Asheville Buskers Collective continues discussing downtown busking issues

Abby "The Spoon Lady" and Chris Rodrigues perform.

On Tuesday, Jan. 20, several members of the Asheville Buskers Collective met in the conference room above the French Broad Food Co-op for a post-holiday regroup, aiming to find consensus about what buskers do, who buskers are and whether (and how) enshrining their needs in city ordinances is a realistic possibility.

Several weeks after a previous buskers’ forum held at New Mountain, the Asheville Buskers Collective discussed the approaches the group would take to address busking concerns from the city, the Asheville Downtown Association, businesses, residents, law enforcement and buskers themselves. While not much forward movement was accomplished during the meeting, many voices in attendance were heard offering points of clarification and contention.

It was clear that even within the busking community itself, there is disagreement on the importance and timeliness of many busking issues at hand. And, those issues the buskers are concerned with alleviating do not always dovetail with the concerns from businesses, downtown residents, law enforcement or the city. It appears it may be difficult to resolve some of these issues simply due to the number of conflicting solutions offered by each group.

Many of the city’s ordinances are fine, according to collective members, such as not consuming or being under the influence of alcohol or other controlled substances while performing. So, which of the city’s other ordinances do the buskers have issues with? The most contentious issue at the Jan. 20 meeting seemed to revolve around the possibility of permitting and the legality of various busking activities, such as displaying signs and the difference between “selling” music and requesting donations for a service or product.

At the New Mountain meeting, collective members recommended one approach: The city could offer a vending license for sidewalk entertainers to sell their original products, such as CDs and original pieces of art, perhaps by creating automated or online application systems in order to limit the impact on the city’s resources. If a performer did not wish to sell original products, he or she would not be required to obtain a license. But a revised ordinance would also need to clarify how a busker’s merchandise may be displayed — in order to conform to the aesthetic standards of downtown, but without the need to have a pushcart or other sales platform as required in City Ordinance Chapter 16 Article V Section 16-147.

Proponents of permitting suggest that having some sort of codified permissions will serve to help ease tensions between performers, residents, businesses, city officials and buskers; clarify who is allowed to perform and under what circumstances; and encourage a vibrant and culturally-important arts scene to fully thrive in downtown. This would also allow buskers the ability to rebuff inappropriate requests that they leave a certain location or stop altogether. This is particularly relevant, as many buskers earn their sole living from performing live.

However, some in attendance said they viewed the permitting process for buskers as infringing on a right already afforded to citizens — that of free speech. Why, these opponents of permitting ask, should we have to obtain a permit (not to mention pay for one) to freely and publicly display our art?

Combined with this issue is many buskers’ desire to sell recordings (including modest signage), either for a set price or for unspecified donations. Regulations currently forbid buskers from selling any merchandise, as well as forbidding advertising for their merchandise. One right that buskers would like to see instituted is to be allowed to sell merchandise, since according to Asheville City Ordinance Chapter 16 Article V Section 16-145-4, “The sale of records, tapes or other products shall be prohibited,” by sidewalk entertainers.

Asheville Busker’s Collective members pointed out that not only is this ordinance hopelessly out of date (it references LPs and tapes), it effectively limits the level of talent that will be represented downtown. Keeping more established acts — who are more entrepreneurial and rely on merchandise sales to supplement their income — out of the area opens up the door for less established, nonlocal acts to take root. And its is precisely these acts that many in the audience — downtown residents and business owners primarily — wished to curb, noting that transient, nonlocal acts are often the root of the problem, not the locally organized buskers.

There are a handful of other issues that take precedence for area performers as well, as noted at the New Mountain meeting. First, do we only consider it busking when one person performs, or does a group performance constitute busking as well? And where, and how close to one another, can downtown acts perform?

City ordinance defines sidewalk entertainers as including, “but not be[ing] limited to music, dance, mimes, magicians, clowns, jugglers and theatrical presentations.” However, the ordinance specifically excludes “speeches, lectures and sermons.” Asheville Busker’s Collective representatives wish to add “tarot reading” to the list of approved busking activities in the future.

