By Elise Vider
Next time you rush past a street musician, consider the overhead. Time was, all that was necessary was a musical instrument - or just a good pair of lungs - and a tin cup. Today, your typical busker quite possibly has a full-on marketing scheme replete with a website, CDs, business cards, promotional literature and even a high-profile media appearance or two.
Teenage violinist Justus Rivera, who frequents the corner of 18th and Walnut, appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" last year, where the hostess presented him with a $10,000 check for his college fund. (See a video of Rivera performing below.)
Another young violinist, Caeli Smith, was featured in the 2005 documentary Rittenhouse Square. Singer Anthony Riley, who made headlines three years ago after getting his big break courtesy of an overzealous police officer in Rittenhouse Square (more on that later), is auditioning for "American Idol."
Buskers are all over You Tube, participate in international festivals (in Toronto, 700,000 spectators showed up), play professional gigs and are even organized (as Buskaction) in London.
In Philadelphia, while buskers are no longer considered an illegal nuisance, they are generally not treated as potential assets - to enliven the streets and parks, to draw crowds and be part of the mix of what makes city life special. Perhaps that should change. As this report will show, there are many talented street performers in Philadelphia and other cities encourage buskers. They hold auditions and grant licenses for the best of them to appear at select locations.
Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, has encouraged a "rethinking" of the guidelines that govern street performers in Philadelphia that "encourage creativity, but limit the length of time that a performer can play at one location and limit volume levels."
(A word about the origin of the term. "Busker" is chiefly a British name for itinerant musician or entertainer. It derives from the obsolete French verb busquer meaning "to shift, filch or prowl." 'To busk' entered the English language around 1665 as a nautical term, meaning "to cruise the seas as a pirate" and applied to people living shiftless or peripatetic lives.)
For years, many cities treated buskers as panhandlers with musical instruments, and shooed them away from the streets. As late as 2002, the Inquirer reported that street performers were scare in Center City. Today. The downtown is alive with music.
The recent heat waves notwithstanding (buskers vanish at 100-degrees-plus), there are performers who take to the streets with African drums, flutes, guitars, trumpets, violins, a cappella and karaoke singers and even a puppet show or two.
Rittenhouse Square, where students from the nearby Curtis Institute of Music like to practice their art, is a favored spot. So is South Street, Broad Street, Market Street, Penn's Landing, the Art Museum, Reading Terminal Market, Suburban Station - anywhere there are crowds and passersby.
Some of the resurgence is due, no doubt, to an enlightened culture of tolerance by the city, SEPTA and the police.
"The mindset of police officers is changed because it's changed from the top," says Lt. Francis Healy, special advisor to Commissioner Charles Ramsey. In 2007, the rights of buskers became a public issue after busker Anthony Riley was arrested in Rittenhouse Square, reportedly in the midst of performing Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." Riley was charged with disorderly conduct and jailed overnight, attracting an outpouring of support from media, lawmakers, the American Civil Liberties Union and other First Amendment supporters.
Riley was eventually acquitted and awarded a $27,500 settlement from the city. Most importantly, then-City Solicitor Romulo Diaz Jr. issued a revised city policy allowing casual musicians to play in Rittenhouse Square as long as the music does not violate the city's noise ordinance.
Healy is unaware of any recent arrests. Today, he says, police take action only if there is a noise complaint, most likely from nearby residents, and officers are told to mediate disputes by balancing the rights of performers with those of the neighbors.
"We kind of welcome [street music]," he says. "It adds to the culture of Philadelphia. This is the message officers are given now, as opposed to five or six years ago. [Officers] have become much more savvy about understanding the rights of all parties."
Condo owners around the square, he adds wryly, should realize they "paid millions to be in the hub of Center City."
The Rittenhouse Row merchants' association takes a similarly benign view. Street musicians are among the "crazy cool things that happen in Center City," says Rit Row Executive Director Corie Moskow. The only time busking is an issue, she adds, is when it is accompanied by aggressive panhandling - itself a violation of the law.
So, too, at least technically, is soliciting in Rittenhouse Row, which, as part of Fairmount Park, is under different regulations from non-parkland. Occasionally, buskers in the square report police officers have told them to shut their instrument cases. But others say police officers generally look the other way.
Yet a different set of rules applies to Suburban and Market East stations where SEPTA launched a permit program last year. Buskers can apply for a free permit entitling them to perform for a three-hour block between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily. There are seven designated performance locations, with five slots allocated for each.
Many other cities are far ahead of Philadelphia in regulating (or embracing, depending on your point of view) street musicians. Auditions are required for the more than 100 individuals and ensembles that are chosen to perform at 25 locations throughout New York's transit system as part of Music Under New York, established in 1985.
London legalized busking in its Underground stations in 2003. Musicians have to audition and then compete in a lottery for one of only 33 spots; a mere 240 musicians are licensed.
London also conducts a high-profile, annual competition for young musicians, involving a public vote and a live "busk off" event. The grand prize? Studio time, musical instruments, live gigs -- and a coveted one-year license to busk in the Underground.
Here is a video of Justus Rivera performing in Rittenhouse Square: