Some years ago, my kid brother took his keyboard out into the streets to play some songs. He didn’t even want tips or money; he just wanted people to hear his music. After playing only a few songs, he was approached by police and informed he would need a license if he wished to perform on the street.
As it turns out, a license for busking in Santa Fe costs $35 per calendar year (so, whether you buy a license in January or October, it only lasts through December). The license comes with a host of guidelines that include when buskers can play, where they can play and how long they can play there; it also specifies that there can be no amplification. All this raises somewhat existential questions. Can a city really tell you when and where you can or can’t play music?
The street performers I have seen are not loud or offensive, and some are so talented we should be grateful to have them play.
In fact, a search for buskers in Santa Fe yields no disappointment. While heading across the Plaza, I hear the sounds of violin and cello, and am surprised to find the music is played by teenagers. Alex Geller, 18, and Austin Hoke, 19, are The Shekhels, a klezmer duo out of Nashville. The two are on a road trip and play for gas money.
“In Nashville, you can just go out and play anywhere you want. But we heard that in Memphis they’ll actually arrest you if you don’t have a license,” Hoke says.
Later, I see Wiley Jim playing on the corner of Don Gaspar Avenue and San Francisco Street. When I arrive, he is right in the middle of a yodeling cowboy country number, and a crowd begins to gather. This man is a guitar titan; walk anywhere near his corner while he’s playing and there is a crowd listening to his deft, flawless picking.
“It’s kind of spiritual,” Jim says of his music. “You just put it out there, and see what you get back. I know some guys who won’t play unless people are watching them, but that’s not street music at all.”
Jim has played music for more than 37 years, both professionally and as a street musician. “It took me about two months to gain the courage to just get out there and play,” he says. “It’s a strange feeling at first because nobody is there to tell you when to start, and it’s weird to just sit down and start singing.”
Music is made to be shared, and being able to share so many different kinds of performances with so many different kinds of people seems to fall under the “Keep Santa Fe Beautiful” umbrella. What real threat do street musicians pose?
In 2006, in response to a city-wide ban of solicitation of money on public property (which is arguably the basis of busking), the Santa Fe Buskers Alliance presented a letter to the City Council that outlined the “Buskers Code of Conduct.” The code states, in part, “Bad behavior on one person’s part can give us all a bad reputation. Dress well. Behave well. No aggressive tip soliciting.” With self-imposed guidelines like these, street musicians’ need for a permit seems like overkill.
Check out some videos of Santa Fe buskers from musician George Robinson on SFReeper.com. Robinson also runs a YouTube channel that he continually updates with videos.