Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Madison's own potential pay-to-play scheme

The whole idea of being a street musician is that, if a passerby enjoys the music being offered by the busker, the passerby drops some coin (or bill, if they're feeling particularly generous) into the busker's basket.

Instead, Madison Alder Mike Verveer has expressed his support--and the Common Council seems inclined to agree--for an ordinance that would charge street musicians for their time.

The city does not currently regulate street musicians beyond the reasonable restrictions (that apply to everyone) regarding not obstructing public sidewalks or creating "unreasonable noise." There are also rules governing musicians wishing to use public electricity--ie: be amplified on the street--and those who want to sell anything. These all seem like perfectly legitimate rules to me.

Recently, however, Warren Hansen, coordinator of Madison's street vending, proposed putting legal and financial limits on performer's ability to do their thing. He "suggested charging performers $50 for an annual permit, or $10 a day and setting standards for things like how close they could operate to a business and one another."

Advocates of this system point to the fact that Madison is apparently one of very few cities of its size not to charge a fee for buskers. But since when has our city been all that keen on keeping up with the Jones'? And why now?
...during this year’s Dane County Farmers’ Markets on the Capitol Square, a glut of street performers — including balloon hat artists and a masseuse — has made even Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, change his position on the issue.

“I really thought it was a solution in search of a problem,” Verveer said. “Now staff is bringing this to our attention again, and in a more adamant way.”
I've been a busker and I've been a pedestrian, and I can say that 90% of the people out there performing are courteous and polite. Like all weird, seemingly unnecessary laws, this one may come about as the result of the actions of a few thoughtless and/or bad apples. But it doesn't have to be quite so severe.

Instead of charging the proposed $50/year and $10/day rate--the latter of which is more than some buskers make in a day, by the way--why not simply require a free permit that places mild restrictions on duration and location? That way, we avoid the problem of too many buskers in one spot, and for too long (I'm sure the food cart vendors would appreciate that in regards to the Piccolo Man).

And if the idea of not charging for these permits gets the city's panties into too hard a twist, then make the fee nominal--say, $1 for a day, $5 for the year? Yeah, it's a pesky token thing, but if it deters the nuisance-inclined and rewards the nice 90%, then why not?

Honestly, I'm not entirely comfortable with any permitting requirements for acoustic acts, but the above represents what I believe to be a reasonable compromise. The street musicians and performers are a major part of keeping State Street at all unique and interesting. We need to stop moving toward the sterilization efforts that seem to have been at the forefront of "improvements" to the area for a number of years now, and realize that these funky, earthy, impromptu elements are what makes the street so appealing.

UPDATE TO ADD: Silly of me not to think of and do this in the first place, but I encourage anyone interested in this issue to contact Ald. Verveer and the Common Council to express, politely, their views. Verveer can be contacted directly here, and the CC here. They won't know what we think unless we speak up!


Movie Maven said...

Hear, hear (literally)!

Tim said...

Damn, I didn't even know about this proposal! I was planning on playing out there this week sometime, too. 50 bucks? That's crazy! I agree that a small fee or free permit would work. But even that isn't needed in my opinion. Keep rockin, E.M!

Anonymous said...

i don't agree w/that $50 thing... i live in the 'prairie' and don't get into town as often as i'd like, but i'd hate to lose the bluesy-folk guitarist, and that occasional washboardist... and the guy that plays a little bit of everything contraption ;o)

as i'm not in town as frequently as i'd like to be, my perspective might be askew - but, for the most part, it seems the few performers i've noted seem pretty respectful of the space. and i do love the unique energy of state street.

great article, thanks for bringing this to my attention.

MaryRW said...

I love good street musicians. They totally make my day. I would hate to see them discouraged from letting 'er rip. Your compromises are reasonable and fair, and the alderman's proposals are overbearing and draconian. Thanks for covering this. I hope we win.

Anonymous said...

Maybe one of the 'elite' that wants to improve Madison so it looks and feels like Shaumburg can donate some money and then the Taxpayer can subsidize the street musicians and then they can play more culturally acceptable music (SARCASM).

Remember this is the way they 'improved' Upper State Street (No more New Loft with teens that don't give piano recitals and don't look like they reside in Maple Bluff, the city is probably still peeved that they failed to remove the Orpheum (remember the city's IMAX idea and the constant denial of the liquor license due to Overture's objections)

Om a more serious note, Sinead O'Connor and U2 both started off as street musicians. U2 were the Bonzo Brothers and played outside a Lens Crafters type store called Bono Vox and it was while street performing that they were spotted by record execs. Madison could be killing the next big thing by this ordinance

Palmer said...

Since when has Madison wanted to keep up with the Joneses?

How about the way you looked to San Francisco and elsewhere when it came to plastic bags?

When it came to smoking bans all I heard was people saying that other cities have done it so why don't we.

Then there's "Austin has SXSW so why can't Madison have a music festival?"

Madison is constantly trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Emily said...

Palmer, you may well have a valid point. Which isn't to say that looking to positive examples of how certain health initiatives or events were carried off in other cities is a bad thing. But I do stand corrected.

I still think this proposal, as it stands, is a bad idea.

cam said...

Viva la Catfish!

Ben Masel said...

"There are also rules governing musicians wishing to use public electricity--ie: be amplified on the street--and those who want to sell anything.'

A Los Angeles regulation barring sales, when applied to musicians selling CDs of their own material, was found unconstitutional by the 9th federal circuit in PERRY v LAPD (No. 9655545)

(litigated by my old pal, and UW Law grad Jim Fosbinder)

"The items sold here include music, buttons, and bumperstickers bearing political, religious, and ideological messages.These are expressive items, and they do not lose their consti-tutional protection simply because they are sold rather thangiven away. Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Con-sciousness, 452 U.S. 640, 647 (1981);
see also Schaumberg, 444 U.S. at 633;
Gaudiya, 952 F.2d at 1064-65.[4]

ellie said...

I think the most money I ever pulled in with my band at the farmer's market got us all about ten bucks each.
The idea of charging ten bucks a day to play means a lot of folks will be literally paying to play.

The Sconz said...

Very good cultural arguments for the buskers. It highlights how absurd the fiscal justification for this plan is. The tax would bring in at most several thousand dollars of revenue (I seriously doubt many buskers would comply). These people simply don't make enough money to pay taxes on their profits.

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