Asheville buskers rally as city considers restrictions

The Yes Ma’am! group busks in downtown Asheville. Xpress file photo

Asheville’s busking community came out in force Sept. 22 to urge city government not to place new restrictions on street performances.

City staff was seeking direction on busking policy from the three Asheville City Council members who make up the Public Safety Committee — Jan Davis, Chris Pelly and Cecil Bothwell (Bothwell did not attend the meeting). Before a room packed full of about 50 buskers and their supporters, Assistant City Manager Paul Fetherston asked Davis and Pelly if they’d like staff to research several changes to the city’s existing busking policy, including prohibiting amplification, establishing a permitting requirement and determining specific locations where buskers can perform downtown.

He said staff had done some preliminary research about how busking is regulated in other cities and that those items seemed ripe for discussion.

However, before directing staff, Pelly opened the floor to solicit feedback from attendees.

Sparrow Pants, a performer who has busked on Asheville sidewalks for the last 10 years, claimed to speak for many of the attendees in the room and urged the city not to consider stricter rules.

“Instead of passing new policies that limit buskers, we want rules that encourage buskers to come here,” she said. “The cities that show the most support for street performers attract the best street performers. … Busking is an ancient art form and tradition and ought to be respected as such.”

She told the committee that local street performers are in the process of organizing a new group called the Asheville Buskers Collective to advocate for their interests.

Davis responded with encouragement, calling the organization “a fantastic idea.” He added: “That will give us an idea of who to talk to. It makes it easier to work together back and forth.”

Erin Derham, a local filmmaker who debuted a documentary chronicling the city’s busking scene just the night before, said she would provide research to Asheville officials that shows street performers have a positive economic impact in other cities across the globe.

She also emphasized that the city should consider changing its rules to allow buskers to sell recordings on the sidewalk. “This is something the community wants very badly,” Derham said.

Saddie, a busker who performs regularly with a group called the Carolina Catskins, then presented the committee with a petition signed by more than 1,200 people that demands “support for pro-busker-rights reform.” Specifically, it asks the city to “change the laws to permit artists to be able to sell their recordings while still accepting tips.”

Current city policy bans street performers from selling recordings. But in practice, buskers often “give away” merchandise to those who make sizable “donations.”

Other existing rules include banning buskers from performing within 40 feet of each other and “obstructing” sidewalks, doorways and traffic.

As he accepted the petition, Davis said that buskers’ fear of heavy restrictions “has really gotten out of hand.” He added: “Everybody loves your music. We’re not wanting that to go away. We want you to adhere to these rules that we’ve got.”

Pelly praised Derham’s documentary, saying, “It was just wonderful. It really set such a positive light on Asheville’s busking community.” Looking at the room full of entertainers, Pelly added: I’m proud of ya’ll — thanks for coming out.”

The only concern raised by the public during the meeting came from Mary Ann West, who owns the Miles Building downtown, which is home to dozens of offices, including those of Xpress. She said that in order to help create a better working environment for her tenants, who are often surrounded by buskers at the Flat Iron sculpture and along Haywood Street, she’d like to see the city ban amplification during regular business hours.

But in the end, Pelly and Davis both agreed not to make any recommendations to staff or City Council to pursue any further regulations on busking. Instead, Davis informally encouraged the emerging Asheville Buskers Collective to meet with the Asheville Downtown Association to start a dialogue about how business owners and performers can better work together.

However, Davis did note that the city is currently reevaluating its general noise ordinance, which could ultimately effect buskers. The changes to that policy will be steered by a number of factors, including increasing complaints about traditional live music venues and dance clubs, he said.


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Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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12 thoughts on “Asheville buskers rally as city considers restrictions

  1. Han

    Hats off to Pelly and Davis for supporting the free exchange of music, performance and ideas on the streets of Asheville.

  2. John Galt

    Prohibiting amplification sounds reasonable to me. Or at last limit it to battery powered amps with a max output to be determined. When the audience is less than 10 feet away you shouldn’t need much power.

  3. ian Griffing

    Banning amplification won’t do anything helpful. Do you know how loud a saxophone can be? How would you regulate the volume of an extremely loud acoustic instrument? No, the answer is not to ban anything but rather encourage respect. If everyone respects each other then everybody wins.

