Left out in the Cold – The Reality of Street Performing in Berlin

by | indieBerlin

It’s a bitterly cold and windy day in Berlin, so much so that Infidelix is having to place his leg out on his guitarist’s case to avoid it blowing away with all of today’s earning. He sits near Alexanderplatz S-Bahn station, with the Berliner Fernsehturm, the centrepiece of Berlin, towering over him.

Despite the weather, countless people come and go, stalling to watch him perform- many of which linger to catch several songs, with even more getting their phones out to record him. During a short intermission, he was approached by a fan who requested a track she had seen him perform online, to which he gladly obliged. It’s hard to believe what he is currently doing is illegal, but it is.

Infidelix is a well-known presence in Berlin. One of his performances at a U-Bahn station on YouTube has millions of views and has even been used by the BVG for advertising. However, in terms of how the city views what he is doing, he could be shut down or even have his equipment taken from him at a moment’s notice if the Ordnungamt happen to catch him performing. To prevent this, he is always on the lookout for them approaching and seeking out spots where he might get some coverage. It is a cat and mouse game for the most part, and today, the presence of a Christmas Market gives him the advantage.

He is actually only here today thanks to his following, as just last week he had €400 worth of equipment stolen from him.  However, due to the legal grey area surrounding how and where he performs his music, he was unable to go to the police. Instead, he had to rely on an online plea to his followers, of which has in the tens of thousands – all owed to his years of street performing across Europe- who helped him to get most of his stuff back within 24 hours. This he states is the “magic of the city” of Berlin.

“The coolest thing I saw is about this whole situation is that when something bad happens to you in the city, where you get your bag stolen and you say ‘fuck Berin, this place is shit’, then you also see that in 24 hours the community and the city can come together, get you equipment and donate money to your PayPal to get you back on the streets just as fast. That is something that doesn’t happen in other cities. I think that’s the Berlin spirit and the Berlin magic.”

Thanks to this and investment from his own pocket, he could replace the stolen equipment and get himself back on the streets performing just one week after the theft. However, while he waited for the new stuff to arrive, he still spent a week without a source of income. Infidelix is lucky in some ways due to this large following, but smaller artists couldn’t have recovered as quickly.

After one hour, his voice is feeling the effects and he tells me has just one more set left in him today. Only after completing this, he would have made enough money. Maintenance of this lifestyle is not cheap. 20% of today’s earnings go to his guitarist and €150 he had spent on flash drives earlier that day to sell to the audience- this amount he had just earnt in that first set, thus breaking even.

This is without other costs, such as CDs, Vinyl’s, and of course, living expenses, such as rent and other bills that are part and parcel of everyday life. While he told me, he could make more money from these investments, it is still money that needs to be spent.  With this considered, paying out for new equipment when your stuff is stolen or confiscated can be a major set-back.

An impromptu U-Bahn performance by Infidelix has millions of views.

“Just for doing this, I am illegal.”

The real threat to artists isn’t this though, as Infidelix tells me that over his 7 years of street performing this was the first time that he had any of his stuff stolen. Instead, the biggest threat comes from the local authorities, whether that be the police or more concerningly for artists, the Ordnungsamt. These have the power to take your equipment, with no guarantee of getting it back, and award you a fine too. This is a frequent occurrence and you don’t have to look far to find a street performer who has had to experience this.

In fact, I only had to look a couple of metres from Infidelix to his guitarist, Mario. Just recently, he has been involved in a 3-month court battle to get his equipment back. In his scenario, he was stopped by the Ordungamt who fined him €280 for being an illegal musician, which, although he didn’t agree with, he willingly paid only to then be told that he would not be given his equipment back regardless.

Due to this, he had to recruit a lawyer and go to court to get his belongings back. “It’s crazy, just for doing this, I am illegal. Whether you make street art, make acrobatics or make music, the people in uniform say ‘do you have a paper? No, well then you are illegal’. It is bullshit.” For Mario, this was already the third time that this had happened to him and it is something he cannot understand due to the popularity street music has with the public.  “All the people who stand here and listen to our music and have no problem with that but the people in uniform come and need to control, but what can I say? It is what it is”.

