When Asheville-based busker Lyle Rickards first drifted into town from Bucks County, Pa., in 2016, he was immediately taken with the local community. “It was like the heavens opened up,” he says. “It was Camelot; it was Mecca. There were musicians on every corner that were just like me.”
Busking, a long-standing component of Asheville’s cultural identity, is a fundamental part of what makes this decidedly “weird” Western North Carolina city so artistically unique. However, in more recent years, says Rickards, the scene has started to shift.
“We’re running out of spots to perform,” he says. “For the first time in five years I feel unsupported, unappreciated and used by the city. We want to grow with the city, but we’re being marginalized.”
Along with feeling pushed out by construction projects and new developments taking up valuable sidewalk space, Rickards and others who spoke with Xpress say the COVID-19 pandemic, theft and potential issues posed by the city of Asheville’s new noise ordinance are among the greatest threats to the busking community. The question that remains is this: Can the group of street performers weather the storm, or will the scene become a relic of the city’s past?
Passing the torch
Lake Lure local Ginnie Waite, who has been busking in Black Mountain and Asheville since 1995, suggests the fate of the busking community lies in the receptiveness of the next generation. “As time goes on, we old buskers have taken on the responsibility of teaching the new ones respect,” she says. “You know — how to play nice, play by the rules.”
Waite credits former Asheville-based busker Abby Roach (aka Abby the Spoon Lady) for getting the ball rolling with the 2014 launch of the Asheville Buskers Collective. Formed in response to City Council’s proposed busking regulations, the group’s guidelines include limiting amplification, taking two-hour turns at a given location, being mindful of crowd size and cleaning up after each set. These efforts are in accordance with the city of Asheville’s current rules, which require buskers to perform at least 40 feet away from one another, allow ample room for pedestrians and not sell CDs or other merchandise.
“We all got along because of it,” Rickards says of the collective’s beginnings. “We developed a code of conduct, and the city left us alone because our policy was working.”
New-to-town buskers such as Travis Lunsford, who arrived from Silver City in March, attributes his place within the scene to the built-in community fostered by the collective and the generational wisdom its leaders provide. “I learned everything I know from Lyle,” he says. “Once you learn the rules, it’s ultimate musical freedom.”
Fellow newcomer Antwon Small, a classically trained dancer who moved to Asheville in 2018, shares a similar enthusiasm. “I’ve gotten overwhelming support from the local community,” he says. “It’s like art therapy in a way. It’s improved my confidence so much.”
In addition to busking roughly four days a week, Small works as a server and a freelance writer as he pursues a job in health care. “It’s a great source of supplemental income,” he says of his weekly dance routines on the city’s sidewalks. “It isn’t an easy job. You have to consistently put effort and hard work into your craft and hope people can see your passion.”
However, both Small and Lunsford point out that there are risks tied to their craft, as well. Small has been robbed twice. Meanwhile, Lunsford and his musical partner, Jonathan Breedlove, regularly practice “theft drills.”
“We see how quickly we can unplug our guitars and chase someone down,” Lunsford explains. “That’s life on the streets, you know? It’s give-and-take. Put a dollar in the guitar case, take five.”
A two-way street
Hostility from fellow community members is another reality buskers face. While performance spots are usually shared among buskers without contention, the arrangement isn’t always as cordial between street performers and those experiencing homelessness. “They’re not too fond of buskers because they feel as if we take money away from them,” Small reveals.
According to Rickards and Waite, unfortunate run-ins with individuals experiencing homelessness are nothing new, though both suggest the issue is of growing concern in recent years. According to the city’s 2021 point-in-time count, there were a reported 527 people experiencing homelessness in January of this year, a 4% decline from 2020. Both buskers admit to carrying Mace whenever they perform in light of past experiences.
“The scene around here has really changed,” says Waite. “I’m more cautious than ever before because of the level of public drug use. Buskers are losing their tip jars and their teeth. That never used to happen around here in the daytime.”
Rickards adds, “I’ve been assaulted several times and robbed twice” — including two years ago when he was beaten while busking on Biltmore Avenue in an assault that was not reported. “I got all of my teeth smashed in. …. I don’t want to set up in most of the places I used to because they’re overrun by the homeless and generally unsafe.”
