A balance of buskers and business in the village
- Published: July 31, 2014
While farmers’ market patrons shopped and mingled last Saturday morning, Scott Randall Lindberg picked his guitar for the crowd from nearby Kings Yard. The soft melodies fed through an amplifier wafted into the marketplace while Lindberg accepted cash donations and promoted his guitar lessons.
Later in the day, Ben Hemmendinger donned his guitar and Perin Ellsworth-Heller his fiddle and set up between Pangea and Dark Star Books along Xenia Avenue to entertain passersby and bench-dwellers with Appalachian and Irish-inspired tunes for about two hours. Dollar bills were thrown into an open case set before them while at times children danced on the sidewalk.
A staple of downtown Yellow Springs, the local street music scene may soon change with a new, self-regulating policy approved Monday by Village Council. The Yellow Springs Street Performer Agreement limits where and for how long street musicians can play and discourages amplification, while asking that those approaching street musicians with concerns do so respectfully. At Monday night’s meeting Council members called the measure a non-binding “pilot approach” and said that they hope to receive feedback from street musicians.
Street music, or busking, has become controversial in recent months as Council learned of concerns of downtown business owners and their employees. Earlier this year, a petition signed by 50 villagers and downtown workers asked Council to curtail street music by banning amplification, background tracks and multiple drums.
According to Council member Housh, who drafted the new agreement with the help of the Public Arts Commission, there is a “significant level of frustration” among downtown retailers about some street music, which can be a source of annoyance and keeps them from playing music inside their shops. Housh urged Council to act in response to several recent confrontations between shop owners and musicians who were said to have refused requests to tone it down or move along.
“Everyone values the street musicians and how that adds to the Yellow Springs vibe, but what concerns me is when there are escalations downtown,” Housh said. “That’s when I started to feel we need some resolution.”
Before settling on a non-binding, self-regulating agreement, the Public Arts Commission also considered legal approaches such as strengthening the Village’s existing noise ordinance, passing a new law that specifically regulates busking, requiring street musicians to obtain permits before playing, or stepping up enforcement of existing ordinances to address complaints.
According to the Yellow Springs Street Musician/Performer Agreement, shopkeepers or others with complaints should not interrupt a busker during a number and should not threaten or intimidate musicians, while street musicians should take a one-hour break or move to another street after performing for one hour at a certain location, perform at a distance of approximately 100 feet from other buskers and only perform in the same place twice in one day. The agreement states that if street musicians or business owners don’t comply with the rules, the Yellow Springs Police Department can enforce existing noise ordinances that already restrict sound levels to 65 decibels in the business district (roughly the sound of regular conversation at three feet) and explicitly prohibits amplification.
Asked for comment earlier in the week, street musicians expressed concern that any limits on busking would discourage musicians and could seriously affect the unique character of village street life and Yellow Springs’ reputation as a place of free expression, both of which draw visitors to town. Street musician Tony Powers, who plays ukelele and guitar on the street about once a week, said he prefers a self-regulating process of constant negotiation with business owners to an official Village policy.
“Regulation will be a barrier to the kind of musician who will most grow and benefit from playing on the street — newer, younger and not-as-confident musicians — and that will be a loss for the individual and for the community,” Powers said.
Powers added that Yellow Springs’ music scene is vibrant in part because it is seen as a “welcoming place” for street musicians who have access to expert musical peers and active listeners, but that that could change with the imposition of more stringent regulations.
While those interviewed said a mostly cordial relationship has existed between street musicians and downtown employees, in recent months several ongoing disagreements between them have come to light in public meetings. In interviews, downtown employees also said they were frustrated with some street musicians who are being disrespectful by playing too long or too loud, monopolizing spaces downtown and not responding to their requests to tone it down or move along.
According to Housh, the complaints from downtown workers he has received are centered around three street musicians in particular — a steel drummer who plays for multiple hours at a time and uses amplification and recorded background music, a saxophonist who uses recorded background music and a djembe drummer whose drum beat can be “super repetitive” to those who work nearby. Housh said the people he talked to were “angry and upset” and while the Village could simply step up enforcement of its existing noise ordinance, he favors a more collaborative approach.
