Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ask a Busker: How to Obtain Permits/Have Permits Created

Happy Holidays folks!

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday full of abundance, love and joy. I had a great holiday, myself and am not looking forward to going back to Toronto where it's apparently raining. Over the holidays, the questions have still been rolling in. Many thanks to everyone out there in Internetland who is reading and participating! I'm having a blast writing these posts, hopefully you're having a blast reading 'em.

Today's question comes all the way from Jessica Wagstrom in Texas. Hi, Jessica! Thanks for your email. Jessica's question was a bit more involved than the previous questions, and asked about a specific place. I emailed Jessica some information that will guide her in her quest, but to protect the privacy of her specific location, I'll be answering her question a bit more generally for the rest of the readers.

Jessica asks, "I'm trying to find out how to obtain a permit for busking in my city. I've been to the city hall, and asked the permit desk specifically about street perfoming, and they had no idea what I was talking about. So my question is, what permit should I be asking for, and are there any details I should know about obtaining one? Questions I should ask the city issuing it?"

Ah yes. My favourite cities are the ones that have soft law surrounding public spectacle. Gotta love the "if we ignore them, they will go away" tactic some governments use. Awesome!

in Jessica's town, there is no law either way restricting or allowing busking (at least no ordinance I can verify), which makes it really difficult for performers to work. This can be the best and the worst situation to be in, as a busker. Unfortunately, in her specific town, the local authorities shut down local performers every time they go out and claim that busking is not allowed. Yet, according to other locals living there, busking can happen successfully. A piano player that's local to Jessica's city is forbidden to giving hat lines, but allowed to put out a passive tip jar. Doing shows draws a crowd, soliciting for money is bad, but performing a walk-by act and passively taking tips is okay. Makes no sense to me!

In my personal experiences traveling through the Great American West, the more southerly you go, the harder it is to find proper laws surrounding busking quite possibly due to the large amount of itinerant folks, athough that's just my speculation. Beggers can get away with doing their thing because they don't draw a crowd; you, unfortunately draw a crowd and that scares police sometimes.

Now, as it seems there is no law allowing busking (my sleuthing and calling authorities came up with zilch--you're lucky I'm in the US right now for the holidays so it was easy!) Jessica really has only a few options:

1. Start a festival. It's probably the easiest way to start busking in your town. If you start a festival for performers it's considered a privately run event which means you get permits to do your thing and control everyone who is working. Authorities like to have control over who's working. It makes them feel special. Or, contact established festivals and ask if you can get permission to perform at them.

2. Lobby the local authorities down at the city hall to get a permit in place for buskers, CLEARLY outlining what you are allowed and not allowed to do. Make sure you write in provisions to allow hat lines, draw crowds and other details such as, allowing amplifiers, juggling machetes, height (such as a giant unicycle), if make-up and masks are allowed, etc. This may take a lot of time and a few years; but, all that hard work could pay off for not just you, but a lot of other performers. Get together with other potential or current street performers and see what you guys can do. Heck, you can contact the media and make it a big shebang! (just remember; you guys better be good because if they do a news story, you could ruin it for everyone else if you suck!) There is a lot of strength in numbers. And seriously, what an awesome legacy to leave if you are granted permits!

3. Create an informal street union. What time do you usually go out and get busted? In my experiences, buskers typically go out after 6pm to avoid getting shut down. Assemble the troops and go out to do shows and stick together. Self-regulate; if somebody is new to busking and inexperienced, make sure they aren't going to hurt anybody during their show. I don't recommend getting arrested or making sweeping statements about "the man" while you're performing and if you get interrupted, since that'll likely hinder as opposed to help your case. But getting shut down publicly could be good for getting that initial media attention. Especially if it continues. Suss it out and see how you feel. I need to stress: if you get shut down, just do it. Nothing will make you look less credible at city hall than being a rebellious kid 'sticking it to the man'.

If you are looking to starting the long process of getting permits for your town, the issues you need to raise with the local authorities when creating a license are:

-where you allowed to play/not allowed to play
-between what times show are allowed
-what kind of amplification is allowed, if any
-maximum crowd sizes
-how long are the shows allowed to be, before the crowd must move along
-are performers allowed to give hat lines/actively ask for donations

These are also questions you can ask the local performers, and authorities when looking to obtain a license in a city that definitley allows street performing.

If your local city doesn't understand the terms "busker" or "street performer" just explain that you want to give a public performance in a public space and solicit for tips after you finish your spectacle.

Hopefully, Jessica and her fellow performers can battle to have a proper permit put into effect. Remember, as I said earlier, there is strength in numbers, and if y'all approach the authorities with respect and determination, at the very least, they should hear you out and begin an open dialogue. In my experiences performing in cities in Europe, the very first line on many permits state, "We recognize the value and importance that street performers have for preserving the culture of our city." Street performing is important for many, many reasons: hopefully, you can convince your local authorities of that, Jessica, and will be allowed to put smiles on the faces of passersby legally and with protection!

I'll keep my fingers crossed for you! And do let us know how you make out.

If you have a question for 'Ask A Busker', please feel free to email them to me at:!

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