Traveling street musician runs afoul of Sacramento sound ordinance

They’ve treated him like a king on the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tenn. He’s lit up the night on River Street in Savannah, Ga. They’ve loved him in downtown Louisville and on the street in Lawrence, Kan.

St. Louis? Forget about it. It’s so cool there, Ernie Rodgers said, adding that the cops even directed him to the best places in town to air out his Fender acoustic-electric and let the good times roll.

Rodgers’ coast-to-coast Greyhound tour landed in Sacramento this week, and he did all right on the K Street Mall for a couple of days – before he ran into city rules on street music.

As the self-described “pseudo-experimental classical” musician worked out some new jams during Thursday’s lunch hour in front of Ambrosia Café, a couple of yellow-shirted guides from the Downtown Partnership jammed him up and told him to shut it down. If he didn’t, he’d be facing a $400 fine for violating the city’s sound ordinance, the guides said. The statute bans amplified music, even if it’s piped through only a little Roland Micro Cube, a battery-powered, five-watt device that Rodgers used to enhance his finger-picking style.

“Music adds to a community, it really does,” Rodgers said, as he broke down his setup at 11th and K streets. “We’re sharing something special with people, even sharing something beautiful with people. A lot of times when I’m playing, I’m composing at the same time, and I’m listening to the train go by, and I’m soaking in the ambiance. You have that here, but no music.”

Sacramento’s clampdown on street music began in Old Sacramento in May. Some business owners there complained about unfair competition from street vendors selling arts and wares. Over the summer, city officials pulled out the obstruction ordinance to move the craftspeople along. The guitars, fiddles, banjos and musicians went along with them.

The pressure has since eased in Old Sac, according to one musician who asked that his name be withheld in fear that the publicity might cause him problems.

“I was playing pretty loud down there last weekend, but the cops walked right past me,” the country bluesman said. “Not a peep.”

It’s a different story on “The Kay,” the new name the Downtown Partnership has attached to a six-block stretch of the former pedestrian-only mall. The city has been working for years to transform the district into a center of Sacramento nightlife and entertainment – even as it targets street musicians as a nuisance.

Amplification is regulated under Section 12.44.270 of the city code – the sound ordinance. It says that no person, unless specifically authorized, can use any amplification equipment on any private property within 80 feet “of a mall” if the sound it produces “is readily audible on a mall.” Radios and tape recorders are okay, the ordinance reads, as long as they are not “unreasonably loud, raucous, jarring, disturbing, or a nuisance to a person of normal sensitiveness.”

Dion Dwyer, the director of community services for the Downtown Partnership, said his nonprofit agency has to balance the interests of the estimated 100,000 people who live, work and play in the city core every day.

Amplified sound “can cause issues. It can interfere with working,” he said.

“They pay for parking, they pay for rent, they’re working day in and day out to make ends meet,” Dwyer said of the downtown workforce. “They’re paying their taxes for the city, and oftentimes a street musician will come in from multiple parts of the country. They’re not integrated into our city. They’re not paying taxes on the money they’re receiving. They’re not paying for city services that other individuals pay for when they come to the downtown core.”

Noting that the Downtown Partnership street guides braced Rodgers in front of the Ambrosia Café, Dwyer said the restaurant managers “could have said ‘There’s a guy out here bothering our patrons, playing this music. They’ve complained. It’s too loud. They can’t come out and talk. They want to sit on the patio. It’s a beautiful day, 62 degrees. They want to look at the Capitol and have a nice soup and sandwich at Ambrosia, and this guy keeps playing ‘Smelly Cat.’ ”

The famously bad song from the TV show “Friends” never came up in a conversation with Kim Anderson, who has managed Ambrosia for the past 10 years, nor did any criticism of street musicians. She said that “for the most part,” street musicians like Rodgers have been nothing but a boon for the popular café with the tasty broccoli crunch salad.

“We enjoy having them out there,” Anderson said. “We like them. It just adds to the feel of being a city. It adds to the ambiance. The more people there, the more people come downtown. We love it.”

Rodgers is a professional musician and sound engineer who sells his music on the Internet and who has more than a dozen videos of himself and his original music posted on YouTube. His collection also includes a very fine cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” performed at a shopping mall in Chattanooga.

The 47-year-old native of Washington, D.C., is between addresses right now, but he is staying with friends in Sacramento on his way to Arizona. Wearing moose ears over his hoodie, Rodgers had been playing soft holiday melodies that drew donations to his tin can before the Downtown Partnership closed him out on Thursday.

In his cross-country travels, Rodgers said he’s seen the best musicians in the country – viola players and cellists from the Kennedy Center in his hometown – take to the streets during lunch hour to give free performances.

Savannah, he said, “is music heaven, one of my favorite places,” a town where they give permits and a stretch of sidewalk to just about any musician who wants to play on the street. He described Chattanooga as “very down to earth,” where as long as nobody complains, “you’re good to go.” As for Louisville, “They love live music there, they gather around and come up and listen.” He’s busked in Nashville, where Music Row street performances are as much a part of the culture as the Grand Ole Opry.

From his perspective, Rodgers found himself befuddled by the Sacramento street music scene.

“The people here seem to really enjoy live music,” he said. “The police didn’t seem to have a problem – they saw me long before the yellow coat guys. They drove by on their bikes and they didn’t care. But the yellow coat guys, they’re the ones that shut me down. They’re the only ones who seemed to have a problem with it.”

The Downtown Partnership “wants the most vibrant downtown we can have,” Dwyer said. “We want to have a place where people can come from all over to live and work and play downtown.”

But when it comes to street music, “we have to revert to the lowest common denominator, which is the sound ordinance,” he said.