Busting open the busking rules

John Downs is no stranger to busking in Sacramento. From 2005 to 2011, he and a group of friends performed as The Hellouts, a rogue bluegrass band that would pop up on sidewalks, restaurants or in bars—“basically any place with a patio we could sneak the contra bass into,” Downs says. The Hellouts got away with their sneak-attack performances by taking advantage of a little known city code loophole allowing for “incidental music.” If the music wasn’t advertised beforehand, The Hellouts could legally play just about anywhere without a permit—though it’s not always that simple.

Around 30 people gathered in the Warehouse Artists Lofts community room last Wednesday for an ad hoc committee meeting on busking led by David Sobon, a commissioner with the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Council. The goal: to help the city create guidelines for busking based on artists’ suggestions and concerns. Sobon revealed: “There is no busking ordinance in Sacramento.” That means buskers aren’t shut down in Sacramento purely for the act of performing, but because of a whole list of city code restrictions that seem to disallow just about everything a busker would wish to do.

Frank Lopes was one of many who spoke up about their troubles while busking in Sacramento. A professional musician who performs under the name Hobo Johnson, he’d been shut down for performing on K Street without receiving any adequate explanation, he says.

Lopes may have gotten the boot because K Street has its own set of public-space usage rules that likewise apply to many pedestrian malls in the city, said Dion Dwyer, the director of community services for the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. In high-foot-traffic areas, buskers are often not allowed to perform because they’re considered impediments, despite being in the very zones that the city wants to instill with a vibrant sense of urban life.

Sacramento’s barriers to busking are problematically cultural, said Christina Marie of Capitol Indie Collective. The city is famous for shutting down early, “and then the attitude is, ‘Get off my sidewalk,’” she says. Dwyer agreed, saying Sacramento should look at cities like Austin that are leaders in live music. There, noise complaints can’t be made until midnight. In Sacramento, anyone can make a report at any time for noises even quieter than ambient traffic sounds.

Recommendations from this meeting and others are being used to help shape the city’s policy going forward. The next public discussion will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, March 13, at E. Claire Raley Studios for the Performing Arts (2420 N Street) to take further questions and comments on Sacramento’s busking future.

At the end of last week’s event, many attendees expressed concern that the city would be adding regulations for buskers rather than breaking down the barriers that are already in place. Instead, transparency regarding what is and isn’t allowed would help to create the vibrancy that the city wants to foster—and that artists are eager to supply.