Susan Dietrich Schneider stands on the edge of the Santa Fe Plaza on a chilly October afternoon. She wears a winged Viking helmet as she sings The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," twisting the famous melody through an old Casio keyboard. The product is a trippy, analog amplified sound.
"There is a genre for my music I just discovered," she says. "It's called filk music. Not folk but filk. It was actually originally sci-fi type music back in the '50s and somehow in the newsprint, they were calling it folk, but there was a typo."
Her music—she likes to call it "space music" and she goes by "Space Lady"—is unique. But that doesn't mean it's unpopular. Night School Records is releasing her songs on an album in December. The single is already available on the London-based independent record label's website.
Schneider is one of the many buskers who regularly play on the Plaza and who object to a recent City Council proposal that would've banned the musicians from the historic gathering place. Schneider says the city will be "shooting itself in the foot" if the measure moves forward. "The ambiance on the street is the big draw here," she says.
Councilor Chris Calvert proposed an ordinance change that would have forced buskers into designated "free speech locations" in the downtown area and impose other restrictions on performing. Mayoral candidate and Councilor Patti Bushee's name, too, was on the measure, however, she publicly disavowed its language.
Buskers circulated a petition in support of live music on the plaza. George Robinson, a busker, showed SFR a clipboard of sheets with dozens of signatures from New Mexicans and out-of-towners alike. Calvert—who hasn't returned several SFR voicemails—recently withdrew the measure and said he was going back to the drawing board.
Bushee tells SFR she had "no idea" the language of Calvert's proposal would have banned buskers from the Plaza.
Bushee says she's meeting with buskers again and that she's happy to make "small tweaks" to the current ordinance, particularly on issues of amplification, generator use and extension cords.
"I think personally the ordinance that we have is working," she says, "but I believe the interpretation of the ordinance is not working."
Gunther Maier, board member of the Santa Fe Downtown Merchants Association, agrees that enforcement on the current ordinance should be more robust. Some buskers, he says, block shop entrances and exits.
The busking community says they weren't consulted about the measure, so SFR set out to ask performers what they think about the current rules.
Schneider and many other buskers still see a need for change.
Leo Sanchez also plays covers on Santa Fe streets. But no space music for him. He simply uses an acoustic guitar and a soft voice.
He calls the Plaza busker scene "a little bit too crowded."
"So I think that they can refine it a little bit by saying you know a certain amount of people or you know spread out the space a little bit," he says. "Most of the time, people work things out though."
Currently, city code requires all street performers to obtain $35 business license each calendar year. Buskers who intend to play for 30 or fewer days only need to pay $10 to obtain the license. (Only one member in a musical group needs to obtain a license.)
Street performers aren't allowed to block or cause the blocking of any sidewalk, passageway, street, or entrance to a building, says city code. And they're supposed to stay 150 feet away from other street performers, remaining at one location for no more than two hours.
They're only allowed to sell their own audio records and "may accept contributions of money or property at their performance, in exchange for representations of their own work, except that street performers shall not exchange any type of food product or vegetation, on public property." Permitted performance hours are 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
"The ambiance on the street is the big draw here."
The number of licenses given to street performers has increased over the years, peaking this year at 201 licenses compared to 172 busker licenses in 2011 and 189 in 2012.
Steve Perrigo plays in the fall and spring. He's been performing on the Plaza for three years and sometimes he plays gigs in Colorado and Arizona. He says playing in the plaza is a "blast" because "it's a lot of fun to see people enjoy feeling the music like you feel it."
"[Tourists] really love it," he says. "You know what I mean? I've come out here day after day and night after night where I've had a big old crowd of people standing here. You know laughing and joking. I've sang happy birthday to people. You know what I mean? In a rock n' roll manner. You know what I mean—which is really cool and fun."
Asked if he'd encountered problems, Perrigo replies "absolutely." He recalls a bass player who would set up for too long and be too noisy, but he's not around anymore. He doesn't think the 150 feet is enough distance between performers.
Sanchez would also change the two-hour time limit for a space to playing for two hours a day on the Plaza.
"The change I would make is to say two hours a day on the plaza per person and that's it," Sanchez says. "Instead of the way they have it now where it's two hours a spot because you get some people who just move to another spot and they continue to dominate the area. If you just limit it to two hours per day, because I mean two hours a day of playing, you know, you're done."
"Yeah you're spent," Perrigo agrees.
Johnny Alston says he's been playing the native American flute for 16 years and usually shows up in the Plaza on weekends. He thinks City Hall is getting "the buskers mixed up with the homeless people."
He too endorses more regulation.
"I don't think there should be more than three people on the whole Plaza playing at one time," he says. "They need to fine tune the rules a little bit or have something, some kind of sign up sheet where you can play for two hours or whatever."
Miriam Kass, 15, has been playing guitar for six years and she can make up to $50 playing her own acoustic songs, accompanied with lyrics, for a few hours on the weekends. On a recent Sunday, she was selling CDs for $15. Like many buskers, the tips attract her to the Plaza, but the New Mexico School for the Arts' student says she just "also really enjoys it" and has "made really amazing connections."
She thinks buskers work out their own problems.
"Buskers work it out themselves really well," she says. "I think it's fine. It's constant communication. Like I got here when someone else was playing so I was like, 'Oh I'll go after you.' It's a really great community. So I don't think rules are necessary."