  4. Kriss

    Busking musicians and other entertainers have made Asheville the unique and beloved place it is by both locals and visitors. No restrictions should be placed on busking, especially requiring some kind of permit. I see no point of requiring a permit, which would only have the effect of discouraging the spontaneity of this wonderful entertainment as well as putting more burdens on city government and police in trying to enforce such an unnecessary bureaucratic complication that buskers would have to deal with.

  5. boatrocker

    5:35pm, Sept 23, 2014, AD. posting time. Funny how it may or may not be posted until much later. C’mon Jake, publish this letter in a timely fashion. This same letter has been submitted to 4 other local WNC ‘news’ publications with 2 confirmations of being published.

    For the record: back in 1997 the city of Asheville required buskers to purchase a $15 good for one year busking permit. Complete with a laminated card one wore around one’s neck, that could be forged by anyone with a desktop/printer and laminating machine.
    One bought their busking pass from the now defunct office on Haywood St.

    The next year, said busking permits were no longer needed.
    $15 will also buy you a NCDMV driver’s license renewal- for 7 years.

    Meaning- the city of Asheville fleeced every poor musician for money. $15 x every busker for 1 year= exploitation.
    I still have my laminated busking pass to remind myself not to play for losing money. Jimmy Rogers, Bill Monroe, Nina Simone, all played in town, but much Asheville bowed to tourist dollars.

    Almost 20 years later, buskers are being asked to pay the city of Asheville for the privilege of playing an instrument in public without a local musicians’ union. Good luck trying to establish a local musicians’ union. Live music isn’t important enough.

    -No to amplification, including crazy preachers with bullhorns shouting down ‘sinners’ ala Bele Chere.
    -Yes to selling CDs. Unless Asheville wants a cut of the profits, ahem organized crime.- Shakedown.
    -No to background checks, unless it happens for every band for every local music festival funded by city money.
    – No to specifically assigned spaces to busk- busking means one can move to find the crowds. We are mobile.
    -Public property means waaaah to the restaurant owners on private property. If you don’t like the music, oh well. Blast your Eagles louder than us. Buskers are free market profiteers too. Let the free market decide.

    Buskers aren’t on your precious private property. Funny, I don’t hear you complaining about canned music blasted from the restaurant across the street that shove Van Morrison down the throats of people simply walking downtown who like the sounds of silence.

    The difference between a busker and a panhandler is so easy to tell- musicians offer a service.
    Some of us are the same live bands who play your precious daughter’s weddings at B+Bs, local ranches and other private events in WNC.
    Live music rules vs. a DJ or an iPod. Pressing the ‘play’ button is not a skill. But tell that to the drunk aunt who wants to hear ” I Will Survive”-
    but who cares about the local entertainment economy when it’s your family, right?

    There is an old saying in Asheville, from the long time ago and far, far away- 1997 AD- soooo long ago.
    “Asheville loves the arts- until one has to pay for it”.

    As usual, Mtn X, I dare you to post this in a timely fashion.

      • boatrocker

        Sept 24, 2014 AD 5:14pm

        Well, without the subtle nuances of voice inflection and facial cues it’s hard to tell if Ashvillager’s comments are genuine or tongue in cheek, but I can say that after talking in person with a few other people whose comments go unpublished here, I figure putting the date on a comment at least shows how long it will take to be published. Call it post shaming or whatever, but hey it gets the job done. The alternative is trusting in actual journalistic integrity and seeing one’s letter posted 6 days later (if at all even for following posting guidelines), just in time for it to be shoved out of the way for the next rose colored comment. Thanks Jake, for posting this in such a timely fashion, I appreciate it. I can’t say the same for all the editors, but that’s modern journalism.

        But hey, it is the Internet. Insult the messenger, but don’t even address any salient points brought up in a comment. I’ll repeat myself by saying once again that the city sees a great opportunity to make money off buskers by painting them with the same brush as a homeless guy begging for change. Buskers and transient askers of change are not synonymous. The term “urban vermin” was used back in 1997 to describe beggars and whatnot in this very publication in a letter to the editor and many took that to mean buskers too-wrong.

