Austin City Council shelves amendment clarifying street performer regulations

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A street performer performs on Sixth Street during SXSW. On Thursday, Austin City Council withdrew a proposed amendment change to city code that would have limited street performers from “playing musical instruments and making noise that is plainly audible” and soliciting after 1 a.m. in the city’s entertainment districts.

Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

Austin’s street performers, or buskers, are waiting for more clarification on their rights after Austin City Council decided not to vote on city code amendments Thursday.

The Council withdrew a proposed amendment change to city code that would have limited buskers from “playing musical instruments and making noise that is plainly audible” and soliciting after 1 a.m. in the city’s entertainment districts.

Don Pitts, music program manager of the Economic Development Department, said city staff and the Music Commission agreed 1 a.m. was a good cutoff time.

“The current curfew is 10 p.m.,” Pitts said. “Staff agreed with the Music Commission that since the Entertainment Districts have a sound curfew of 2 a.m., conventional wisdom would allow a curfew more in line with the entertainment districts [including Warehouse and Sixth Street].”

The proposed amendments were pulled from the Council’s agenda Thursday after a lack of support from stakeholders, Pitts said.

Street performers run the risk of arrest because the city code is unclear, according to Linsey Lindberg, who regularly performs and busks. Police officers often ask performers to show a permit or move along.

“Right now, it’s so vague that cops can shut you down at their own discretion,” Lindberg said. “Sometimes they’re fine, but, other times, they’d rather not deal with you. The cops still have the right to arrest you if they feel you are being disrespectful and breaking the rules.”

Pitts said any amendments to city code regarding buskers need to clarify buskers’ rights and outline the ways they might potentially violate city code.

“It’s putting [Austin Police Department] in a precarious spot to be enforcing something so gray,” Pitts said. “I was not for the permit process for a long time, but it’s a way for us to protect buskers. There just needs to be some code on who is enforcing it. Nothing too subjective or that leaves stuff up to interpretation.”

APD Lieutenant Christian Malanka said APD employs the lowest level of enforcement appropriate for an offense committed by a busker.

“We most often secure voluntary compliance, but will issue citations for repeat offenses,” Malanka said. “In the rare occasions we have made arrests of street performers, the arrest was the result of outstanding warrants, and not violation of the solicitation or noise ordinance violation.”

Sofia Dyer, a Plan II and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies sophomore, offers mind-reading sessions on South Congress. She performs as “The Girl Who Knows,” a mentalist who predicts what objects audience members are holding, or chooses the correct card  passersby draw from a deck. 

“One of the challenges of street performance is it can be very difficult to get people to stop,” Dyer said. “Pedestrians on the street are usually going somewhere. Most of the time, they didn’t come out to see you perform for 20 minutes.”

Lindberg, better known as “Mama Lou Strongwoman,” works as a liason between buskers and the Council to advocate for street performers. She said she feels City Council is doing their best to balance busker rights with concerns from people of the city. 

“Buskers aren’t just people who are trying to make enough money to eat dinner, but truly artists in Austin,” Lindberg said.