“Welcome to the battleground,” Woodrow “Woody” Wentworth said as he led me right up to the brink of chaos.
Just ahead of us was Woody’s personal war zone: Sixth Street on a Saturday night.
Woody’s weapon is a black guitar he keeps slung over his shoulder in a tattered case with a broken zipper. His ammunition is a repertoire of blues tunes he has been teaching himself since he was 14.
Tonight Woody would be fighting the same battle he has been fighting for the past 22 years, ever since the night his stepdad left a then-14-year-old Woody on this very same battleground with a guitar in his hand and instructions to learn to make money on his own.
The opposition’s troops were out in full force this Saturday evening: women in sequined blouses and men who smelled of aftershave and liquor crowded the streets, floating in and out of the bars and clubs. Security guards and police officers stood in quiet corners, waiting and watching for a skirmish to break out. Bouncers stood guard outside their respective domains, protecting the sidewalks outside their territories.
Woody’s goal was to make enough money for some bus fare, some food, a few beers and a pack of cigarettes. His tactics involved finding a location as safe from harm’s way as possible: a quiet patch of sidewalk that people might pass by long enough for him to grab their attention with a song, but hidden enough to avoid the mindful eyes of security guards, police officers and bouncers.
He does not always enjoy coming to battle, but he has no other choice. He was expelled from Austin High School and never obtained a diploma or GED. Tickets and arrest warrants prevent him from seeking work anywhere other than the streets that lie before him.
Already his forces were compromised. Just minutes before arriving at the battleground, Woody broke a guitar string. His weapon would still fire, but tonight’s battle would be more difficult for the lone soldier.
“I’m hoping for a financial miracle tonight,” Woody said as the crosswalk signal turned to walk.
He shifted his black cowboy hat down lower over his eyes and readjusted the guitar case and backpack as he walked with reluctant determination into the madness and uncertainty.
Wentworth, 36, was born in Dallas but has been calling Austin home for the past 25 years. For the past 22 years, he has been a part of a centuries-old tradition known as busking, the act of playing music or performing on the street for voluntary donations.
Busking is currently Wentworth’s sole occupation.
“It’s what comes natural,” Wentworth said. “And because of legality issues, there’s not a whole lot of other options available, so why not just go with what you’ve always had?”
Busking has been around since antiquity, and before the invention of recording and personal electronics, it was the primary occupation for musicians and entertainers. It was introduced to America through side acts that were presented alongside the traveling medicine shows of the 1800s.
Prolific buskers include Bob Dylan, David Byrne and Neil Young. It removes live music from the confines of bars, clubs and paid venues and places it out on the streets where listeners can enjoy it for whatever price they choose.
The job comes with no perks or benefits. The hours are long and odd, the wages are less than minimum and in Austin, there is no guarantee that buskers like Wentworth won’t be ticketed while working.
“I’m the only one that I know of that has stuck it out on the streets for all these years,” Wentworth said. “I’m happy to wake up with like 40 bucks. That’s a considerably good night.”
Busking itself is not specifically illegal in Austin, but there are ordinances in place that make it difficult for people like Wentworth to make a meager living playing music on the streets.
A city ordinance states that “a person may not: place a container on the sidewalk adjoining a business, residence, or other premises within the person’s control.” This applies to the open guitar case Wentworth sets beside his feet to collect his wages while playing for passersby.
Some store and lot owners allow buskers to play on their private property, which is legal as long as the sound is not amplified. But the buskers have a code of unspoken rules that prevents them from all crowding together in one place — it is simply not polite to crowd another person’s territory. They use the sidewalks to spread out down the entire stretch of streets like Sixth Street and South Congress.
Joshua Visi, a senior officer for the Austin Police Department, has been working occasional weekends at Allen’s Boots for almost two years. His primary job is to deter shoplifting from the high-end boot retailer, but his domain does not end at the door to the store.
Visi’s name is notorious among the buskers that play up and down South Congress. He said he warns musicians before immediately issuing them a ticket, but he is not afraid to enforce the ordinance.
“The only people I write a ticket to are the people who have already received that warning and they’re coming back,” Visi said. “Most people, if they’re legitimate artists, then they’re going to go about finding a location to legitimately sell their goods.”
