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Is Fredericksburg ready to bring back busking? Photo by Phil Houseal

 

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Busking on Main

by Phil Houseal
April 27, 2011

Here’s a question: Is Fredericksburg ready for busking?

Busking is the age-old practice of performing in public for tips. Think of an organ grinder and his monkey, or a mime, juggler, street magician, or - in Fredericksburg’s case - the musician.

Locals may remember a time when a fiddler could stand on a street corner with open case, playing for passersby. That came to a halt many years ago, when the city council passed an ordinance outlawing the practice. The specific statement reads: It shall be unlawful for any person to perform, play music or entertain from any location within the public way in the district.

(“District” means the one block on either side of Main Street from Elk to Milam; “Public way” means all areas open to public use - streets, sidewalks, alleys, and parks.)

I have had musicians ask me why the town does not allow them to play downtown. They of course would like the opportunity to make some tips, but they also cite how it would add to the ambience and flavor of such a tourist destination as Fredericksburg. Indeed, buskers abound in other cities, large and small, popular and out-of-the-way.

So I did a little research, mostly by walking up and down Main Street, talking to store owners and a few musicians. Here is a rough outline of the issues.

Pros:
Street performers would add to the festive atmosphere Fredericksburg is famous for.

It gives tourists another attraction downtown. A little street theater is fun!

Allows impromptu venue for musicians and performers.

Placing performers at the ends of Main Street would be an incentive to draw shoppers to those areas.

Cons (more like “questions”):
Who will police it? On weekends, city offices are closed, and police officers are busy with large crowds of visitors.

How would the city control the quantity of performers?
This is no small matter. What if 80 musicians are vying for 20 spots? Would there be a lottery or licensing process? If so, who would be responsible for handling it?

More challenging - how would you control the quality of performers? How do you avoid the beginning guitar player who can only play “Smoke on the Water?” What if 10 mimes want to perform “The Box?” Then there is the whole issue of bagpipers. And who would you get to sit on that panel? It would be like American Idol without the free soft drinks.

What if street performers impede pedestrian traffic flow? The sidewalks are already crowded on weekends and holidays - why add more traffic congestion? Crowds do not equal sales. In fact, one storeowner told me when he offered live music, he had large crowds, but no one could make their way to the cash register.

How would owners of music venues react? After all, their business is to provide live music - why would they support competition from street musicians who had no overhead?

Should the performance sites be reserved for locals only? How would you handle out-of-town performers?

There were some areas of consensus. You could probably find courtyards and “off street” areas to place musicians. Someone mentioned the entire block of Marktplatz as a suitable location, or the gazebo behind the library (although foot traffic is nil).

All agreed there would have to be strict limits placed on public performances. Those limits might be certain days of the week; limited hours of the day (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.?); volume guidelines; and some type of licensing and identifying system to assure easy compliance.

At this point I don’t have any strong opinion either way (except on mimes and bagpipers... although organ grinders with monkeys would be kind of cool). I would enjoying seeing performers downtown, but I understand the burden of policing it, the competition with existing businesses, and the possibility of it turning into one big management headache.

I would be interested in your opinions. Drop me an email at phouseal@fullhouseproductions.net.