In Nashville, Tenn., where clubs and country-themed bars line the curb, being a professional street performer can be like playing a musical game of David and Goliath.
Donavon Cline, a 34-year-old West Virginian guitarist and self-described jazz and blues artist, has performed on downtown corners in over 30 states since his twenties. Playing original music and covers in cities big and small, Cline cited Nashville as one of his favorite places to work. The corner of Second Avenue and Broadway is a particular favorite of his in the Music City.
Still, Cline noted that buskers face challenging obstacles unique to those who choose to play the block instead of the club circuit – particularly in a town like Nashville that’s built largely on the back of the music industry. One of his biggest issues is also one of the most common in the busking community: panhandlers.
“There’s just a bunch of home bums that walk around with broken guitars bumming money off of people,” Cline said. “It makes me look bad. The real musicians out here hate it.”
The growing presence of solicitors – and the street performers who are frequently mistaken for them – has been the driving force behind new laws aimed at curbing disruptive behavior within Nashville’s city limits. Cline has faced run-ins with police after being mistaken for a panhandler and for getting into verbal altercations with solicitors.
“Anytime I’ve had a run-in it’s just about people congregating around me, usually drunks, and when I try to make them get away from me it turns into an argument sometimes,” Cline said.
Bumping heads with local vagrants, however, is only a chunk of the larger issues street performers like Cline face. In some cities artists are required to apply for and buy a performance permit to play for money. If they’re caught without one, they can be arrested, fined and even jailed.
The guitarist has paid upwards of $35 in one city to obtain a performance permit. In Chicago, performers must pay a $100 application fee for a two-year term. New York musicians who have a sound device are charged $45. But for Cline and others whose income fluctuates from day to day, that can sometimes be a high payout for a low return. Even for someone who works a solid eight-hour stretch.
The city that bills itself as “the music capital of the world” lacks a specific policy for artists who seek to play in downtown streets. Its sidewalk encroachment permit aims to address the behavior and practices of “home entrepreneurs.” Better known as street vendors, these self-employed, independently run businesses – including food trucks, valet service operators and taxi drivers – must apply for the permit to sell goods, services or edible products on city blocks.
That means even musicians interested in selling albums and related music memorabilia must pay $57 to the Davidson County Clerk’s Office to be within their legal rights to perform.
Several additional city mandates have created barriers for musicians who desire to be heard above the bustle. According to ordinance 13.32.110, for example, “No person shall take, carry, expose or place in or upon any street, alley or sidewalk any substance, animal or thing which is or is likely to become a public nuisance, or which shall imperil the life, health or safety of any person who is or may properly be in or on such street, alley or sidewalk…”
As a result of the mandates, an unspoken – and nearly impossible to win – battle for the ears of Nashville’s natives, music lovers and tourists continues to rage silently between area clubs and street musicians.
Since May 2013, when the Nashville City Council enacted a commercial sound law that banned street performers’ use of drums, amplifiers, saxophones and stools, musicians have had to find other ways to stand out amid the area’s swelling sounds.
While Cline says he prefers fingerpicking when he plays, the pulse-thumping music that bellows from the open windows of nearly every storefront on Broadway would turn his musical performance into mime. Considering how competitive street performance can get during peak hours, the ability to be heard – or better yet, to remain standing – is sometimes the difference between eating and going hungry.
According to a recent report of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the city’s population jumped from 1.3 million in 2006 to 1.6 million in 2015, and 2 million residents are projected for the 10-county Cumberland Region by 2035. The rapid rise in population, coupled with new laws, is making street performers’ desire to stand out against one of the biggest music circuits in America a true test of will.
This article was first published by the Newsuem Institute on February 27, 2017.