Home » The old blog » Busking in Italy

Busking in Italy

This post began as a response, on a closed Facebook group, to a question about busking in Italy. By the time I’d written it I realised that I have collected a fair amount of information and it might be worthwhile “putting it out there”. On the other hand, I am well aware that there are things that I don’t know, and things that I might have got wrong, so I would be very grateful to hear from anybody who knows better. I will edit any other information into the text here.

I began by saying that I really hoped that the questioner would go ahead with the busking plan. There have been some moves in the direction of liberalising small-scale music in Italy, but the fact remains that the atmosphere is still pervaded by attitudes lingering from the Fascist era. (This is not meant as a cheap shot, but as a statement of fact.)

I myself only have a very small experience of busking (and none of that was in Italy), but it’s something I strongly support.

In principle, there is no law against busking in Italy. In that respect, it is much like Britain: apart from nuisance and obstruction, it’s all a question of bylaws. Some bylaws can be structured to encourage good busking, and there are places in England and elsewhere that have done that. Here in Italy, the situation seems to be very mixed.

Since you are likely to come across officials who do not know the law, or who do not agree on the meaning of the law, you will be well advised to make life as easy as possible for yourselves by sorting out as much as you can in advance.

You will therefore want to know what the position is in the commune (pronounced a bit like “ko-moo-neh”, a municipal authority) concerned. The place to start is almost certainly the office for the local police (vigili); if it’s not them, they would almost certainly be able to tell you where you should go.

It is perfectly possible that you will be met with a smile, made to feel welcome, and told what you can do. It is also possible that you will meet the opposite. There is an interesting description of how bad the situation is in Firenze at http://thesummerjanuaries.com/there-is-no-busking-in-florence-italy/ .

There are, unfortunately, other parts of the bureaucracy that you might have to deal with. One is the people who handle the question of copyright, the SIAE (I think it’s pronounced something like “see-aah-eh”). In theory, for a small performance, you should no longer have to worry about them very much, but it’s possible that they will see things differently. Musicians largely hate them (except for a small number whose pockets they line). I have heard of cases where performers have paid a couple of hundred euros for the rights to present a performance (I think this was a concert-hall setting), as a result of which the composer got no more than a couple of euros. Essentially they are just extracting a tax, much of which feeds themselves and their own pensions. There is another case of the musician who had to pay a lot to perform *his own* compositions, but did not even get that much back. Much will depend here on what you are performing. If you are singing modern standards, they will be able to come for you with all guns firing. If you are doing classical pieces, or your own compositions (provided you haven’t been foolish enough to register your compositions with them or any other collection association like the PRS, for whom they claim representative rights), or traditional material, you should be fine. There have been cases (this is for small, organised events rather than busking) where the SIAE have insisted that a fee for copyright is paid in advance of the performance, and that when they, in their wisdom, finally agree that it none of it was under copyright protection, they will at a later stage return the fee – minus their own management charge, as you may have guessed. Do not imagine for a minute that the SIAE has a close resemblance to Britain’s PRS.

I have prepared the following statement, and am keeping a copy in my instrument case. It ought to help in the event that the “music police” turn up, but the acid test has not yet been tried. Please feel free to copy it and keep a print-out with you. First, the English version:

All music performed or likely to be performed is either my own composition or is of traditional origins. Some versions of some pieces may have been used for copyright-protected publications or recordings at some stage in the past. In all cases, however, my versions emerge from a wider background predating those publications or recordings, in combination with my own creative work.

And the Italian (this translation has been checked by an educated Italian musician):

Tutta la musica eseguita, o che può essere eseguita, o è di mia invenzione o ha origini tradizionali. Qualche versione di alcuni pezzi potrebbe essere già stata ulitizzata per pubblicazioni o registrazioni protette da copyright. In ogni caso, però, le mie versioni emergono da uno sfondo più ampio anticipando quelle pubblicazioni o registrazioni, in combinazione con il mio lavoro creativo.

It is worth bearing in mind that if you do spontaneously play in something like bar, do not be dismayed if the bar manager gets very excited and tells you to stop. The law is such that whoever is construed as the “organiser of an event” is responsible for paying the fees, and there is a high fine for failure to do so. The bar manager has little or no choice but to stop an unplanned performance of live music. (This, of course, is part of what many people would like to see change.)

It is even possible that ENPALS (a statutory sort of insurance/pension fund for people in the performing arts) will come after you, especially if you do at any stage perform in a bar, club, hall, whatever. I heard of a case where some Irish musicians, totally not professional, struck up some tunes in a bar in Italy, and in due course the ENPALS people said that they were “obviously” professional, and therefore they must pay into the ENPALS fund. Someone I know who is a full-blooded professional concert pianist is dismayed by ENPALS, to whom he must pay 20% of his earnings, because he knows there is no way he will ever qualify to get anything back. He said that he would need to perform something like two or three concerts a week for 40 years to qualify. Here, however, you are in fact on safer ground. One of the few reasonable things in all these regulations, is that you are exempt from these charges if you are a) a student less than 25 years old, or b) simply a young person less than 18 years old, or c) a pensioner who is 65 years old or more, or d) paying into another statutory pension fund for your main work, and if, in addition, you are earning less than €5000 per year from your music, then you are exempt. All you need is a “self declaration” which you can download from the net, print, sign, and keep with you. If you can’t find it, I can send you a PDF.

There is, across Europe and elsewhere, a movement to encourage busking and the enrichment that it brings to local culture. But it can be a battle, especially in places (and Italy is not the only one) that like to see everything tidied up, documented, licensed, charged for, approved or not, and generally under the control of the authorities. So I really hope you go for it – let us know what happens!

