*Originally published in The Guardian* [Photo: Murdo Macleod]
Whether you’re a gypsy jazz troupe cramming onto a train from Brighton or a troubadour bussing it from the continent hoping for fame, fortune, watery lager and your guitar to emerge unscathed from the hold, there’s no better way to survive the Edinburgh festival than as a busker.
At 15, I began attempting to entertain pedestrians in the city and have since gigged in Asia and busked around other European cities. Drawing from my experience of playing and wandering in Edinburgh, I’ve compiled advice on where to perform, wander, blow off steam and eat well on a busker’s budget.
It can be daunting trying to find the ideal busking spot in an unfamiliar city. If you don’t find a place to anchor quickly, the festival fringe will have you waking penniless on the cobbles with promotional stickers all over your face and a saltire for a blanket. Forward planning is advisable.
Edinburgh’s perfect pub-crawl location and home to buskers all year round, Rose Street provides a pedestrianised haven from the bustle of Princes Street. Pick a spot across from customers sitting under the bunting outside historic pubs, many of which offer paid gigs. Respect the local buskers and homeless, making space for others by playing quietly. Rose Street’s clientele loves to sing along, so channeling bass-playing legend Jaco Pastorius with your four-string and a loop pedal is a waste of energy. Play short sets and embrace a pub-crawl strategy, sampling the atmosphere at each of the street’s establishment. The Social Bite serves wholesome lunches with a rewards system that feeds those on the streets, and Wolfits lives up to the name. Other culinary highlights include Meze Meze, Mussel Inn Seafood and The Black Rose. Princes Street is a noisier and busier alternative, but equally busker-friendly if you can navigate the bagpipers. Views of the castle can be an added bonus, especially when blockades of tourists with selfie sticks inadvertently boost your crowd.
The Old Town is postcard Edinburgh and the hub of the fringe. The Royal Mile is the main thoroughfare to the castle and during August is a jungle of flyers for shows, with street performer everywhere. Busking is regulated here, with a licence fee, but the large crowds are worth it. This is festival ground zero and for seasoned, outlandish or outstanding buskers only: plagiarising the Gallagher brothers will not cut it here. If a licence fee scares you, or Oasis really is your thing, try the steps above the National Gallery and on Cockburn Street at the cork end of a bottlenecked audience. Arty, “out there” acts should go to George Square or the Meadows, Edinburgh’s University district and its answer to Hyde Park. Union of Genius does incredible soup at great value, sometimes teaming up with the Real Junk Food Project, so you can eat cheaply and deprive the wheelie bins of a feast.
Local culture and open-mic venues: where to see live music between your own sets
Hosting live events four days a week, the musical showcase that is Pressure Valve offers some of Edinburgh’s best talent in a diverse range of intimate venues, such as Bannerman’s rock bar and the rustic Blind Poet. Its daytime events are open to all ages and attract a friendly crowd with an unpredictable mix of aspiring and established musicians. Pressure Valve’s events are an integral part of Edinburgh’s music scene – and a great place to meet collaborators.
Outside of the festival period, Whistlebinkies is one of the only places to find live music after the pubs shut at 1am. With relaxed, traditional decor and a diverse clientele, ‘Binkies provides the perfect setting to enjoy lively music. Monday nights arguably feature the city’s most popular open-mic night, although new venue, Stramash, is hot on its heels every Tuesday. Clerk’s on a Thursday is another stalwart. Getting down early is a must: the slots are as elusive as a wild haggis. Be sure to indulge in a post-Binkies Pizza Paradise (no website, 0131 557 4905), open until 5am next door – the only better (or more arduous) way to conclude your night is to climb Arthur’s Seat and watch the sun rise.
Tucked away on Drummond Street, just off “the Bridges” (South bridge, not the Forth), lies student favourite the Brass Monkey (no website, 0131 556 1961). It has one of the cosiest rooms in Edinburgh, conveniently installed with a home cinema. Movies are shown at 3pm every day among a midden of cushions, mattresses and posters. Revitalise with a coffee at Black Medicine Coffee Co or Brew Lab. Alternatively, reflect upon the film’s directorial genius in the quad of the beautiful Edinburgh Law School or join a rousing folky jam at the Captain’s Bar.
A full day of busking can easily merge into a night of drinking. During the fringe, clubs licences are extended until 5am, making festival time the peak season for Edinburgh’s nightlife. The festival also brings a wealth of new venues, such as the Udderbelly, George Square Gardens and Spiegeltent – however, marquees and plastic cups can only satisfy for so long.
A sure-fire way to divide Edinburgh’s locals with a passion for partying into two camps is to ask: “George Street or Cowgate?” If you hit it big busking and your idea of a night well spent is ordering Grey Goose by the litre to a Top 40 soundtrack, then George Street clubs such as Opal Lounge, Lola Lo and Lulu can provide an ambience of decadence to varying degrees of success. If, however, this makes you feel cold inside, I suggest making your way to the Cowgate.
Home to famous fringe venues, Cowgate also boasts renowned clubs such as Cabaret Voltaire and Sneaky Pete’s. These venues host a mix of internationally renowned DJs and a regular selection of rising and established local talent. Once you’re flowing with jovial crowds under atmospheric arches and dodging up closes (“alleyway” to non-Scots) to avoid wayward rickshaws on your way to sing rock karaoke at Opium, I’m sure you’ll see why it is the east’s favourite place to let loose.
The natural reverb of Cowgate’s archways could make Ozzy sound angelic. Nocturnal busking in the Cowgate can be lucrative and a lot of fun, just don’t compromise the vibraphone guy: he’s an institution. Club-goers appreciate exotic or danceable acts but if you’ve got brass, Ring of Fire goes down a treat. There is always an after-party to be found, or alternatively you can blag your way into Cab Vol’s backroom as the DJ’s live percussionist – you might wake up in the Hilton’s honeymoon suite with a Turner prize-winner and upcoming BBC comic, but chances are it’ll be the 7th hole of the Meadows pitch and putt, with fewer strings on your guitar than Seasick Steve.