by Jordan Green
Winston-Salem looks to draft an ordinance regulating busking as downtown residents lose patience with street musicians.
Everyone, it seems — buskers, city staffers, cops, residents trying to catch up on sleep — agrees that as the population of downtown Winston-Salem blossoms, the number of street performers plying their trade can only be expected to increase.
For now, guitarist and vocalist Andrew Robson, drummer Adrian “Thunderdrum” Byington and saxophonist “Sir” Charles Adams are the face of busking in the City of the Arts. They started playing in front of Washington Perk and then moved down the block to the corner of West Fourth and Spruce streets in front of the Community Arts Café as a chorus of complaints rose, mainly from residents of the Nissen Building. Robson said he and his fellow musicians have tried to compromise to keep their neighbors happy, but their detractors have, if anything, only become more frustrated as the months piled up.
The city of Winston-Salem is drafting an ordinance to regulate street performers, known as buskers. Ken Millett, the small-business liaison for the city, emphasized more than once at a public input meeting at City Hall on Nov. 6 that the issue is not about the three musicians, but rather about setting some parameters for buskers who will be plying the city’s sidewalks for years to come. Winston-Salem is far from the only city in North Carolina that has tried to resolve the tension between street performers who are taking advantage of increasing urban vibrancy and residents who feel they have a reasonable expectation of peace and quiet. Wilmington and Asheville have both been down this road. Most, like neighboring Greensboro, have a cutoff at 10 p.m., but some, like Raleigh, allow buskers to play until midnight.
It’s mostly the drumming reverberating through nearby apartments, but also the repetitive repertoire and the fact that the guys play from the early afternoon until late at night that neighboring residents and business owners say disturb them the most.
Suzy Baxter, the property manager at the Nissen Building, said at 11 p.m. every night she starts getting phone calls from residents who are aggravated by the music. When a resident complains to her, she places a call to the police non-emergency line.
“They’re getting home, they’re on call at the hospital, they’re studying all day at Wake Forest — whatever the situation is — they get frustrated when they come home to get a couple hours of sleep and they can’t because we do have the street performers playing late,” Baxter said. “Unfortunately, the drumming issue does carry through our high-rise, through the elevator shaft, and it does echo through our entire building. We may hear people out screaming on Friday and Saturday night and the backfiring of a motorcycle, and the recycling being picked up and the street cleaners at 4:45 a.m. We hear all of that. But the monotonous, repetition of that drum that echoes through that building, that’s been the most nuisance to us when we get the calls.”
As for the buskers, Robson said that while he has another source of income and Adams hasn’t been able to play as much because of health troubles, performing is Byington’s only source of income.
“For Adrian, this is all he’s got,” Robson said. “For a lot of you this is your peace and quiet. For us this is trying to make a living and pursue our dreams.”
Robson said self-policing by buskers would be preferable to new regulations.
“We’ve tried to be responsive to the point where I say to Thunderdrum: ‘Yo man, turn your drum this way so they don’t hear it so much over there.’ If you find a busker who’s not willing to compromise, chances are he’s going to do something else that’s going to get the cops called on him.’”
Playing the role of mediator, Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership President Jason Thiel sounded almost as frustrated as Baxter.
“There are 700 residential units under construction right now that are coming online or about to come online,” he said. “That means more people on the street and more interest in music on the street. You can run it around the circle, wrap it around the axle. At the end of the day we’ll come to a compromise. There may be someone in the Nissen Building who might want peace and quiet all the time. You can’t have it. You moved downtown. There may be some musicians who want to do everything they can get away with. You can’t have everything. We should look at it as a positive that we have musicians who want to play on the sidewalk. We should look at it as a positive that we have a residential base that, for the most part, is supportive of the music.”
Robson said that from an economic standpoint, a 10 p.m. cutoff is unworkable because buskers make a substantial portion of their tip money between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. when people are hitting the bars. In response to a suggestion by some at a pair of public-input meetings on Nov. 6 that the Entertainment District near Ziggy’s would be a more appropriate location for busking, Robson noted that “there’s barely any foot traffic.”
Mark J. Chiarello, a local lawyer whose practice is located at Winston Tower on North Main Street, suggested some variation might be in order.
“Requiring performers to rotate allows those of us who are fixed in place to, even if we like the music, we don’t have to hear the same concert every day,” he said.
Danielle Bull, owner of Bull’s Tavern, also argued for so-called “time, place and manner” restrictions on buskers, suggesting that a limitation of one hour per block per day. She said her staff puts together a playlist of music amplified through speakers on their patio to generate interest in the live bands that will be performing later in the night. And at one time she had fiddlers from Galax, Va. playing on the patio, but they stopped coming because their music was drowned out by the buskers. She also suggested that Byington could moderate his volume by using brushes.
“When they’re on one block all day it takes away the vibe that the venue is trying to create,” Bull said.
One resident who attended the meeting said the buskers would be welcome on her block of West Sixth Street between Trade and Cherry streets. That prompted a discussion about the possibility of accommodating street performers in the area bordering the Entertainment District and the Arts District. While the Entertainment District, where noise regulations are relaxed, runs to the north of Seventh Street, the area between Seventh and Sixth teems with bars and music venues, including the Garage, Single Brothers, the Silver Moon Saloon and Sixth & Vine.
Under the city’s current ordinances, playing music in the street currently falls under the legal umbrella of panhandling, although Millett said city staff recognizes that the designation doesn’t do justice to buskers. That poses a problem for the police, considering that panhandling is illegal 24 hours a day in the central business district. Robson, Byington and Adams typically perform on West Fourth Street until midnight on weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends.
Officer CR Helf, a member of the Winston-Salem Police Department’s Downtown Bike Patrol, said the police don’t enforce the ordinance against the buskers, but worried aloud that sooner or later an actual panhandler will call them out for their inconsistency. He added that he’s never had any problems with the three buskers, and that they complied when he asked them to quit at 11 a.m. because the police were dealing with a crowd-control challenge at Status nightclub.
City staff isn’t eager to make rules specific to drumming. The First Amendment precludes regulations of style and artistry, they said. And staff — the police in particular — don’t want to enforce noise levels. Helf said noise-measuring devices need to be independently certified and require significant staff time to get accurate measurements. Essentially, he concluded, it would overwhelm police resources to enforce noise levels. Still, he acknowledged to Millett after the meeting, the drumming is at the heart of all the complaints.
“I’ve stood out there and listened to these guys just while I’m working at night, and can be this far away, and because of the drums I can’t hear him sing,” Helf said. “I can’t hear the guitar. And poor Sir Charles is probably going to pass out because he’s got to blow so hard on that saxophone just to be heard.”