, as I call it, where people come through town. You play some of their favourite songs to win the money.”
Just before Christmas 2019, Mccreesh also secured a regular performing job in a bar. “I played at the Unicorn Bar in Manchester every Wednesday night for about six weeks before it got pulled due to lack of finances. Then I’d be out busking all week as well.”
The price of the pandemic
COVID-19 paused many things for Stockin. “I wanted to release a song called The Answer [alongside] a music video. However, due to the pandemic, I couldn’t actually film it. I decided to release another song in its place. But, as soon as this is all over, I’ll be recording that music video and getting new music out there.”
In comparison, Mccreesh’s music career has been completely on hold as the musician moved back home to Northern Ireland and left his guitar in England. Mccreesh had previously considered 2020 to be “the year” for his music. “In November 2019, I was approached by a Norwegian group. And they were like, ‘we love your music’. They asked for my business card and I didn’t think much of it. But at the end of December 2019, I got an email asking me to come and play in Norway for three weeks and for a good amount of money. I was also allowed to take Jess, my girlfriend, with me, so we both had plans to go out to Norway, earn a fortune and have a blast playing music in bars and stuff.”
He was also supposed to release an album which has since been postponed. “COVID-19, and the impact it’s had, has completely eliminated any musical demand for me. There’s been a complete u-turn in my plans.”
Social media has been a lifeline for many people during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, including for Mccreesh. He has utilised social media to maintain his presence in Manchester. “I’ve continued posting old videos of myself busking on YouTube and Facebook,” he says. “I just can’t wait to get back to England and get back into doing what I love.”
Initially, when lockdown restrictions were lessened and businesses began to re-open, Stockin felt like the streets were filled with “so many more people” and had appeared to have almost returned to normal. Despite current circumstances, Stockin is managing to perform four to five times a week.
He says: “I have a new song out called One Day. And a lot of more exciting projects planned for this year. Watch this space.”
Street performers like Owen Mccreesh and Max Stockin have proved that even in lockdown, their voices won’t be silenced.
Photos of Max Stockin courtesy of CTR Photography