        In order to procure an instrument, one must spend money, take the time and effort to learn to play it (think years), maintain it and such. Can a “hey man, got any spare change?” type claim that they are offering a service (free music- remember that not everyone throws change in the case, so yes for the most part buskers are offering a service for free)?

        Those facial piercings and tats some buskers have scare the heck out of tourists, and we can’t have that, especially in a town that pats itself on the back every day for being so eclectic and whimsical. Hence any “regulations” that may happen. Said regulations didn’t work in 1997, and they won’t do any good now either. By the way, where will the money go that buskers cough up to the city? Why hasn’t this point been addressed?

        But hey, enjoy the free music while it lasts. Most buskers aren’t the type to hold hands with an authority figure like the city of Asheville after paying for the privilege to play. Cities like New Orleans actually have a rigid system in place to be ‘busking legal’ involving an audition and a fee which guarantees them the right to busk though the Big Easy actually has a lot of full time buskers who make more than the average barista here does. It’s free music, folks. Would you rather listen to crappy jam band schlock pumped from outside speakers at local restaurants with the sole purpose of keeping homeless folk from sleeping in an alcove? If so, Asheville is the city for you.

        I’m no Nostradamus, but I predict that if any regulations are put into place, we’ll see a lot fewer buskers. Some will rely on their other (barely) paying gigs in local clubs, some will stick with weddings, festivals and private events, some will leave town to seek greener pastures. Asheville can then pat itself on the back for killing the goose who laid the golden egg. Think buskers are annoying? Don’t think they deserve a measly buck for brightening up your day? Hey, I think I’ve met you before- aren’t you the guy who asked me to play a wedding for $150 with a 5 piece band? $30 a man, boy how can I turn that down?

        • mg massey

          I so agree with the thoughtful and considered opinions of the gentleman who commented at length from a musicians perspective. IT’s one reason I play only at home and with friends. Wanted to busk but many things prevent it. Prejudice exists on both sides of the political aisle. It’s clear bridges and not walls must be built. It is also clear many folks on both sides of the aisle don’t see life through anyones eyes but their own. WE artists and musicians throughout history have been the entertainment and sometimes the social commentators during dark times when some voices are oppressed. I applaud his two comments . WE live in a world without respect for all of life. WE also live in a world where “I got mine” is the modus operandi.. Maybe we all should think of how our actions and words affect others before we make decisions about folks who are simply trying to use their talents to supplement their income. Allowing busking is allowing others to make a living in a world where making a living is awfully difficult. Let’s all try and see life through others lives, it might make the world a better place.. who knows.. ? it doesn’t cost anything to chnage ones thoughts. Bless all musicians

  6. boatrocker

    Sept. 26, 2014, AD. 10:42 pm

    Whatever massey. I can make valid and salient points without your new age namaste empowerment. You claim to support 2 points but don’t actually reveal what those 2 points are in your comment. Should we read your mind then? Enough with your uberconscious yoga mat synergy. I’ve probably been to a ‘session’ (not a pickin party) at your house and promptly left after you ordered me to take off my shoes at your front door. You’re not helping the cause at all. I’m guessing you’d probably pay any fees demanded by Shakedown Street (aka the City of Asheville) in order to go along to get along. Stay at home.

  7. David Wilson

    I thought that Vienna, Austria did an excellent job of managing its street musicians. It was one of my fondest memories of Europe. We can have street musicians if they are well-managed.

  8. Dave E

    I play a keytar and need an amplifier just to have ‘some’ sound. I also use some pedals that are 110v powered via wall warts so I need a ‘portable’ power supply that I have built using batteries and an inverter. I am very aware of the volume issues when I play (farmer’s markets so far) and keep the volume to a level that you can walk past me and hold a normal conversation.
    My point is that even though I am powered and using an amplifier, I am probably far quieter than someone banging on a bucket so banning amplifiers per se is pointless as far as controlling volume levels is concerned.
    I’d also say that the typical DB meter reading often used of around 50 db is pretty useless too as a limit (other than to ban amplifiers) because the that’s about as loud as me typing on this keyboard!

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