Buskers, downtown businesses grapple over amplification

THE MUSIC MAN: Jimmy Clifton is an Asheville-based guitarist who busks downtown regularly. He uses a battery-powered amp and says that although some people have asked him to turn his volume down a few times, most passersby “are like, ‘Sounds great, turn it up!’” Photo courtesy of Clifton

Andrew Fletcher knows the ingredients for the best busking experience in downtown Asheville: “The right band, the right spot and the right weather.” That combination yields the perfect recipe for tips, he says.

One ingredient that isn’t necessary for street performers, says Fletcher, is an amplifier. “The better-tipped buskers tend to be quieter and generally more acoustic in Asheville,” explains the self-described “semiretired busker.”

Downtown Asheville does have its share of low-key ukulele players and banjo strummers. But some days amplification, particularly of electric guitars, dominates the sonic landscape. That means downtown businesses (including the Wall Street offices of Mountain Xpress) and residents can be subject to hours of loud performances each day.

Xpress spoke with several buskers, as well as workers at 11 downtown shops and restaurants, about the use of amplification by street performers. Few people agreed to on-the-record interviews; many feared causing offense, and some mentioned previous confrontations with musicians.

A complicated picture emerged of how businesses relate to musicians who amplify their playing. Says Malinda Fumia, manager of Spiritex, “When they’re playing loudly, you can hear it in the store. It’s hard to hear our own music [and] you have that conflicting sound, which is obnoxious.” Still, Fumia notes that large crowds watching performers in front of her store do equate to more foot traffic.

Buskers are visible ambassadors of Asheville’s artistic community, and some workers say street performances create a convivial atmosphere. “I’ve been out here for two years across from one of the prime busker spots and I’ve seen some incredible talents,” says Nathan Armstrong, a valet at the Haywood Park Hotel near the Flatiron statue. “I see them as a very valuable part of Asheville’s downtown.”

But for others who work downtown, amplified sound is a daily cacophony.

‘Buskers are self-regulated’

The latest updates to Asheville’s noise ordinance were approved by City Council in July 2021. However, buskers have primarily relied on a street performers’ brochure for guidance on public noise. The 2016 document was co-developed by city agencies and the Asheville Buskers Collective, which formed in 2014 in response to proposed busking regulations.

“We were able to work together [with the collective] on clear guidance on what’s allowed and on some etiquette for what’s encouraged,” explains downtown planning manager Dana Frankel.

When the new ordinance came into effect last September, its regulations included language that seemed applicable to street performers, noting that “[n]o person shall make … any noise disturbance originating from a right-of-way, street or other public space.” (All sidewalks in Asheville are public space.) It also set an upper limit on noise of 72 decibels, the highest level in the city, from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. downtown.

Enforcement of noise violations largely transitioned from the Asheville Police Department to the city’s Development Services Department. The DSD noise compliance team now investigates complaints made on the Asheville app or through noise@ashevillenc.gov.

However, what constitutes a “noise disturbance” is largely up to business owners and workers to decide. “I think [the noise compliance division] recognizes, and I recognize, that noise generated from public space is a little bit subjective in terms of how it’s enforced,” Frankel says.

Daniel Oropesa, noise compliance officer, is a bit more blunt. “We don’t regulate the buskers,” he says. “They’re self-regulated through the buskers collective.” (The Asheville Buskers Collective did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Oropesa says he hasn’t used his sound meter to investigate any busking complaint. “Buskers are great — they’re not even on our radar for problems,” he adds. Todd Justice, who administers the DSD noise compliance division, says vehicular noise downtown is in the division’s crosshairs instead.

Some downtown businesses agree that amped-up music isn’t their biggest concern. Anthony Coggiola, co-owner of Mayfel’s, says that while “the noise is noticeable, our main issue is the loitering, the sleeping by the building and drug paraphernalia.”

Yet despite assurances that busker noise isn’t a city priority, in a one-year update on the noise ordinance shared with City Council Sept. 27, Justice and DSD Director Ben Woody acknowledged “downtown amplification” as a challenge, particularly when offenders are resistant.

“Most individuals voluntarily comply” when addressed about amplification, the presentation reads. “However, compliance is difficult when an individual is unwilling to cooperate.”

Approximately 100 of 1,671 city noise complaints from last September through August claimed the disturbance was in “public space,” according to DSD data included with the presentation.

‘I don’t want to be too annoying’

The etiquette guide in the Asheville Buskers Collective brochure advises “Keep your amps turned down and drum kits baffled.” It also says city officials can take into account “whether the noise has been enhanced in volume or range by any type of mechanical means” when considering whether a noise violation has taken place.

Not every musician is aware of the Asheville Buskers Collective brochure. Jimmy Clifton, a guitarist who sings mostly Christian music, says he hasn’t seen the brochure, although he was aware the collective exists. He had busked in Hendersonville, which he says does not allow amplification, for six years before starting to busk in downtown Asheville for better exposure six months ago. He’s since quit his job at Chick-fil-A to play music full time.

