Riffing On the Tradition: Dublin's Street Musicians Play By Their Own Rules
Musician Evan Christopher observes street performers in Dublin, Ireland who have created
their own code of business conduct and wonders where other models for New Orleans might exist.
This post marks the start of a second year for Riffing on the Tradition. In the first year, I'm glad that focusing on elevating our perceived value, raising our own standards, and
becoming more business-savvy inspired a few dialogues, encouraged some to move
forward in their careers, and helped our public better see our perspective. However,
strangely (or not so strangely?), I’m not confident that things have changed much.
My very first post questioned how much respect we New Orleans musicians truly have
in our own community based on disconcerting statistics gathered by Sweet Home New
Orleans. My most recent posts, about the permitting and zoning issues affecting
musicians and music venues, have left me with the exact same question.
I’m trying to follow the the community meetings hosted by Kermit Ruffins that began as
a response to the permitting crackdown. I see initiatives including “New Orleans Noise”
slowly coalescing, but I’m still waiting for an agenda that goes beyond “preserving” our
pre-crackdown scene. You see, I contend that the City’s actions actually represent an
opportunity for us to take our rightful role as responsible stewards for the direction of
music in New Orleans.
By making it clear that we refuse to be left out of the decision-making process regarding
ordinances that affect live performance, we now must clearly articulate what we expect
in return for our contribution to our community’s identity and economy. Consequently,
this also means that we must carefully consider the specific nature of our contribution
and quality of the experience.
If we are truly good for more than selling drinks and hotel rooms, now is our chance to
ensure that the musical landscape doesn’t limit us to being merely entertainers or
ambiance. If our service is worth an actual fee, then now is our chance to go beyond
groveling for tips and make a living wage possible. No more flyers on telephone poles?
So what? It’s 2012, let’s simply make sure that marketing infrastructure for our music is
considered in the push to make New Orleans a “modern” city. Lastly, let’s not be
arrogant and presume that everyone who lives here cares about music at all and let’s
control the “earshot” of our artistry ourselves.
Shaping our scene shouldn’t be that daunting except for the fact that we’re not used to
that much responsibility. So, for the next season of this column, to hopefully inspire
autonomy and bigger thinking, I’ll be seeking out models for our future based upon our
own history as well as things I find in my travels.
For example, last week, I was in Dublin, Ireland, apparently a very “busking-friendly”
city. At a jam session, I met a young bass-player who showed me his laminated badge
declaring him an “Approved Street Performer.” What did it cost? Nothing. There wasn’t
even an audition. And the “Street Performer Code” printed on the back? Well, it was
actually created by street musicians who worked this summer with Dublin’s City Council
and an independent coalition of businesses to formulate some sensible rules. The self-imposed code addresses issues of hours, amplification, and proximity to businesses as
well as to other performers. (My favorite, more controversial rule states that no musician
can perform on Dublin streets with a repertoire of less than twenty songs. Seriously!) No, it’s not a perfect system, but they are revisiting it regularly to assess how well it’s working.
I’m glad we have some lawyers and business professionals on our side, but they
shouldn’t be the ones doing the heavy lifting. Only we can speak reasonably about our
needs and aspirations. So, like the buskers on Grafton Street, let’s start figuring out how
to make noise on our own terms.
Clarinetist Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of Nola Art House Music. He writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie.