Street performers want change in city rules

Julian “Sandman” Robson (on guitar) and Andrew Irving perform.

Street performers want change in city rules
December 28
04:00 2017

Some local musicians are hoping the city will change its ordinance regulating downtown street performers. 

The 2015 ordinance requires street performers to get a permit with a $10 annual fee. It puts a series of restrictions on them, including prohibiting sound amplification and restricting the hours that they can perform. The ordinance was conceived of as a compromise that would let street musicians perform in harmony with the growing population of residents that live downtown.

During the December public comments session of the City Council, performer Julian “Sandman” Robson said that even though he’s complying with the ordinance, he’s still getting complaints called in to police. Robson, who plays guitar and sings with a band of street performers called the Salem Revival Project, said without amplification, it’s hard for people to hear him.

Robson has been a street performer for six years. He said it gives him the freedom to play his own original songs for an audience, without being at the mercy of what bar wants to book him and what cover songs they’d want him to play. He said his tips have dropped dramatically since the ordinance prohibited him from using amplification. Not only does the sound not travel very far, but it’s also gets drowned out by the sounds of downtown, like traffic and indoor music coming from nearby venues.

He said with his tips dwindling, it’s his passion for music that keeps him coming out.

“It doesn’t feel right for me not to do it,” said Robson. “At the end of the week, if I haven’t been there on the weekend, it feels like there’s something missing.”

Melvin Moungle, a street performer who plays the djembe, said since the sound of his African drums carries down a street, he doesn’t need amplification, but it does make it difficult to find a spot that he can perform where he won’t get a complaint called in on him by nearby residents, especially as more lofts have been added downtown.

“That’s where my biggest concern comes in, that we’re almost out of spots,” said Moungle.

Both Moungle and Robson praised the professionalism of the Downtown Bike Patrol. Sometimes police will let them continue to play, but oftentimes a complaint to police will mean they can no longer perform there. Moungle said that in other cities he’s played in, he’s had people approach him with noise complaints instead of calling the police, and he’s worked it out by either moving or letting them know when he plans to wrap up. He said this has never happened in Winston.

Neither musician performs near the Nissen Building any more, which is at the heart of Fourth Street nightlife foot traffic, because of the complaints that’ll be called in if they do. Robson now performs down the street at the corner of Spruce and Fourth streets.

Another issue is the time restrictions on performing. Street performers often play at night because that’s when the most people are out downtown. The ordinance prevents them from playing past 11 p.m. on Sunday through Wednesday or past 12 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. This prevents performers from playing for the bar crowd after midnight, which Robson said can be a very lucrative time for a street performer. The only exception to this would be in the Entertainment Zoning District, around the former Ziggy’s on Martin Luther King Drive and includes a small portion of Trade and Liberty streets, but that area has little foot traffic.

Moungle, who’s played on the streets of numerous different cities, said the local permit also prohibits street performers who are just visiting a city from playing. He said many cities have varying styles of permits but some, like Charlotte, let street performers play with no permits.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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