“My focus is on harmony in the village and being fair to everybody,” Housh said. “We would not want to codify anything that restricted the busking activity.”
At the Public Art Commission meeting on July 16, Josh Castleberry, who owns Toxic Beauty Records on Xenia Avenue, said he has argued with one of the musicians, who he said refused to turn down his music when asked.
Castleberry added that when outside music is too loud he cannot play records within his store and out his second story window to attract shoppers, saying it’s not fair that some street musicians “monopolize the entire sound” on the street. Castleberry said he favors an approach that empowers business owners to hold street musicians accountable.
“I think if you put something on the books for the businesses, we could go out there and say you’ve been playing too long,” Castleberry said. “Then if they don’t, we could call the police.”
Yellow Springs Pottery cooperative member Janet Murie said at the meeting that relentless street music can be “like an invasion” in the shop in Kings Yard where she works, especially when it goes on for long stretches (sometimes up to 8 hours), or when she can hear multiple sources of music at once. Time limits would be helpful so that workers know that the music will eventually stop, she said. However, the larger issue with street music is that it sometimes doesn’t allow villagers to have conversations on the street.
“That’s what we do in this town is talk to each other,” Murie said. “If we have to walk around the corner to talk to one another [street musicians] are not being -considerate.”
Miriam Eckenrode, who works at Sam & Eddie’s Open Bookshop in Kings Yard, called the sound of the steel drums a “metal mosquito” and a personal annoyance, but acknowledged that that is a matter of her personal taste. Her bigger problem is that since Sam & Eddie’s plays music in its store in order to sell it, excessively loud or irritating street music can affect her business.
“For someone to be able to do their art and make a living, I get that, but as business owners we need to be able to have some say in what our environment is,” Eckenrode said.
Kira Lugo, whose owns the clothing shop Iona on Xenia Avenue, agreed that the problem with street music is that sometimes it distracts rather than complements what’s happening in the retail stores. Lugo said playing music in her shop is integral to the experience since her store is themed around the intersection of music and fashion. Outside music “changes the customer experience” and becomes “a distraction and a competition,” she said.
Lugo has had to ask street musicians to move off of the brick patio in front of her store, which is privately-owned, but even when they play nearby they can disrupt both her store and the vendors who rent the patio, she said. To Lugo, a more cooperative relationship between shopkeepers and street musicians needs to be developed.
The petition that circulated around downtown businesses late last year and in early 2014 asked Council to consider an ordinance that specifically banned amplified and recorded sound and multiple drums by street musicians in the downtown area, but exempted sponsored events and children. The petition stated that the type of busking that relies on electronic instruments or amplification to make money should be considered a business and should require a vendor’s license. At the same time, amplified musicians unfairly drown out “normal acoustic” street musicians, the petition stated. Of the 50 signatories, about half owned or worked at a downtown business.
Street musicians chime in
However, street musicians said this week they are skeptical of some of the proposed regulations. For example, banning amplification arbitrarily prioritizes certain instruments over others, using decibel levels as a measure of compliance is risky because they can be inaccurate and affected by wind, and requiring time limits is not appropriate in such a small village. In general, street musicians find many proposed solutions too restrictive of a mode of artistic expression they see as central to village street life and the local art scene.
Hemmendinger, who has busked here one to two times per week for the last three years, said that street music gives the village a scene that feels vibrant and alive, increasing tourism which benefits all local businesses. He sees street music as akin to public murals and other forms of artistic expression and should be free and available to the public. Personally, playing on the street keeps him rooted, he said.
“If I go play for people and I can see and feel the responses and it is energizing and focusing,” said Hemmendinger, who plays guitar and accordion on the street.
Hemmendinger believes buskers have mostly been considerate of shop owners and employees, moving when asked and complying with unwritten rules of etiquette, calling it a “constant organic negotiation between specific musicians and business owners.”
“As street musicians what we do hinges on the good will of the people who have to listen,” Hemmendinger explained. “We’re inviting ourselves to a scene and we have to do it delicately.”
