All the world’s a stage — street musicians

by Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writier

Walk just about anywhere in downtown Portland and odds are you will be serenaded by a stranger. But don’t take it personally. This is business.

For 16 years, street musicians, businesses and the city have operated under an agreement that allows performers their place in the sun. But now, City Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s office will dust off the agreement, starting with a public forum for all those involved.

The forum is scheduled for Feb. 10, and Sara Hussein, Fritz’s policy assistant, says that Fritz is hoping attendance will include a large number of street musicians, business owners, representatives from law enforcement, Paul van Orden, the city’s noise control officer, and the city’s ombudsman.

Hussein says the forum was prompted by a number of concerns Fritz’s office has received from street musicians and business owners about the Street Musician Partnership, which was created in 1994. Street musicians, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and the City of Portland are members of the partnership, which sets down rules and regulations for musicians playing on Portland’s streets.

The rules include mandating that a street musician can only play in a particular location for 60 minutes, then either take a 60-minute break and resume playing, or move to another location. Musicians are not allowed to play more than twice on a corner or given location in the course of a day. Street musicians are asked to understand the city’s noise ordinance, and to be spaced at least one block apart. Amplification is allowed, but if the music can be heard more than 50 feet away, then it’s in violation of the agreement.

Businesses agree in the partnership to not interrupt musicians while they are playing, be courteous and respectful to the musicians, and to “abide by the decision of the police or a volunteer mediator appointed as a result of this agreement.”

The PBA also agreed to pay for the printing costs of a brochure detailing the partnership and the rules. It is distributed by Clean and Safe, the private security firm the PBA employs to patrol downtown.

Some of the specific concerns, Hussein says, concern the 60-minute time limit, musicians occupying certain, especially lucrative locations, and not giving other musicians a chance to make money. Businesses have become increasingly concerned, she says, that some musicians are playing directly underneath office windows for long periods of time.

Hussein says there are no specific expectations for the forum, but that it will be a chance for community members to air their concerns. It is not clear whether the ordinance will be changed, or what the next steps will be. “That all depends on what ideas people have,” Hussein says.

Halley Weaver, 25, is involved with PDX Busk, an advocacy organization for street musicians. She thinks that certain parts of the ordinance need to be changed. “It’s antiquated,” she says, pointing out that it has not been changed or reviewed in its 15-year existence.

She and many other street musicians would like to see the 60-minute time limit extended to at least two hours.

“(One hour is) barely enough time, I feel, to get into the groove of the music and get comfortable in your spot,” Weaver says.

Weaver also says that musicians want to be able to play at Saturday Market, which is now located in Waterfront Park. It is illegal for street musicians to play there, because it is illegal for street musicians to play in parks. Weaver estimates that at least a dozen musicians would play at Saturday Market when it was located under the Burnside Bridge, who are now unable to play there.

Street musicians make up the largest subset of Portland’s street performers, who also call themselves “buskers.” Busking is any sort of street performance—including playing music, miming, or living statue. Weaver estimates that anywhere from 50 to 150 people play on Portland’s streets on any given day. She says many of Portland’s street musicians are twenty-something Portlanders who may be going to school full-time without a steady job or any job at all. It depends on the weather, of course, and whether there are enough people out and about on the streets.

Weaver has lived in Portland for three years, busking the entire time she has lived here. She plays the harp, and likes to play along Hawthorne Boulevard or downtown. When she first moved to Portland, she couldn’t find a job. She decided to use her musical talent for income. “I’m just trying to pay the rent,” she says.

Weaver says that while many buskers are in it for the money, the main objective with busking is performance. “You’re not selling anything at all, you’re just depending on the kindness of strangers,” she says.

A busker never knows how much they will make on any given day. Weaver says on a good day, she makes $25 an hour. Other days, she only makes $5 an hour. She says that busking can also be used as a networking opportunity, because the public might approach a musician about playing a gig in a coffee shop, bar or wedding.

“It’s about getting my name out there and making myself known,” Weaver says, who has landed gigs by meeting people on the street.

What Weaver enjoys most about busking is getting to strike up conversations with passersby about music. “When they have kids, it’s really exciting to let them touch the harp,” Weaver says. “It’s a unique experience for them.”

Timothy Horner, 40, also enjoys the reaction his violin playing elicits from children, especially when they start dancing to his music. “Their enthusiasm is contagious,” he says, smiling.

Horner has busked on Portland’s streets far longer than Weaver — for 12 years. He has played the violin and studied music at a music conservatory. Horner can be seen often standing on the corner of SW 9th Avenue and SW Yamhill, near the Real Mother Goose and the Galleria MAX stop. He plays classical music, world music and old-time American fiddle tunes.

He is a skinny man dressed in skinny jeans and fingerless gloves. He ties his long, brown hair back in a ponytail and wears a hat. He bobs his head and sways back and forth gently as he plays.

He thinks of his work as a public service. Music, he believes, has a healing power, and is an important part of society’s culture that people of all walks of life should have access to without paying money and getting dressed up to hear it.

“(Portland) needs it. People don’t have anything cultural to experience day to day,” he says.

When he first started busking, Horner did so out of economic necessity — he was unemployed. Now, he teaches violin lessons to students and plays numerous gigs. He has noticed, since the recession started, that “the bottom has fallen out” in terms of how much buskers make.

At the same time, he has noticed that more and more of Portland’s street musicians have professional backgrounds in music. “Rather than street musicians being a rag tag bunch of hoboes, you see professional musicians falling onto the edge of hard times trying to sustain themselves,” he says.

Regardless of the agreement between downtown businesses and buskers, the buskers clearly feel that the business community, with the enforcement arm of Clean & Safe, is not always in support of the buskers’ performances.

“Right now, there is an uneasiness between the PBA and their interests, and the buskers,” Weaver says. She would not go into many detail.

PBA spokesperson Mirabai Vogt said that the PBA did not have any specific concerns regarding street musicians.

Horner had not heard of the public forum before being asked about it by Street Roots, but hopes that enforcement issues can be addressed. He thinks the most important concern for street musicians right now is whether it will become more advantageous economically for street musicians to perform on Portland’s streets.

“The measure of any town is the art it is willing to subsidize,” Horner thinks. “Having that on the street corner is one of the most democratic institutions that still exists.”

Update: On February 10, street performers, business owners, police and other gathered with City Commissioner Amanda Fritz to review the 16-year old agreement. The meeting was meant to be educational and a way for individuals to voice concerns. One recommendation brought to Fritz was to increase the performance time from 60 to 90 minutes.

Photos by John Ryan Brubaker

4 responses to “All the world’s a stage — street musicians

  1. Pingback: Street Roots Article: All the World’s a Stage « PDXBusk.org

  2. Pingback: Sidewalk use and musicians part of the larger code of courtesy | For those who can’t afford free speech

  3. Pingback: The big busk is on today in downtown Portland | For those who can’t afford free speech

  4. jamming vegas

    Music is life; we are a family ever and forever!

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