Local business owners who spoke with Xpress shared a similar sentiment. “Most people love the buskers,” says Travis Moore, general manager of Mayfel’s. “I’ve had a few situations with a couple buskers being too loud, but after asking a few times, they’ll turn their music down. The trash and homeless downtown is the biggest problem.”
That’s not to say all buskers have had similar experiences. “Hanging with the homeless is particularly fulfilling,” says Lunsford. “At first you’re like, ‘Ah, could be trouble.’ But they’re mostly amazing people that just live differently than us.
“The streets are an equalizer,” Lunsford continues. “You meet tourists, local business owners, homeless people — that’s part of the reason Asheville is so great. Everyone is allowed here.”
Buskers collective sounds off
The revised noise ordinance, which officially goes into effect on Wednesday, Sept. 15, also poses concern for some local buskers. Asheville City Council voted July 27 to update the ordinance, which now includes an objective decibel standard. “We’re worried that the new ordinance will segue into permits,” says Rickards, who has been a member of the collective since 2016. “Then buskers will have to audition for the local arts council, and then it will start to matter what you look like.”
“I think the ordinance will be hard to figure out without people using bias,” adds Waite. “I sing pretty loud without amplification. But I am thankful to the Council members who listened and made the acceptable decibel level more reasonable. The proposed ‘mark’ would’ve been really impossible.”
Andrew Fletcher, a board member of the Asheville Music Professionals and a member of the collective, has worked with the city on busking policy since 2018. “The first meeting with the city on the noise ordinance was in April of 2019,” he says. “A handful of buskers showed up; it was very productive. We agreed that a universal ceiling on volumes was good for busking and residents alike, but also stated that an outright banning of amplification wouldn’t work. The city staff heard us, borrowed language and honored their commitments.”
Fletcher suggests the ordinance could benefit the busking community if enforcement is thoughtfully executed. “When one busker chooses to perform at an extreme volume, that creates a large sonic footprint when they could easily turn down and keep playing. It prevents other buskers from setting up anywhere near them, sometimes for blocks in every direction,” Fletcher explains. “Buskers then either move someplace else, putting pressure on the limited places where there is enough sidewalk space to perform, or engage in a volume war that nobody wins. That’s why having a reasonable ceiling on volume could create more busking, not less.”
When asked how enforcements would be implemented, the city’s Development Services Department Director Ben Woody states, “The DSD will enforce and respond to most noise complaints. The Asheville Police Department may enforce some after-hours complaints, depending on availability of staff and the nature of the complaint.”
Outside of the ordinance, Fletcher notes there is still some room for improvement. “The next way that the city could support busking is by permitting performers to sell their own music while they are performing.”
According to Dana Frankel, the city’s downtown specialist, “City staff have been working with representatives from the busking community for the past several years to consider options for expanding merchandise sales for street performers and artists. Operationally, there are some challenges with management and enforcement of a program of this nature, but we intend to continue exploring those details and further gauge how much of a priority this is for the busking community and the city as a whole.”
What’s next for buskers?
Some local buskers remain optimistic about Asheville’s future; others, like Rickards, plan on setting sail in pursuit of safer opportunities. “People have accepted that we are a part of the town’s mystique, but Asheville is losing the best of the buskers. I don’t want to leave Asheville, but I don’t have a choice. I shouldn’t have to worry about getting beaten up or robbed in a town that promotes me.”
Of course, the lingering pandemic poses its own hurdles, as well.
“The collective itself hasn’t had a meeting since before the pandemic,” says Fletcher. “We form up as needed, usually when there’s a threat to busking and we have common cause to work together. Many of the other leaders of the collective have moved out of town since we formed six years ago, including Abby. I stuck around.”
Waite adds that it’s challenging to perform and stay safe amid the current health crisis. “I’m vaccinated, but I still hold my breath when someone walks by and coughs.”
Despite concerns, Waite continues to busk. “I think music is necessary for the emotional and mental health of the community and should be supported as such,” she says. “In these times we are even more needed, just the same as all of the arts.”