Clifton performs gigs and tries to busk at least an hour each day, usually outside the Ben & Jerry’s on Haywood Street. He uses a battery-operated amp and says he thinks he plays less loudly than do other performers.

He adds that he tries to be a good neighbor. “I don’t want to be too annoying to people,” he tells Xpress. Although Clifton says he’s been asked to turn his volume down a few times, he says most passersby “are like, ‘Sounds great, turn it up!’”

It’s unclear how many downtown buskers are newcomers like Clifton and how many are longtime regulars. Several interviewees theorized that those who originally established the city’s busking norms have dispersed. Some street performers travel from city to city, meaning the musical community in Asheville is ever-changing. The disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as rising housing prices, suggests Fletcher, who is now running for City Council — may have flushed some performers out of the city as well.

STRING THEORY: Not all of Asheville’s buskers use amplification when they perform. Jordan Feil, a traveling musician visiting from Broward County, Florida, busked with his five-string banjo at the corner of College  and Haywood streets. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

While some musicians may not know the details of the city’s noise ordinance and busking etiquette, some workers also seem unclear. One business owner griped to Xpress that APD was not enforcing the noise ordinance, despite that responsibility now falling to DSD. And Justin Souther, manager of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, says he assumed amplification was forbidden and all the musicians using amps were ignoring the rules. (The Asheville Downtown Association, an advocacy group for downtown businesses, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Fletcher believes a focus on amplification is misguided. A musician playing with an amp can modulate sound volume better than one performing without, he says. Souther agrees that volume is “dependent on the busker,” the instrument and style of playing. “I’ve had buskers that are not amplified that are somehow louder,” he says, referring to a musician drumming on an upturned bucket who ignored requests to move on.

(That musician was the only performer who prompted Souther to contact the Asheville Buskers Collective. He says a representative from the collective was attentive to remedying the issue.)

Adhering to suggested time limits could also foster goodwill among downtown eardrums. “It can be a bit exhausting to listen to the same person,” Souther says. The busking brochure suggests musicians cap performances at two hours to give others a turn, but performers regulate themselves on this matter as well.

Several business owners vented about hearing five-six continuous hours of amplified busking. Sal Membreno, co-owner of Asheville Club, wishes street musicians wouldn’t exceed 90 minutes of performing. And he says Asheville officials should be more aggressive about enforcing existing laws on noise. If city ordinances “apply to everybody else, why shouldn’t they apply to people on the street?” he asks.

Musical quality also isn’t regulated. The city’s noise compliance division received a complaint online “that the busker was out of tune,” Oropesa says with a laugh. “This is really not a legitimate complaint.”

Downtown: ‘interesting, fun and different’

Even those workers feeling the most frazzled by amplification still felt fondly about some of the musicians playing downtown. Everyone Xpress interviewed could name their favorite performers. (Joshua Lauth, who juggles tennis balls while balancing his dog on his shoulders, is a clear favorite.)

Coggiola from Mayfel’s says, “I don’t mind the buskers, but I think they should be mindful of their volume.” Fletcher says employees at Rhubarb on Pack Square have let buskers use their bathrooms and have shared leftovers.

Blair Logue, a co-owner of Earth Guild, acknowledges she doesn’t always enjoy buskers’ musical choices. But she tells Xpress “sanitizing downtown is a mistake.” She sees street performances are crucial to Asheville’s identity and loathes the idea of “making it like every other mall in the world and getting rid of the people who make it interesting and fun and different.”

Souther echoes many downtown workers when he says he appreciates the variety of performances. He enjoys listening, as long as buskers behave respectfully.

Adds Souther, “It’s always funny in the spring — you get to start seeing who’s going to be outside your business for the summer.”

10/10/22: This article has been updated to correct the email address to send noise complaints to Asheville’s Development Services Department noise compliance team.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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One thought on “Buskers, downtown businesses grapple over amplification

  1. indy499

    The city says it wants to increase density which makes public transportation more efficient and to reduce sprawl which allows more green and open space.

    How does it execute against that desire? Have louder noise standards downtown than at noise advocate Roney’s residence. Get coerced by private interest project Rabbit Rabbit to blast noise that doesn’t meet US or WHO health standards. Why because Roney is in their pocket. She justified it as a help for local musicians. Here’s a hint Roney: they don’t use local acts. And by hosting out of town acts folks may not go to local acts offered at the same time. Impact on local music income: negative!

    Head of city noise enforcement Woody says busker noise is an issue. His compliance officer Oropesa says, ” we don’t regulate the buskers”. Sorry pal, that’s your job. Maybe Woody should get a guy who does his job? Does the city publish a list of rules it does and doesn’t enforce? Would be handy.

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