Without a Permit System, Austin's Street Performers Busk with Uncertainty
Austin prides itself on being the live music capital of the world — anywhere you go, there's music, even just walking down the street. But the city’s buskers — not just the musicians, but also the magicians, bucket drummers, jugglers and others who perform for spare change on the city’s sidewalks — are operating in a legal gray area.
Street performer Sophia Dyer calls herself “Austin’s greatest mind reader.” She often stands along South Congress, performing a swords-and-mirrors trick with her dad. The trick attracts a lot of attention — not only from passersby, but from police.
Dyer says the first time she performed, police told her she couldn’t busk without a permit. She says she searched for a place to obtain one, but the city doesn’t even offer a permit for busking.
“We've looked online,” she says. “We've looked everywhere. There is no permit you can get for busking in Austin as of now."
Linsey Lindberg, another street performer and a co-producer of the Austin Busker Project, says Dyer isn’t the only one to run into this problem.
"I've heard the same story from so many buskers about this mythical goose chase on the permit,” Lindberg says.
Lindberg, who performs feats of strength under the street name Mama Lou American Strongwoman, says police officers use their own discretion to determine whether or not to allow a performance.
“At this point, we're like, ‘Heck, can we please have a permit?’” Lindberg said. “‘Can you give us something that legitimizes us? Can you tell us what the rules are so that we can follow them?’”
Austin Music Commissioner Nakia Reynoso says right now, the city can’t do anything more than give buskers a city staffer’s cell phone number to call if they run into problems with the police.
“We're the city of Austin,” Reynoso says. “It's up to us to set the bar for the rest of the world when it comes to things like live music, art, busking, any of that stuff. It's an embarrassment. [A permit process] needs to get pushed through.”
Some people think setting a threshold for artists’ abilities and defining listeners’ enjoyment of the performances could solve the problem of deciding which performers are qualified to perform on the streets.
Fred Schmidt, a Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association board member and owner of a Sixth Street music store, says some performances are too loud or too monotonous.
"The Waka Waka people that just take a couple of sticks and bang a bucket,” Schmidt says. “They will set up in front of your business, in front of your home, anywhere, and they will bang that bucket for 10 hours straight — or 15 hours straight — and I guarantee you, that is a recipe for insanity."
Lindberg says she worries that a measurement of street performers’ abilities could limit freedom of expression.
“I started working my strong woman act on the street when I didn't make it into circus school,” Lindberg says. “There was a thing that clicked in my brain, and I realized, wait a minute, I don't need permission to practice. I don't need permission to go out there and make people laugh."