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By decriminalizing homelessness, Austin stumbles into legalized busking

Friday, July 12, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s recent changes to ordinances intended to decriminalize homelessness may have, in a roundabout way, provided a new way for Austin musicians to earn money while also ending a years-long legal stalemate.

The issue in question centers around busking, the term for playing unamplified music for tips in a public space, which is a celebrated part of street culture in many major cities but has been discouraged – if not made outright illegal – in Austin.

The practice conflicted with long-held interpretations of the city’s anti-solicitation or panhandling ordinance, causing frustration for musicians over the years, who complained at meetings of the city’s Music Commission of being run off and given citations by Austin police officers when they tried to perform in a public space.

A series of discussions with music commissioners and other city leaders over the years brought no progress on the issue, though at several points local law enforcement leaders said they’d enact something of a hands-off approach to the issue as long as the city’s sound ordinance wasn’t being violated.

Last year, the city’s Music Division launched a seasonal, multiyear, weekly street performance program – with pre-selected musicians paid via money from developer Trammell Crow Company – that is gearing up for its second run soon.

But City Council’s recent changes to the solicitation ordinance meant to greatly decriminalize panhandling have also brought an end to the busking issue and made the practice legal in most instances.

When the Austin Monitor asked the Public Information Office about the ordinance changes and the subsequent allowances on busking, the response was, “The amendments made by Council to (City Code Section) 9-4-13 removed the prohibition on the hours someone may ‘solicit’ funds downtown. Previously that restriction was 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. With the amendments, that restriction went away but performers are still required to abide by the noise ordinance portion in 9-2-3.”

Music Commission Chair Rick Carney said he’s grateful the busking issue has now been settled, after at least two unproductive attempts by the commission in the past four years to find a solution.

Pointing to frequent visits to New Orleans in his job with the School of Rock academies, Carney said street performing can be an essential component of a musician’s earning potential.

“The number-one thing is, it decriminalizes something that should not be criminalized in the first place, and now nothing needs to be done as long as we make sure the enforcement folks know,” he said. “This doesn’t replace the money that gets made in clubs and no one should expect it to, but it can become a piece of the business for a musician trying to earn money through performing.”

In 2016, the Downtown Austin Alliance enlisted the Austin Busking Project to hire street performers for its downtown street market to add entertainment and culture for visitors.

In a prepared statement, DAA Executive Director Molly Alexander pointed to the success of ongoing busking programs in New York City and London, and said, “With the correct approach, busking can have a positive impact and enhance downtown Austin’s already vibrant environment.”

Downtown Commission member Rich DePalma said portions of the warehouse district, South Congress Avenue, Rainey Street and Cesar Chavez Street come to mind as lending themselves to highlighting street performances that fall within the limits of the sound ordinance guidelines.

“The devil is always in the details, but there are plenty of existing parts of downtown that it seems like would be appropriate for busking, and you could make some spaces that are well lit and create a suitable environment to showcase it,” he said. “Thinking of it as ‘bringing back the weird of Austin’ probably oversimplifies it, but if we can help people feed themselves and earn money while expanding their art, that’s what’s truly important.”

Photo by Kamyar Adl made available through a Creative Commons license.

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