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Street performers ask Music Commission to help redesign busking laws

Monday, May 13, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

Austin street musicians are pushing back at the Live Music Capital of the World’s strict busking laws. A new report from the Austin Music Commission’s Musicians Working Group surveyed about 200 local musicians, and 75 percent of respondents expressed a desire for more designated busking spaces. Presented last week by group member and musician Lauryn Gould, the findings touch on a variety of concerns but aim to address busking in coming months.

“We’d like to sit down with APD and city officials and really clarify the rules and make a clear, simple set of concise rules concerning safety and volume,” said Gould.

Busking, or performing live in a public place, is a limited trade in Austin because of ordinances that make it illegal to “place a container on the sidewalk adjoining a business, residence, or other premises.” It is also illegal to “make noise or play a musical instrument audible to an adjacent business or residence between 10:30pm and 7am.”

In other words, there’s a low ceiling on tips.

“I’m a professional touring musician with a record contract yet I love to play in the streets,” said Austin-based musician Steve Bacon. “People take time to stop and listen and for me, this translates to CD sales.”

It’s illegal to perform on the streets with amplified sound, and according to Bacon, that makes the difference between $100 and $10 a day in busking earnings. Bacon said that musicians simply cannot be heard without some amplification. Citing an ordinance in Cambridge, Mass., he urged the commission to help craft an ordinance that allows for annual buskering licenses and amplified sound up to 80 decibels, or “about as loud as the sound of traffic.”

“I used to make a living playing the streets of Harvard Square, and the subways in Boston,” said Bacon, “This ordinance can be a fantastic guideline for the city of Austin.”

Gould’s working group of four members includes her husband Ryan, and musicians Philip Gibbs and Lee Duffy. They are working to create a city-wide “Busking Day” that would close off downtown spaces for festivals and to establish a “culture of high quality street performance.”

The group’s other short-term action item was parking, and chiefly lobbying for downtown parking passes for working musicians during business hours. Eighty percent of survey respondents are willing to pay annual fees for parking and average over $30 a month in parking costs.

In general, their study paints a bleak picture for working musicians in Austin. Those surveyed earn an average annual income of $10,245, well below a living wage.

“The perception of this being a music friendly town seems to trump the reality,” wrote one survey responder in the survey’s comments section.

The surveys also found that musicians are making an average of $83.19 per live performance, and spending up to 13 unpaid daily hours working on the administrative end of their music.

Among those musicians polled, the best venues to play in terms of “fair compensation” include Central Market, Cactus Café and Strange Brew – a grocery store and two coffee shops, respectively. According to Gould, downtown live music venues rarely incorporate music into their business plan; but “their bartenders and kitchen staff are never asked to work free.”

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