Anyone who has ever set foot in a city has encountered buskers—or street performers—of various stripes: the young and starry-eyed, the old and committed, the good and the bad, the desperate, the destitute, and the just plain weird. Often it can make a special night out in the city even more magical: you stumble upon a performer whose talent, vibrancy, or uniqueness touches something inside of you. It feels as though you’re watching a performer who pours over an accredited online business degree program in order to learn how to capture markets and deliver their goods, in addition to building their chops. Whether or not you hand over to them any of your hard-earned cash is a different matter, but at least you caught an unexpected act of showmanship.
Other times, this is not what happens. In subway stations, on street corners, in public parks and squares, busking can draw undesirable crowds, lead to noisiness, and leave a mess behind. The question for cities these days is whether or not buskers bring something positive to a city, or are simply a nuisance.
Many cities have specific licenses for busking in certain areas—Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago all require these licenses to perform in most of their public areas, including parks and subway stations. Of course, many buskers don’t obtain the required licenses. KTNV reports that property owners and Clark County officials in Nevada had their fill of unlicensed performers making money along the Las Vegas strip—one of the most concentrated areas for street performers in all of the country, and decided to crack down on them, finding ways to cite them for public nuisance. Likewise, San Francisco, New York and other cities have recently been making it harder for buskers to perform, citing public good as the reason for their own crackdowns.
Yet, in other areas, busking thrives. The LA Times notes that, even in a bad economy, the busking industry is “booming,” One street performer interviewed wisely notes that there is a new emphasis on such shows, seeing as how “It’s the only kind of entertainment where you get to pay what it’s worth,” The article goes on to profile an annual street performance festival held in San Diego, which draws a good crowd every year, bringing a lot of excitement and tourism to the city.
Economics professor for the University of Washington Dick Startz sums things up pretty succinctly. “Busking” he writes, “may be the ultimate example of individual free enterprise making for a better community. Music brings people together and adds to the value of public space. Individual stress is reduced and strangers get to share a little something. “
Beyond the arguments over licensing, income, and all the other webs which can entangle artistic expression when dealing with city bureaucracy, most can agree with Startz’ statement. As well as when he writes, “Bach or break dancing — it doesn’t matter. Just people raising a joyous noise. And the rest of us paying with a broad smile, loud applause, and maybe a coin or two tossed into the hat.“