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A Word (or two...) About Busking
Posted on 09/04/2018 03:31AM
Busking is becoming more popular every year, in the US, at least. It has always been fairly common in Europe, but in the US, it has sometimes taken the courts to clarify the issue of whether you can busk or not. Many cities in the US have made busking illegal, labeling it erroneously as ‘Panhandling’, and other cities require permits. And a few actually encourage busking as a way to keep the economy healthy.
Since the 1970s, there have been many court cases involving buskers. Here are just a few:
Goldstein v. Town of Nantucket, 477 F. Supp. 606 (D. Mass. 1979) September 25, 1979
Davenport v. City of Alexandria, Virginia, 710 F.2d 148 (4th Cir. 1983)
Friedrich v. Chicago, 619 F. Supp., 1129. D.C. Ill. 1985
Carew-Reid et al. vs. Ny Metropolitan Transportation Authority et al, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit - 903 F.2d 914 (2d Cir. 1990)
Turley v. NYC, US 2nd Cir Appeal 98-7114, 1999
…..and the list goes on…. All of the cases have one thing in common. The courts have always ruled that busking is considered free speech and is protected by the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It cannot be regulated in any way different from other forms of free speech, such as public protests, parades, peaceful assembly, etc…. The courts have ruled that busking is not Panhandling.
So, why do we busk? I can only speak from my own experience, but I suspect that many do it for the love of the art, expressing themselves, the fun of it, and sharing their talent with the world without regard for monetary considerations. For most of us, making money is the last on the list in order of importance. Personally, I do it because I absolutely love it. It is expressing your creativity in the purest, most wholesome form there is. No agents or managers, no club owners telling you what to do, no one telling you when or where you have to play (within reason…there are noise ordinances after 10:00 PM in most locations…), just you, your music, and the world. They have the option of listening, or walking away, with no obligation either way. It’s as pure as creativity gets. I love it, and it is my favorite kind of show to do. It’s not for everybody. If you’re hung up on making money, have a musical chip on your shoulder, have a drug or alcohol problem, or a bad attitude in general, then busking will probably not be your cup of tea. You will probably wind up in trouble. You have to love performing from deep in your heart, for no other reason than the love of performing.
For anyone thinking about getting started in busking, I just have a few suggestions:
Get your music sounding like you want it, then find a spot, throw it out there, and see what they throw back.
It’s OK to leave your case open for tips, or put out a tip jar. But never, never ask for tips verbally, or directly. This is illegal in most spots, and will get you classed as a Panhandler.
Keep your tip jar where you can see, and reach it, it at all times. Occasionally, someone will try to steal your tip money.
Don’t ever stay in one place longer than an hour, or two at the most. You don’t want to over-hunt the area, and it’s also a courtesy to make room for other buskers. Don’t hog the spot.
If you use any amplification, keep the volume under 80 decibels at 20 to 50 feet away. That’s just a little above a loud conversation level, and will keep you out of trouble in most places. You can download a free decibel meter for your smart phone for free at both the Apple Store, and Google Play. They are invaluable for buskers. Stop any amplification before 10:00PM, regardless of your location. Also, be aware of Noise Zones, such as near schools, hospitals, apartments, churches during functions, or anywhere someone might object to extra noise. Don’t busk anywhere near these. There are plenty of other places to busk.
Never block, or impede foot traffic, sidewalks, paths, roads, bridges, bicycles, etc… Always leave plenty of room for people to get by.
Be courteous to other buskers. Never set up closer than 100 ft. to another busker, and keep the volume to the level I described earlier. There is plenty of room for everyone. Don’t argue over spots (called ‘pitches’). Work out a cooperative deal together if you really want to play in that spot. It’s not worth arguing over, because there are lots of spots.
If a Law Enforcement Officer tells you to stop, and leave, don’t argue. You can politely explain your rights to him/her, but don’t push it. Just get their name, badge number, the location and time, and if possible, record the entire event on your phone. Then see an attorney, or you can file a lawsuit yourself with the local magistrate. Around here, it costs about $60.00, and you get it back when you win. So far, I have never lost a case, and I have filed 3 suits against the city, all without a lawyer. But, never argue with Peace Officers on the street. The only thing you will accomplish is maybe getting a ride to the local jail.
Never perform under the influence of alcohol, or drugs you don’t have a prescription for. You will go to jail, and it makes life hard on the rest of us. What you do at home is your business. On the street, have enough respect for other performers not to jeopardize their rights.
Never perform vulgar or obscene material. There are probably children walking around where you are playing, and the little old lady you offended is someone’s mother. Keep it clean and classy.
That’s about all there is to it. Now, just grab your instrument, find a spot you like, and give it all you got. Maybe I’ll see you out there. Best of luck to you.