There are ways by which you can perform within the confines of the laws and prevent any run-ins with the powers that be. However, the system to do this is not fit for purpose. The first issue is that there are red zones in the city which prevents any amplified music being performed in that area at all. These red zones are some of the most thriving areas in the city for foot traffic and so are the most lucrative for street performances. The second issue is that there is not an all-inclusive license for all the zones where music is permitted.


A protestor for Berlin Street Music

For example, if you are hoping to play in Lichtenberg on a Tuesday morning, then move to the adjacent Friedrichshain in the afternoon, then you would need two licenses. These licenses can cost around €60-€70 each, depending on the area, and as there are 13 in total, it can cost between €780-€910 to get one for every district in the city. Furthermore, the process can take up to 4 weeks. This means musicians are waiting at length to get to play and paying a significant price for doing so.

When they do finally arrive, they then only give you between 30-60 minutes of performance time. Just one Infidelix set was around 40 minutes, so even if he were to acquire a license, he would only just be in the parameters for one set a day. However, without a second set, he may not have made enough to sustain himself.

These issues arise only after you can manage to get through the gruelling licensing stage of the process. Getting a license requires a good knowledge of the German language, as the legal framework is in German and when you call the licensing bodies, this too is largely in German- in my case it took 3 calls to find someone who spoke English. Of course, while this is understandable as we are, after all, in Germany, the issue is that for many musicians, particularly those are travelling temporarily to the city to perform, this would be a major hurdle in their progression.

If you can bypass this then the people in charge of passing you to the correct license authority seem at a loss to who to pass you too. During my experiment, I was given 3 different numbers, 2 of which didn’t work, and the third told me to send an email as they couldn’t explain over the phone. The only thing that was emphasised to me was the need to set up appropriately with the tax authorities, something that is almost bizarre when you consider the other limitations to make money the system imposes. While this was my experience, according to Infidelix, the advice given one day can differ from that given the next, and the specific rules vary from area to area so what is allowed under one license, may not be the case elsewhere.

Upon journalistic inquiries into the situation for elaborations on the rules and regulations, this was even harder to come by. Over a two-week period, there was no one available to speak on the subject and I was continuously past from department to department, giving various phone numbers to call, of which amounted to nothing. Even one representative of tourist authority, Visit Berlin, who I contacted and replied to me, concurred that “it’s a difficult topic to find out more really helpful facts”, and this was not an area they could advise on personally.

This is the day-to-day reality for artists trying to go legit, and means abiding by the rules is something that is simply not realistic. As such, they have little refuge at all. There is no street performing equipment insurance, no protection from authorities if something happens to you on the street, and no viable way by which to perform frequently enough to sustain your lifestyle. The repercussions of which is those who want to play in a safe environment may shy away from performing and so their talents go to waste. 

“It’s an endurance race, you don’t win it in sprints”

The only current support system and a beacon of hope for the right of street musicians is the organisation, Berlin Street Music.  The organisation was formed in 2014 by a small group of street musicians who themselves had been at the mercy of the authority’s draconian laws themselves and decided it was time to fight back. If you search the rules of Berlin street performing in English on Google, it is their website as opposed to the bodies who set the rules that will come up. This is just one of the services they have provided for the wider street performing community.

They have been instrumental in the progression of street music and have sat down in meetings with the authoritative body in the largest district of Berlin, Pankow. They have also conducted research into the positive effects that street music can have by alleviating crime and even staged successful protests last year to permit music in Mauer Park after it was outlawed due to a series of complaints that had happened in the Summer of 2018.

However, as Karla Hajman And Laura Hagnas from the group tell me as we sit down in a falafel joint in Kreuzberg, it has been a slow-moving progress. One that after nearly half a decade is only now starting to bear fruit.

