by Jordan Green
1. We’re not Asheville
A Sunday New York Times story highlights rising tensions in Asheville over busking, with city council considering regulations on the practice. The mountain city is so appealing to buskers that merchants complain that the crowds around the more talented performers are blocking their entrances while others appear to be “little more than panhandlers with musical props.” The Winston-Salem City Council approved new regulations on buskers in April, but the issue was largely framed around one group of performers who have become a source of aggravation for residents of the Nissen Building. In Greensboro, there are scattered reports of busking, but hardly anything you would call a scene. People in High Point, where a statue of John Coltrane holding a saxophone stands sentry at City Hall, would be astonished if they ever encountered a street musician outside of the two weeks of market. There are reasons why this is a problem for Asheville, but not so much in the Triad.
2. Lack of a leisure tradition
The flood of musicians from distant cities like Boston and New Orleans to Asheville builds on a longstanding history based on surrounding mineral springs and beautiful scenery that attracted wealthy vacationers seeking therapeutic healing and relaxation since the 1890s. People have been coming to Asheville for more than a century for leisure, so it’s natural for visitors to slow down and pay attention to street musicians. In contrast, the cities of the Triad were founded on industry, and even if we’ve embraced the arts in the past two decades, the instinct to view culture as an unaffordable luxury is stubbornly suffused into our cultural DNA.
3. Lack of tourism
We have attractions in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, but nothing like the rich cultural loam of fantastic music and food that has drawn generations of eccentrics and escapists to New Orleans — and made it an ideal setting for developing musicians to ply their trade before agreeable tourists. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum is a major draw for downtown Greensboro, but its sober context doesn’t much lend itself to out-of-town visitors milling in the street and listening to itinerant musicians. The Milton Rhodes Arts Center and the Sawtooth School for Visual Art are fabulous downtown destinations, but much of the Winston-Salem’s tourism is oriented outside of downtown — most notably Old Salem to the south and Reynolda House to the northwest.
4. Lack of a music industry
In cities with a music industry like Austin and Nashville, busking is kind of a farm system for the burgeoning clubs. The cities attract so many aspiring musicians from around the country that playing on the street is an entry-level position. Just as Winston-Salem and Greensboro have sustained a handful of indie labels while never quite attaining a national profile for music recording, the live-music scene remains nascent. Despite boasting a sizable university population, Greensboro has had trouble sustaining a mid-sized venue. Winston-Salem has better venues, but they’re totally adequate to accommodate the city’s bench of talent. Virtually any performer who works hard enough on her material and chops can land a shot at playing the Garage on Wednesday night. So there’s little incentive for budding musicians to play in the street, where pedestrians are likely to be stingy with their cash and disinterested.
5. The brewpub quotient
We can, in time, develop a healthy busking culture in the Triad, but it will be part of an incremental pattern of growth on all fronts, including food, music, art, architectural restoration, science and research. We’re not anywhere near being on the verge. Brewpubs, which hold a broader appeal, might be a harbinger of the Triad cities’ growing urbanism. And the number of brewpubs per capita provides a pretty reliable measure of how far we are behind Asheville on busking. Greensboro has four breweries for about 270,000 people while Winston-Salem has three for about 230,00. In comparison, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority lists a total of 22 breweries for Asheville, with a population of 83,393.