For example, Pangea owners have asked that buskers not block their window, while the owner of Tom’s Market has asked that street musicians not play near lunch tables, Hemmendinger said. Hemmendinger is worried that regulation will dampen a vital street music scene since “the less organic it is, the less inviting it is,” especially for new and young musicians. In addition, since some buskers can make more money on the street than at a local minimum wage job, it can be an important source of income. Attempts to regulate amplification are misguided and arbitrary, he added, since “quiet amplification doesn’t do what a loud instrument or voice can do” and has the “ugly ring of targeting specific musicians.” While Hemmendinger said a decibel limit makes some sense, he would prefer it as a last resort given the village’s tradition of mediation and dialogue.
Will Cook, who plays guitar and sings on the street three to four times a week, agrees that regulations can discriminate between musicians. For example, if amplification were banned, those who play instruments such as the electric keyboard or auto harp would not be able to play on the street, even though someone playing an acoustic instrument could play louder. The size of the village is not conducive to time limits, Cook added, because there are few ideal spots for buskers to go. Cook, who plays for four-hour stretches, said he performs on the street mainly to grow as a musician, not to make money, saying “nobody’s getting rich out there.”
“It has been a really accepting atmosphere for me,” Cook said. “That was a stepping stone to do other things with my band.”
Cook also has responded to requests from shop owners to quiet down or turn off an amplifier to “maintain good relationships” and said that street musicians already share space and work out conflicts amongst themselves about where they can perform and for how long without moving. What Cook believes is needed is a meeting between concerned business owners and local musicians, not new laws.
“For the most part everybody’s gotten along well. We just hit a hiccup and it’s turned into a bigger issue than it should be,” Cook said.
Longtime musician Byron Crews also enjoys playing on the street to connect with people and because of the acoustic effect of bouncing his guitar off of downtown buildings. While Crews doesn’t play for money, he understands that some musicians have to, but in general he is worried that regulations might “chisel away” at a mode of expression, music, which he calls “the lifeblood of the local culture.”
To Crews, the benefit of street music is partly educational, especially for kids who have never seen certain instruments or heard certain styles, and partly about the exchange that happens between the musician and listener in the moment.
“When we live where we are all disappearing into our devices more and more and music pulls people out of that and into the moment,” Crews said.
At the Public Art Commission meeting, members and villagers weighed the pros and cons of more restrictive regulations, including requiring that all street musicians purchase permits and sign a written agreement they will comply with regulations, beefing up an existing Village noise ordinance or adding a new ordinance that specifically addresses street music. Ultimately, the commission decided to try out a more informal agreement first before adding more regulations.
During the meeting, Police Chief Tony Pettiford argued for an ordinance that “has some teeth” along with requiring permits, since it is the police department that will have to enforce the law.
“I want them to be pre-warned by signing permits,” he said.
However, commission members were wary of an approach that restricted buskers who have so far been respectful, with Village Manager Patti Bates asking, “Instead of coming up with something to regulate people not causing a problem, can we do something about the person causing a problem?”
Council member Karen Wintrow said at the meeting that street musicians should not be targeted when the entire picture of downtown street life needs to be looked at. She said she is worried about “revenue issues for the village” if strict action is taken to curtail downtown busking.
“We’re not talking about regulating or enforcing [sidewalk] vendors and food trucks, so I think it is arbitrary to single out music,” she said.
According to Housh, there are already laws on the books that restrict busking, but that they are just not being enforced. According to the village noise ordinance, a noise disturbance is defined as that which exceeds 65 decibels in the business district, measured from the property line of the person complaining. In addition, the playing of a radio or similar device that amplifies or reproduces sound is prohibited if it creates a noise disturbance. Ordinances that forbid people from blocking the sidewalk or creating a public disturbance could also be used to target street musicians who garner complaints, commission members said.
Housh believes he has found a middle ground that is not too restrictive, but responds to valid complaints from business owners.
“We are hoping to avoid the escalations and the conflict and hoping to preserve everything we like about having street musicians downtown,” he said.