Asheville City Ordinance Chapter 16 Article V, Section 16-145-7 states that performers of sidewalk entertainment may “not perform any closer than 40 feet from another performer.” This seems, according to the Asheville Busker’s Collective, to eliminate the possibility of a group of musicians playing together, since playing together would require the performers to be closer to one another than 40 feet. The suggested revision to this ordinance is quite simple, say collective members: Simply change the word “performer” to “performance.”

According to a handout provided at New Mountain, and written by Marc Hennessey of the collective, “if two (or more) performers are within 40 feet of each other, they can verbally agree to work together as a performance. If a performer does not want others working around them, then no verbal agreement is made with other performers and they therefore have a 40 foot radius.”

Similar to the 40-foot rule, another area of concern, especially amongst residents and downtown business owners, is the need to ensure sufficient sidewalk space for pedestrians and store entrances. As Asheville City Ordinance Chapter 161Article V, Section 16-145-3 states, buskers may “not obstruct or cause to be obstructed pedestrian or vehicular traffic, including but not limited to not obstructing or causing to be obstructed sidewalks, doorways or other access areas. Entertainer must provide a minimum of 6 feet of pedestrian passageway.” The Collective has been actively addressing this issue with its own internal regulations, creating a crowd-control protocol to be used when crowds grow to the point of blocking walkways, businesses entrances or traffic. In order to alleviate this concern, as well as avoid taxing the city’s resources to deal with it, the collective’s proposed regulations ask performers to interact with the crowd, requesting they clear a path for pedestrians and business entrances and not walk or stand in the street. While this issue does not require a change in ordinance, the collective’s members acknowledge this as a potential problem and is working internally to be more self regulatory.

Self-regulation does not mean, however, that Collective members intend to “own” the various problems that may appear associated with downtown performances, such as transients, vagrancy, illegal panhandling and the like. There are public policies in place that allow for police intervention in these cases. And while all in attendance agreed that these are problems, the intent of focusing on the specific ordinances being discussed was to ensure that the downtown scene remains vibrant and exciting, while protecting the rights of visitors and locals, business owners and performers.

The final ordinance that was in contention during the meeting was one regarding noise and efforts to maintain respectful volumes in the downtown business district. The ordinances in Chapter 10 Article IV are vague, indicating that “no person shall willfully engage in any activity on any premises or public area in the city, which activity produces or constitutes a noise disturbance on occupied neighboring premises or public area,” but defining noise disturbance as “any unreasonably loud and raucous sound or noise which … disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensitivity.” The issue here is what is meant by “reasonable” or “normal,” especially as reasonable and normal, in an Asheville context, tend to be very different from other places.

The collective, in order to keep within the bounds of city regulations, has self-implemented a noise protocol to help with regulation of excessively noisy busking. However, there are some performers who play instruments, such as the electric violin, that cannot be heard without amplification, further exacerbating the noise concerns. Through self-regulation, Collective members intend to regulate the volume of fellow entertainers through attention to, and conversations with, offending performers.

With all of this in mind, what is one to do when the noise, crowds or other busking activities become too much to bear for residents, business owners or the general public? Enforcement of the noise ordinance is managed by the Asheville Police Department, Animal Services officers or Zoning or Building Safety Enforcement officers, but each situation is different, and often officers cannot cite offenses because they must be witnessed by the officer. However, if two or more individuals from separate households or businesses file complaints, the Noise Ordinance Appeals Board may issue a citation.

Received a citation for a noise violation? You have the right to a written appeal within 15 days of the citation. Appeals to a Noise Ordinance Appeal Board decision may be made to the City Manager in writing within 10 days of the board’s decision.

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One thought on “Asheville Buskers Collective continues discussing downtown busking issues

  1. Peter Fland

    Busking is an old and noble profession. It may be a bit raw around the edges, but it adds a great deal to local color and charm. Because art is art it is very hard to describe how this can be managed, limited or encouraged. But it adds something in sufficient density to really be a presence in the town. Surely something can be worked out to resolve whatever needs to be resolved.

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