The controversy over regulations for street performers in the District has recently resurfaced. On Dec. 11, Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and other D.C. Council members held a three-hour roundtable on street performer noise levels. Industry representatives and residents provided testimony on the damaging effects of street performers in the Farragut Square and Gallery Place/Chinatown neighborhoods. Zero performers gave testimony , making the vilification of street musicians an all-but-foregone conclusion.
The lack of performers at the roundtable was not for lack of interest; rather, it was due to insufficient and suspect publicity by the convening council members. Public notice for the Dec. 11 meeting was announced three days prior. Wording in the notice was charged, alluding to those suffering “life-threatening medical conditions” as an impetus for the roundtable. And while the public notice purported to seek “viewpoints of all involved stakeholders,” its language never once identified or even alluded to street performers.
I am a street musician. I use amplification for my classical guitar. If I didn’t, I would immediately be drowned out by the sound of a bus, of which hundreds pass through Seventh Street NW on any given day. If I receive complaints, I turn the volume down; or, more likely, I move somewhere else. I have found that the same holds true for most performers, who are competing with noise from traffic, sirens, the president’s helicopter and more. They are entrepreneurial. They have nothing to benefit from a hostile audience and are more likely to stay because they are being encouraged by spectators and passersby.
Street performers do have an obligation to practice their art without becoming a nuisance. Most of them do, though there are some exceptions. In cases where noise levels become untenable, regulations exist to provide relief. The D.C. Noise Control Act already provides sufficient audible thresholds for noise disturbances that are consistent with threshholds in other major cities. Criminal penalties exist for those making unreasonable noise levels.
Another potential solution is to issue permits to performers. For example, in Cambridge, Mass., performers pay a $40 fee for annual permits, which help fund part-time street performer monitors and which are issued only after a performer settles any outstanding fines for noise violations. Similarly, Boston subway performers receive annual permits by paying a $25 fee. These options produce minimal barriers for performers while screening out opportunists and promoting accountability.
A blanket ban on amplification would be the wrong approach. Ed Sheeran began his career as a busker, using looping pedals and an amplifier to hone his signature sound on the streets. Eliminating this capability would have stifled his creative talents, just as a similar ban would silence some of the District’s most innovative artists.
What made me try busking? An article written in this newspaper chronicling the incredible story of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell performing incognito outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. Bell received scraps from passersby. The Post’s Gene Weingarten received a Pulitzer Prize for the article.
However, things could have gone differently. If Bell had stepped into the station to play his music or on Metro-controlled property outside the station, he would have been in violation of the rules of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority that prohibited the solicitation of tips. The rules were not changed until local busker Alex W. Young won a lawsuit against Metro in district court in 2015.
It may not be music to everyone’s ears, but street music is just that to many. Good policy must balance the needs of residents with the needs of the city’s creative class, which is why street musicians must be a part of the discussion.