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Wednesday, 30 May 2012 12:34

Performer or panhandler? Street musicians scarce where codes ban begging

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The warm weather and sunshine brings a flurry of people to Waynesville’s downtown to enjoy the local fare — but it can also mean the beginning of busking season.

While Asheville is an epicenter for busking — slang for performing on the sidewalk in hopes of earning a few bucks from passersby — the phenomenon is fairly rare in downtown Waynesville. But every so often, someone will plop themselves down on a bench or take up a position along Main Street’s sidewalk and start crooning. For the most part, they are simply playing for fun.

“If they are just playing to play and it’s not causing a disturbance for somebody else, then we see no need (to address it),” said Waynesville Police Lt. Brian Beck.

But, if they decided to set out an instrument case, hat, jar or receptacle — or otherwise hint even slightly that donations are welcome — performers must have consent from the town.

In Waynesville, busking comes under the category of begging, which is banned per town ordinance. Performers used to have to receive express permission from the mayor himself to perform, but now what is needed is a permit. Buskers must fill out information with the planning and zoning office, which takes only a few minutes. Then, they would receive a permit from the town tax office at a cost of $25.

No permits have been issued for quite a while, however.

“I have not issued a permit for somebody playing an instrument since gosh, I don’t know when,” said James Robertson, the town tax collector.

That could be the reason why there have not been many, if any, problems during the past few years. However, in years prior, there were some issues — particularly with intoxicated individuals performing.

Enforcement is more report-based than anything else. The police will not stop just because they see someone performing. However, if the performer is noticeably causing problems or someone calls to complain, the police will respond.

“If a disturbance is taking place, we have to address it,” Beck said.

Like Waynesville, Sylva is not exactly hopping with buskers either, although the occassional college students from WCU have been known to play their guitar on benches.

“We don’t really have a glut of street performers here,” said Chris Cooper, a member of the Jackson County instrumental fusion band Noonday Sun. “It could just be early in the season.”

At most, Cooper said, he has only ever seen a couple of street performers, including a ukulele player and a saxophonist.

Sylva has stricter guidelines for performing on the town’s main roads. They must appear before the town board to request permission to play for donations.

However, buskers can play at festivals and the farmers market without any sort of permit or pre-approval.

Most businesses would not mind a little entertainment outside their doorstep.

“It is pretty OK with most of the shops around here,” Cooper said.

But town codes that prevent buskers from putting out a collection hat in Waynesville and Sylva could be part of the reason performers don’t take to the street in greater numbers.

Asheville has become a haven for buskers partially because it has no permitting process. Indeed, the vibrant and diverse busking scene is part of the city’s character.

Only performers who incorporate fire into their act are required to obtain a permit for safety reasons. That allows the fire department to keep tabs on them.

When walking downtown, it is difficult to turn a corner and not see at least one person busking. However, merchants irritated by buskers can legally ask them to move along.

“A business owner does have the right to ask them to leave if they are impeding business,” said Diane Ruggiero, superintendent of Cultural Arts in Asheville.

In general, though, business owners enjoy and welcome busking outside their doorstep.

“I think that that is one of the reasons that it works here. The business owners are receptive to it,” Ruggiero said. “A lot of them have good relationships with performers.”

And, although a few problems arise here and there, the system mostly works harmoniously.

Performers cannot stay in one place all day, pass a hat or sell merchandise. But, they can set out a hat or can or guitar case — a silent signal for donations. One thing that Ruggiero has tried to teach passersby is to ignore bad buskers.

Some people will give an ill-sounding musician or otherwise deficient performer money with the caveat that he or she stop or use the funds to take lessons. This doesn’t work, Ruggiero said. It only encourages them to continue.

“All you’ve done is given that bad musician a dollar,” Ruggiero said.

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