As the weather warms up and the sun comes out, musicians flock to Main Street, opening their cases to busk. I have lived many downtown Northampton lives — as a busker, in food service, as a journalist for The Shoestring reporting on Northampton politics, to name a few.
In my handful of years busking as a hobbyist with my friends for burrito money — mind you I’m a college educated and employed white guy playing very accessible and palatable covers — we never had any problems with the Northampton Police Department. Still, we got the necessary permit just in case. In order to obtain a busking permit in Northampton, one must trek to the Department of Public Works, located on Route 9 close to Florence, and fill out an application with information such as your place of residence and pay a $25 fee every year.
If they aren’t going after the charming Hampshire kids playing Bob Dylan covers, then who does the city wish to regulate? I think the answer is fairly obvious, but in case there are any doubts, one needs look no further than the city’s efforts — in lockstep with the business community — to “reduce” the “panhandling” population, as one classified document The Shoestring leaked from the Mayor’s office put it. From getting rid of city benches, an ill-fated attempt to install police surveillance cameras, and the now infamous “opinions on downtown” survey released last year by the Mayor’s ominous “Panhandling Work Group,” it was fairly clear who the city had its eye on.
My position is that Northampton shouldn’t have busking permits, period. But if they must, they should be free, available downtown (at City Hall?), and not require an address. And with those stipulations, it would be far easier if they didn’t exist.
I’m sure the naysayers will punt around the issue at hand and say something to the effect of “but business owners need licenses to operate.” Yes, they do. But to suggest that these are equivalent is to fundamentally miss the point. The permits are relatively expensive, and only available in a place that is far away from downtown; the permits exist to make rules that make it harder for poor people to make money downtown, plain and simple.
I asked Moggie, who has been playing music around Northampton since the ‘90s, what she thought of busking permits, I’ll leave the rest to her:
“Busking permits are a violation of the existence-given right to free expression. What next, a permit required to laugh? To speak? To smile? The most pitiful and awful thing is having to go to the police department or the department of public works to apply for, or get a permit.
“We’re not seeking a permit to rob a bank, or to dig a sewer. People are simply asking to share their artistic and musical and dance and theatre work with the rest of society, and to maybe get a donation for their efforts. If anything, the Arts Council should give each busker a lovely certificate which reads: ‘Thank you for your fine Public Art and Performance. You brighten our day. Well done!’
“Down with street performance permits!!!”
Will Meyer writes the twice-monthly Basemental column. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.