Music News & Reviews

Local street musicians are used to getting the boot, but are better days ahead?

The old Santa Monica Pier is known for its street performers, or buskers.
The old Santa Monica Pier is known for its street performers, or buskers. Associated Press file

Sacramento is a city that prides itself on its food and flourishing arts scene, but traditionally it’s a lousy town if you sing for your supper. While buskers (street musicians who play for tips) are a familiar part of the urban landscape in many cities, it’s nearly the sound of silence from such vagabond musicians in Sacramento.

Buskers were once pushed out of Old Sacramento and other downtown areas, pressured by business owners and residents who complained about the noise or said the musicians were blocking sidewalks. But as Sacramento’s urban core continues to develop and momentum continues in the local creative community, bringing back the buskers has become a hot topic around town.

On March 1, more than 60 people gathered at R Street’s Warehouse Artist Lofts, an area that would normally be ripe for busking, for a public meeting about street musicians. The event was hosted by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and attended by a variety of stakeholders – musicians, law enforcement, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership – to see if everyone could achieve harmony on the busking issue.

“Come on, in what cool city have you been to and you’re not watching someone entertaining you in the street?” said David Sobon, a SMAC commissioner and co-chairman of its busking committee. “Everywhere you go, there’s great street musicians. Busking is cool if it’s done right.”

Technically, busking in itself isn’t prohibited by city law. But before you break out your saxophone or guitar amplifier, know that your sweet music can easily run afoul of other ordinances. Exterior noise in the city must be kept under 65 decibels, a fairly modest level compared to Austin, Texas, which allows 85 decibels until 2 a.m. in certain parts of the city.

A $400 fine could also come your way for playing through a guitar amplifier on the K Street Mall, a hub for local tourists and others on their way to Golden 1 Center. Under Sacramento City Code 12.44.270, sound amplification equipment is prohibited on private property within 80 feet of a “mall” and “in such a manner that the sound, as amplified, is readily audible on a mall” – except via special event permit. City code also prohibits street musicians from performing for tips on the K Street Mall without a special permit.

In other cases, buskers were kicked off Sacramento streets after business owners complained that street musicians were blocking pedestrian traffic. Such was the scene in 2013, when Old Sacramento clamped down on buskers and enforced sidewalk obstruction laws to move the musicians along.

Back downtown, free permits for buskers were once issued by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which represents the area’s property owners and businesses. The permit process required a driver’s license from musicians and reminders of city codes related to noise, such as the prohibition of drumming on city streets. That program was ultimately discontinued on advice from the city attorney that the policy might violate the First Amendment on free speech grounds.

“Busking is fairly dead in the city,” said Dion Dwyer of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. “Without the ability to encourage busking, you’re left with city code, and that’s not built to support that kind of activity in the public space.”

It’s a much different scene in San Francisco, where buskers and street performers are as ubiquitous as clam chowder bowls around Fisherman’s Wharf. The Port of San Francisco sponsors a street performer program for 12 locations, and says on its website that, “Live performances make a positive contribution to the culture and (ambiance) of the Wharf.”

Sacramento now seems poised to support busking once again. In January, the Sacramento City Council approved an initiative by Mayor Darrell Steinberg to support experimental art in Sacramento, including a possible relaxing of the rules that make busking and other street performing especially difficult in the city.

“What will make Sacramento a true destination city?” Steinberg said to The Bee in January. “One of the things is this raw energy around arts and culture.”

For starters, Sobon and others in the pro-busking camp hope that Sacramento will modify its sound ordinances in select parts of the city to support busking. The SMAC busking committee is also identifying spaces around downtown and midtown that could feature stalls for street musicians.

“In Whistler, Canada, they have stages with electricity plugged in,” said Sobon. “Most are outdoors and not near areas near housing, but public areas near retail.”

But such built-in stages could be problematic on K Street near Golden 1 Center, which is finding a new wave of housing development. Now, the challenge is to balance Sacramento bureaucracy with the needs of local artists, residents and business owners, especially as downtown becomes increasingly dense.

“I’m excited to have a conversation about how Sacramento can thrive with live music,” said Dwyer. “Busking is a small part of this artistic ecosystem, but we need to take a step back and see where we should go. We need a balancing act.”

Just the fact that busking is now a hot topic in city arts is encouraging to a singer-songwriter such as Clemon Charles. He’s busked around Sacramento, playing uplifting tunes by the likes of U2 and James Taylor at Cesar Chavez Plaza, and he’s played for tips at Grand Central Station in New York City. A good busking session can mean upward of $100, and sometimes more, left in his guitar case as tips. For a working musician like Charles, nothing beats taking music to the streets and earning some money in the process.

“Busking can be the most amazing thing if there’s some sort of regulation where everyone is safe, the artists and the people,” said Charles. “I want to be an example for the buskers.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias