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Watch Spring unfold with the UW CherryCam

What this town needs is a little street music

Richard "Dick" Startz, University of Washington professor of economics

By Dick Startz

Got no mansion, got no yacht,

Still I'm happy with what I got.

I've got the sun in the morning

And the moon at night.

Washington summers are beautiful. But, with apologies to composer Irving Berlin, we need a crescendo in public music. How about a summer of busking?

One online encyclopedia gives the definition, "Busking is the practice of performing in public places to receive donations of money." We need more street corner musicians. Bach or break dancing -- it doesn't matter. Just people raising a joyous noise. And the rest of us paying with a broad smile, loud applause, and maybe a coin or two tossed into the hat.

Busking may be the ultimate example of individual free enterprise making for a better community. Music brings people together and adds to the value of public space. Individual stress is reduced and strangers get to share a little something.

Given our great summer climate, I've always thought it strange that we have less busking than many other places. The London Underground (the subway, in American) has had buskers for over 100 years, easily found because they usually perform directly underneath the "No busking allowed" signs. Realizing the tourism value, the authorities made busking legal two years ago.

Singapore has a commission actively encouraging busking. To obtain a license, buskers need to show their identity card, provide "Record of arts activities undertaken in the last 3 years," and tryout at an official audition (first Friday of every month except June.)

I think in Washington we can manage busking without any official bureaucracy rules. Maybe, informally, we should adopt the guidelines established by our neighbors in Vancouver, BC -- no juggling chainsaws.

Some people feel a little unease about busking because buskers take over public space for a semi-private purpose, without official approval. My suggestion for relieving the unease is to encourage a dose unofficial -- just plain folks -- approval. Here are some dos and don'ts for busking this summer.

Business folk can do their part by making buskers welcome. Mostly this means telling them they're welcome in so many words. But tossing in a free soda or a dry place to store instruments would do no harm. Wouldn't it be nice if ferryboat owners donated a free pass?

Remember that most buskers don't have much experience. If buskers are accidentally disrupting your business, it's your job to tell them so. Please speak up before it becomes a big deal -- while you can still be nice about it.

The job for the rest of us is to give the buskers a big smile (always) and a little cash (when they've earned it.) I have a special favor to ask of cops and deputy sheriffs and others in uniform. Would you go out of your way to spend a minute with the buskers showing your approval? This will send an important message to both buskers and audience that public performance is "OK."

Buskers, you have some duties, too. Remember that you're entertainers. This is all about the audience having a good time. Be prepared to adjust your act to fit the audience. Keep it fun; keep it light. When someone tosses in money, say thank you. (Don't interrupt a number. For donations while performing, give a nice smile or an exaggerated head nod.)

Remember as well that you're a guest in public space. Don't block doors. Hold down the amplification -- way, way down. Try not to impose your performance on those who just aren't in the mood today. And while I hate to say this, do not leave large amounts of cash in a spot that might tempt someone to grab it.

As a busker, you also must gently control your audience. Keep them out of the roadway. Be sure there is room for passersby. If a shop-owner, or a guy in uniform, has been especially nice, be sure you reciprocate.

I'm looking forward to listening. Busking in a Washington summer is such a nice idea it makes me wish I had some talent myself.


Dick Startz is Castor Professor of Economics and Davis Distinguished Scholar at the University of Washington. He can be reached at econcol@u.washington.edu.

This column appeared in the following publications:

  • Everett Herald, May 25, 2005
  • Tacoma News-Tribune, May 29, 2005
  • Bellingham Herald, May 29, 2005

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