Musicians Squawk As City Quadruples Price of a Street Performer Permit

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Well-known street saxophonist, Raven Wolf
Well-known street saxophonist, Raven Wolf

In New York, for example, a street performer doesn't need a permit unless they're amplified or in a public park. In Chicago -- as in St. Louis -- you do need a permit, and it costs $100.

(Charles Haller points out, "Yeah, but [buskers] are probably going to make 100 times more in Chicago!")

Another way the City of St. Louis regulates street performance is with auditions.

For the past year, administrative assistant Mike Hulsey -- a 20-year department veteran who used to play drums in a local band -- has been issuing permits only after seeing someone's act.

He says he's only rejected a half dozen applicants out of about 70 -- and some of those have simply modified their performance to pass muster.

"With one juggler, I said, 'No chainsaws, knives or flames.' He said he understood." The juggler got a permit.

The audition process doesn't rankle musician Charles Haller; he insists he wants street musicians to have a good name by playing quality music.

But he does resent the city's ban on busking in certain areas. According to a document provided by the city, the following places are officially off-limits: Laclede's Landing, Union Station, Busch Stadium, the Arch grounds, the Old Courthouse, and Luther Ely Smith Square.

Now, anybody who's heard the drums outside a Cardinals' game knows that those bans are not always enforced. Waelterman says the law provides a way to deal with problems, should they arise.

'We're the street department," he says. "We just want peace and tranquility in the right-of-way."

Haller, however, bemoans the heavy hand of the state.

Street music is "the purest form of free enterprise," he says, adding a populist twist: "They hand out millions to rich people to bring in K-Marts and to put up stadiums, and yet they won't let normal everyday St Louisans go out and play instruments on the Landing. It's said that WC Handy wrote 'St. Louis Blues' on the cobblestones by the river. But we can't play it down there, because our so-called leaders forbid it."

Haller says his goal is only to make St. Louis more interesting.

"And the interesting towns in this nation," he concludes, "are not the ones that discourage street musicians, they're the towns that welcome them."

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