Visi said in the time he has been working for Allen’s Boots, he has only had to write three tickets to buskers. Wentworth recently received one of those three tickets.
“Those three tickets are people who are homeless or very stubborn,” Visi said. “If you say yes to one, and a hundred people show up, then no one can walk down the sidewalk.”
Despite the risk Wentworth runs of receiving a ticket from Visi or another police officer every time he goes to work, he does not quit. He has no other choice. He has played indoors at a few bars in the area, but he said he makes even less money doing that than he does out on Sixth Street.
So far, the sidewalks are his only residency.
Austin earned its reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World when it was discovered to have more live music venues per capita than any other American city in 1991. On any given night, there are about 100 shows happening within the city limits. From softly strummed acoustic sets played in dimly lit bars to headlining acts at Stubb’s and the Frank Erwin Center, locals are able to see a show whenever they please — if they are willing to pay a price.
C3 Presents and Transmission Events collectively own almost all of the venues around the city. They book the acts, they fill the crowds and they even put life in Austin on pause a few times a year in order to throw music festivals including Austin City Limits, Fun Fun Fun Fest and South By Southwest.
Companies like C3 and Transmission are helping Austin keep its reputation as a mecca for live music by booking shows on a regular basis, but at the same time, the city could be kicking live music right off of its streets.
Karren Sager, 29, is originally from Nashville and has been busking since she was 15 years old. She said in her hometown, busking is a rite of passage for children as young as 8 years old, and the sidewalks of downtown are so full of buskers that it is sometimes hard to find a place to set her guitar case.
According to Sager, the so-called Live Music Capital of the World has a bad reputation among the ring of buskers that makes a living travelling and busking around Nashville, New Orleans and Ashville, North Carolina.
“They won’t come here, though. They’re scared of Austin,” Sager said. “Too many horror stories about getting harassed by someone.”
Sager said that in Nashville, the police officers and the buskers get along and help each other out. The buskers help keep the bums and the panhandlers off the downtown sidewalks, and police allow the buskers to play as they please.
In Austin, it’s an entirely different scene.
“It’s a really strange, sad thing here, coming from a town that’s so pro-music and so pro-busking,” Sager said. “I couldn’t believe I was making literally nothing after coming from making, on weekdays, $100 nights.”
Unlike Wentworth, Sager does not rely on the money that is thrown into her open guitar case to survive. She owns her own business teaching gymnastics to children at daycares and private schools. But when she does find herself in a financial bind, she sets her case out on the sidewalk and plays.
“I don’t think people really understand what we’re doing or what we’re about,” Sager said. “It’s art. It’s music. Why would you want to remove that from the city and make it all commercial crap?”
The commercial music sector in Austin continues to expand in 2013. For the first time ever, ACL will expand to two full weekends this fall, similar to California’s Coachella Music Festival. The showcase list for this year’s upcoming SXSW boasts legendary headliners that will bring hoards of music lovers to the city for an entire week. The Tower Ampitheater is set to open in April and is located on a 1,300-acre lot on the outskirts of the city — enough space for up to 14,000 guests. The city’s newest venue claims that it will help to build Austin’s already established title as a capital for live music by bringing “incredible entertainment events to the Central Texas region.”
From the outside looking in, Austin really does appear to be the Live Music Capital of the World. But for local musicians like Woody and Karren, their music does not live in this capital.
On a warm Sunday afternoon, I was walking down South Congress and noticed an eerie silence beneath the usual noise of the street. It did not take long to realize the silence came from a complete lack of music. Officer Visi was working at Allen’s Boots, and there was not a busker to be seen anywhere on the street.
There were no cases on the sidewalk, but there were also no voices weaving their way through the noise of the city. The bluesy twang of Woody’s now five-stringed guitar was completely absent. Karren’s purple sneakers weren’t tapping a steady rhythm against the pavement.
The musicians stayed inside that day, despite the pleasant weather, and the street resided in silence. Not a note of music could be heard as I walked down a sidewalk in the Live Music Capital of the World.
Published on February 22, 2013 as "Battleground".