Musicians Squawk As City Quadruples Price of a Street Performer Permit

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Charles Haller of the Soulard Folk and Blues Band - IMAGE VIA
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  • Charles Haller of the Soulard Folk and Blues Band
On January 1, the city quietly quadrupled the price of a busker permit from $25 to $100 annually -- and Charles Haller of the Bates Street Folk and Blues Band feels compelled to make some noise. 

"It's going to diminish the music on the streets of St. Louis," he tells Daily RFT. Haller concedes that he and his bandmates can recoup that expense fairly quickly on a balmy weekend or two outside of Soulard Farmers' Market, where they've been playing for years.

But the permit is issued to individuals, not to a band collectively. Thus, Haller says, the price hike will discourage his friends who liked to sit in on occasion, just for the joy of it. 

"Some of them wouldn't even want any money, they just want to play," he says. "They're not gonna do it this year if they have to pay $100."

Alderwoman Phyllis Young of the Seventh Ward - IMAGE VIA
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  • Alderwoman Phyllis Young of the Seventh Ward
Phyllis Young, the Seventh Ward alderwoman who pushed the increase through the board last spring, says, "That's the cost of doing business."

Young explains: "There was also a musician in Soulard who was horrible, and neighbors were complaining about all the noise. So we have to balance what's good for performers and what's good for the community."

Nuisance buskers like that, she says, were forcing the streets department to spend more time and money enforcing the ordinance -- hence the need for more funds.

"We're not making a fortune on this," says Todd Waelterman, director of the streets department. "Our costs were going through the roof. I was waking people up after hours to go deal with the rule-breakers. It was easier to just raise [the permit fee] across the board."

Musician Jim Stone considers this a poor solution. Stone is a 70-year-old former philosophy professor living on a pension. He plays Irish flute for spare change. He argues that hiking up the permit price will not solve the problem of nuisance musicians.

"You'd think $25 would've weeded those people out," he says. "But they're going to do it without a license anyway."

Street performance is regulated differently from city to city in the U.S.

Well-known street saxophonist, Raven Wolf - IMAGE VIA
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  • Well-known street saxophonist, Raven Wolf
In New York, for example, a street performer doesn't need a permit unless they're amplified or in a public park. In Chicago -- as in St. Louis -- you do need a permit, and it costs $100.

(Charles Haller points out, "Yeah, but [buskers] are probably going to make 100 times more in Chicago!")

Another way the City of St. Louis regulates street performance is with auditions.

For the past year, administrative assistant Mike Hulsey -- a twenty-year department veteran who used to play drums in a local band -- has been issuing permits only after seeing someone's act.

He says he's only rejected a half-dozen applicants out of about 70 -- and some of those have simply modified their performance to pass muster.

"With one juggler, I said, 'No chainsaws, knives or flames.' He said he understood." The juggler got a permit.

The audition process doesn't rankle musician Charles Haller; he insists he wants street musicians to have a good name by playing quality music.

But he does resent the city's ban on busking in certain areas. According to a document provided by the city, the following places are officially off-limits: Laclede's Landing, Union Station, Busch Stadium, the Arch grounds, the Old Courthouse and Luther Ely Smith Square.

Now, anybody who's heard the drums outside a Cardinals' game knows that those bans are not always enforced. Waelterman says the law provides a way to deal with problems, should they arise.

'We're the street department," he says. "We just want peace and tranquility in the right of way."

Haller, however, bemoans the heavy hand of the state.

Street music is "the purest form of free enterprise," he says, adding a populist twist: "They hand out millions to rich people to bring in K-Marts and to put up stadiums, and yet they won't let normal everyday St. Louisans go out and play instruments on the Landing. It's said that W.C. Handy wrote 'St. Louis Blues' on the cobblestones by the river. But we can't play it down there because our so-called leaders forbid it."

Haller says his goal is only to make St. Louis more interesting.

"And the interesting towns in this nation," he concludes, "are not the ones that discourage street musicians. They're the towns that welcome them."

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