A summary of the position was helpfully provided by someone else in that group:

Busking is ok in pedestrian areas, but requires a police (“vigili” – the local police) permit. It is free and easy to get. Just show your documents and fill out a form.

Don’t bother in Rome. Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Ferrara are particularly relaxed about it.

In Milan, You have to go to the police station close to Duomo/San Babila metro, give your details, pay a very small amount and book your slots for the week. They give you a paper permit which you can show to police.

What else needs to be said?

There is a kind of busking project you can read about at http://thebuskingproject.com/

Update:

So to flesh this out a bit, we have a friend, whom I know to have very little cash, and certainly none to waste. He held a private party in the village hall – there were perhaps 40 people present at the particular time when I was there. The music played was mostly either traditional or the “invention” of the performers. There was a group playing mostly Irish traditional music, a group of more electrically oriented young lads, and one or two other “acts”. Possibly it’s true that one or two numbers with copyright protection crept in there somewhere. For this pleasure he had to pay around about €140 to the SIAE, and had to fill in all the stupid forms (the famous and hated “bordero”), listing what was performed. The contents of this form was mostly, he admitted, made up, so we know for a fact that the sum of money was entirely at the disposal of the SIAE for their salaries, their pensions, and the people whose pockets they like to line to keep everything sweet.

I checked what the position would be in the UK with the PRS for Music. There would be no fee. The PRS was careful to say that technically they would be allowed to charge a fee, but that they choose not to charge for a private party. (You can see the exact details on their website.) That would probably even have been true even if copyright recorded music was played all afternoon.

 

8 comments

  1. Heiko says:

    I had to pay SIAE for my 50th birthday party even though we mostly played traditional music or own compositions. We had to fill in all the song we played, we just made it up as we went along.

  2. Alex says:

    That’s interesting in a depressing sort of way. Do you mind if I ask you how much? If I remember rightly, that was before the slightly more liberal rules came in for small events. I’m working on a statement that I hope might help handle this traditional question, and in the meantime I’ve cut out one or two favourite songs from my repertoire for any sensitive events (Louie Louie, To Make You Feel My Love, Love Letters Straight From Your Heart) so that I can cross my heart and say “it’s all either mine or it goes back a long, long time”.

    I can’t see the SIAE taking the idea of a “musical commons” on board any time soon, as that would weaken their claim to ownership of a lot of music.

  3. I appreciate your notes about busking in Tuscany. I am intending to travel in June – Florence, Pisa, Siena, whereever else the muse will take me – I compose ancient healing and transformational music live on the spot – it’s never the same – wordless singing into biblical frame drum.

    I’d like to sing outdoors – do I understand from the above that the SIAE would stop me for that?

    Second question: how much did you earn on average from busking in the streets?

    Third question: what is the busking group on facebook? Would love to connect.

    Eliana Gilad – Voices of Eden – Ancient Healing and Transformational Music

  4. Amlan Guha says:

    Thank you for the lovely and informative article. We are planning and preparing to go to Rome and have a photograph exhibition with some live music (only a guitar). Could you please let me know what are the permits that we have to get? Any help is appreciated.

  5. Alex says:

    Dear Amlan,

    Much will depend on exactly where you want to do this. Generally the venue is held responsible, because artists (particularly musicians) can be difficult to track down after they’ve come and gone, so whoever runs the venue where you are doing this exhibition will be the person that the SIAE will approach – the assumption will be made that they are the “organisers”. If the venue is used to putting on music, they will know the ropes; if not, they will have to go to their local offices, and the best idea would be for them to contact other similar venues first to find out where to go, who to speak to, and so on.

    The other thing that will make a huge difference is what the repertoire is. If the guitarist is playing classical music, or indeed any genre of music where the composer can be identified and has been dead for 70 years or more, there is no problem. Similarly if the guitarist is simply improvising. If the venue is allowed to have music at all (which they must know) then there will be no need for any copyright fees. If, however, the guitarist is playing “covers” of more modern material, with identifiable composers who are either still alive or who died in 1946 or later, then copyright law comes into play. The situation is becoming easier, and I believe it has now been made clear that the SIAE no longer has a monopoly, but at the moment it is still difficult to avoid them.

    If, however, your exhibition/music is to take place in more public spaces, you will have to get in touch with the local municipal police (the “vigili”) to get permission to perform in that place. This is quite different from, and in addition to, the copyright question. I don’t know if you could do that before you arrive in Rome – I would doubt it, but it might be worth a try.

    if I can help another way, mail me at himself@AlexWildingBlooz.com

  6. Tony Carter says:

    I used to busk a lot in Italy in the nineties and things may well have changed since then. Often, however, if I was prevented from doing it by the vigili urbani ( or other police) and refused a permit from them, one could go and ask the sindaco( mayor). On many occasions the sindaco could overule the police and I could busk hassle free. Some cities gave permission via the sindaco’s office for a fee as normal practice. Always worth a try though, as anywhere, small mindedness can be encountered ( the sindaco in Alba refused to say anything to me in response to any question other than ‘No’….very rude man!)

  7. Udo VR says:

    Looking at the hassle that clubs have to go through…
    Is that the reason why I see very little info about “open mic”, “free podium” and similar events in Italy?

    I’m looking to travel around South Italy for a week and try to find events like this, where artists can play 2 or 3 songs. I tend to leave the busking for what it is at the moment.
    (also, my songs don’t really cater for it)

    Thanks anyway for this in depth article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*