“The system is very compartmentalised and when you try to create a dialogue you often hear ‘we’re not responsible for this’ because people who run the parks, who run streets and who run culture are all different parts of the senate. There is literally no intersection between them, so it is a very slow process in getting them all involved for something that integrates all the three, so the process can take months”. explains Karla

“It’s an endurance race, you don’t win it in sprints.” she continued. “Only in the past year, are we now starting to earn their trust as they know we are serious and we aren’t going to leave. Now we are getting more referrals, and now we are speaking to another district, Mitte, but that only came after a year of working in Pankow.”

Berlin Street Music has outlined a list of 8 proposals for how the current situation could be remedied. These include the permitting of CD and Merch sales, allowing amplified performances across the city, Dresden-style busking apps that include listener feedback options, other easy registration services, and more reasonable sanctions for breaking the rules which specify the need for instruments to never be confiscated. The overarching theme though in their proposals though is on information both for artists and indeed, the Ordungamt, with the need for a clear busking code of conduct, and in general, better accessibility to legal performing.

“Sometimes we do tell them to move away and sometimes we don’t, it depends”

“The laws are entirely unrealistic and aren’t following the dynamics of street performing, street music itself, and are not up to date. They follow the interpretation of the laws set by the senate in 2012 and this is what is followed as the guidelines of what is not disturbing. The law is not made for street music specifically and it’s clear no busker was consulted while drafting it. That’s why you can fine a busker up to €50,000” says Laura. “They always interpret the laws to our disadvantage, and never to our advantage- something that could easily be done in regard to fines and confiscation”.

Karla elaborated that, “the worst part is the lack of communication. This comes because the laws do not consider people who perform or people who enjoy that music.” A recurring problem then is simply the laws are not clear. Even the police offer little clarity. Speaking to Maik Herman, of Police District 15, he said simply that generally “if the music is too loud the music is not allowed so if the music is too loud, they have to stop playing,” and “that playing music is allowed, unless other park visitors and residents feel unreasonably disturbed”.

This leaves plenty up to personal interpretation, and as Karla states, this is a biased system. “The only people who get heard is those who complain and call the police, as there is no phone where people can call and say ‘I’m listening to the most amazing busker ever, they have just made my day’.” As such, those who do have a problem are the ones who get their way, while performers and those who enjoy it are left unaccounted for.

As Herman points out though, these laws are both outlined and the punishments enforced by the local Bezirksamt, with police only obligated to respond to any complaints made by residents.  With this considered, it is essentially up to the police officer in question to choose whether or not to enforce the laws. A staff member at the Alexanderplatz police station confirmed that indeed this was the case, stating that “sometimes we do tell them to move away and sometimes we don’t, it depends”.

From what has been generally discussed by both the Infidelix, Laura and Karla though is that generally, the police don’t seem to be a problem, with some willing to throw money into their pots, talk with the performers in a civil manner, and even help them stay in line with the law.

“As an independent artist, you have to get out there”

As such, the main issue lies with the current legalisation and those who are paid to enforce it irrespective of the common consensus among the creative community, and from what can be inferred by the masses of crowds. Often, these enforcements are totalitarian in nature, with the perception from some musicians that those who do enforce it do so with an element of pleasure and pride.

However, until Karla and Laura are able more to create headway with their movement and force more support from the top, artists will continue to have to continue ducking and diving to avoid fines, court dates and having their equipment confiscated, and remain at mercy of the authorities. Something that for Infidelix is well worth the risk, both for his own pleasure and for his prospects in the future as a musician.

“I love the sense of ultimate freedom you get from the street performing. The people who stop and listen to the music are genuine as they don’t have to stop. You have three seconds to catch someone during the rush hour, and they move on and out of your sight, and so for that 3 or 4 seconds, they have to want to stop and pause what they are going to do and listen to your music. That is the most genuine thing you can get.  In a world of an independent artist, where people don’t answer your emails, you have to get out there. Especially in Berlin, the right person could walk by you and change your life.”



Infidelix Image Credits @ Karl Kratz

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