Busker Buster

Barcelona, today, is famous for its buskers, or street performers. 

That line, or a similar one, has been set to print a million times, and, indeed it was, at one time, accurate. That is not true today, and hasn’t, really, been true for many years. The city’s popularity has exploded, which is discussed at length in episodes nine and ten of the documentary series Catalunya Barcelona, and with increased population, regulations are passed to maintain a semblance of order. This is perfectly natural. Order, after all, is easy when everyone’s got elbow room. 

Licensing requirements were introduced, and the number of buskers in the city rapidly dwindled. The city’s most famous street, La Rambla, or Les Rambles, or Las Ramblas earned its tourism stripes by virtue of the galaxy of street performances taking place there. Yet, the street performers are gone for the most part, quarantined to a small block at the butt end of the pedestrian walk, replaced by pricey sidewalk cafés, and innocuous kiosks hawking gelato. 

Photo of Las Ramblas, Barcelona at dusk.
Barcelona’s famous La Rambla, or Las Ramblas, or Les Rambles.

This blog entry, in spite of the contents of the preceding paragraphs, is not a lament. True, I regret that friends who’d subsisted on street performance for years, long before I arrived, have now moved on, to other cities where they can perform with fewer restrictions. But this article is about the impending extinction of this breed of artist, not its forced migration. 

We are moving rapidly to a cashless world. In Barcelona, five years ago, when hailing a cab, you were foolish not to ask, “Puedo pagar con Visa?” if you only had plastic in your pocket. Today, every cab is required to have a credit card reader. And, indeed, the number of restaurants and shops only taking cash, or as it’s called here, “efectivo,” has gone from a majority to a curiosity.  

Unless you’re in Germany or Austria, one can go weeks without handling paper money. This is the reason I assert that the busker is going the way of the whooping crane. 

I stumble upon street performances—most, technically, clandestine— all the time. Some are quite impressive, more than worthy of an entertainment dollar or two, but most of the time I’m carrying no dollars at all. The busker, at the conclusion of his performance goes from table to table with a hat, but I’m usually stuck saying, “Lo siento. No tengo efectivo.” For their trouble, all I can pay is an apology. 

A living statue on Barcelona's famous Las Ramblas.
The future, for street performers everywhere, looks grim.

This problem is only going to get worse. Devices like Square, which imbue small businesses and independent contractors with the ability to process credit card transactions are not going to help. Fear of credit card fraud, identity theft have been burnt into the psyches of so many, the notion of sliding an American Express card through a street musician’s card reader seems a risk few would be willing to take. 

And so, soon enough, buskers will live on, only in pictures and memory, flanked by other extinct exotics like the West African Black Rhino, the Passenger Pigeon and the Tasmanian Tiger. 

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