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.