Baltimore street entertainers say they’re being shortchanged by the city

Published 8/22/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT, Updated 12/2/2022 3:00 p.m. EST

Bob Jacobson poses for a portrait

Two days after citywide unrest following Freddie Gray’s death catapulted Baltimore into the national headlines, Bob Jacobson headed to the neighborhood market in Charles Village, saxophone in hand.

Outside the store, he and his musician partner, guitarist Michael Spittel, began to play the jazzy trills and Latin rhythms they were known for: swing, samba, Brazilian bossa nova. The cash tips — typically scarce — poured in.

“We were a sign of normalcy, we were something positive; the curfew hadn’t been lifted yet,” Jacobson, 71, recalled. “We got $50 apiece for an hour.”

Jacobson, also a social worker, first received his street entertainer permit when the licensing system launched in 2006. It followed a push by then-City Council member Catherine E. Pugh, who proposed creating a licensing system to enliven the streets for tourists and bring in additional revenue.

In the years since, Jacobson and other performers say the permitting process has changed to their detriment. Licensees must now pay a fee to both acquire a permit and renew it annually, and their licenses restrict them to specific blocks, limiting where they are legally allowed to play.

As part of our Better Baltimore series, which uses readers’ feedback to report on what’s going well in the region and what stands to be improved, we spoke to several local street performers who say they feel shortchanged by the city. The harder it is for them to perform, they said, the larger the toll it takes on Baltimore’s creative spirit.

“We regard it as a public service; we’re cultural ambassadors,” Jacobson said. “We probably average the minimum wage, but it’s OK. It’s basically a labor of love.”

The process

Before entertainers hit the streets with ankle bells and an instrument of choice, they have to take the less cheery step of navigating the halls of the Department of Finance’s Bureau of Revenue Collections, Miscellaneous Tax and Licensing Unit.

When the licensing process began, there was no renewal fee, according to a copy of the 2006 license application. But today it costs $25 to both apply for and renew an annual license.

Another change, though not necessarily bad: Entertainers no longer have to audition for the license, which they originally did with the the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. The permit is available to musicians as well as jugglers, mimes, puppeteers, unicyclists, clowns, magicians, sword swallowers, dancers, poets, performance artists and comedians.

In previous years, Jacobson received a license that allowed him to perform almost anywhere in the city, save for most of the Inner Harbor and areas where other events were being held. Mobility meant he could play to different demographics, crowd sizes and ambience, depending on which neighborhood he was in the mood for. But beginning in 2021, his permit now lists a single block, which he says limits his ability to reach more people.

“I just consider variety and diversity an asset,” Jacobson said of that change. His permit authorizes him to play just outside of the 32nd Street Farmers Market. “We really love playing at that farmers market, but it’s nice to experience different audiences.”

Jacobson also said it’s not clear whether city businesses and law enforcement are even aware of the permitting system: “The police and others never seem clear on where it’s allowed,” he said. “We’ve been in places where police questioned us being there, and … we’ll show them the license and that will usually pacify them.”

Jack French, a spokesperson for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, said performers have always been restricted to lone blocks, which are assigned to performers based on how many licenses have already been given out in those locations.

He said performers can apply, and pay for, more than one license at a time if they want to cover more ground — though those costs can add up.

‘I perform anywhere, just about’

Licenses, French said, can be revoked upon complaints about noise, public nuisances or other unruly behavior. They are rarely revoked, he added. A spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department said it does not keep track of revoked licenses or complaints of disorderly conduct related to street performers.

French estimated that the office receives anywhere from 25 to 50 application or renewal requests per year. Jacobson, in a 2014 guest commentary piece published by The Baltimore Sun, wrote that 67 licensed buskers were working within the city’s borders — about half as many as were working at the start of the program.

He wrote at the time that Baltimore’s busking scene had become “limited and scattered,” a far cry from what it could be. He blamed business owners’ and law enforcement’s generally sour attitudes toward their presence, as well as the expenses associated with the licenses.

Not everyone is as discouraged as Jacobson about the changes: Abu the Flutemaker, a street performer and instrument crafter, said today’s permitting restrictions haven’t stopped him from playing where he wants. The 82-year-old musician can be found at Fells Point, farmers markets and other places with heavy foot traffic even though that is not technically where his license allows him to perform.

Still, he carries his license around, which he said gives him more protection against law enforcement.

“As long as I’m not chased away or police tell me I’m not supposed to be there … I perform anywhere, just about, that I want to perform,” he said.

He did, however, bemoan the new renewal fee, which he said came without warning; he doesn’t think the process to get licensed should be as restrictive.

“I’ve had my license for a while; before, you didn’t have to pay it every year. Then the whole thing changed up.”

Easier elsewhere

Much to the chagrin of Baltimore’s performers, other cities have made street entertainment more accessible, they said.

In Boston, for example, street performers do not need a permit or license to perform as long as they don’t violate any city laws. They are free to monetize their performance through donations or selling recordings of their music.

In Philadelphia, a representative from the Office of Special Events said the city does not have a permit that specifically relates to busking. But permits do appear to be required to perform in Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority stations to prevent unsafe obstruction of foot traffic and keep noise levels amenable to nearby businesses, according to SEPTA’s website.

In New York City, performers taking to the streets usually don’t need permits, according to the city’s 311 website, unless they use loudspeakers, megaphones or stereos or perform in or next to parks. Applications for sound permits are $45 and park permits are $25. The city allows performances in its subways and on ferry boats but requires permits for instrumental, singing or dancing performances at the Staten Island Ferry terminals.

And in New Orleans, buskers can get permits for an extra layer of legal protection, but they are not required to have them, according to the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. Performers are advised not to exceed 80 decibels and not to play after 8 p.m.

Baltimore’s performers said while they don’t always feel accepted or promoted by city officials and law enforcement, they do feel they have established bonds with their communities, which makes it all worthwhile. Some have avoided the permitting process altogether; instead, they receive permission from local businesses and farmers markets to perform on private property.

“What I have done is go to communities, and you don’t need a permit then because it’s a privately owned situation,” said Merdalf, also known as the Mayor of 32nd Street. “I formed relationships in these communities, and the police know me.

“I’m not trying to brag, I’m pretty good. The police like it.”

Merdalf said he thinks his art has formed bridges: “When I’m out here, I get friendships because of the music. I see them, an unspoken communication between two people who may not have anything in common, or may dislike each other. I bridge the gap.”

Busking can bring different corners of the city together, he added — if it’s given a chance to thrive.

“I’m grateful for busking; I know what it’s about. It’s about you,” he said. “It’s more than just busking. It’s more than that.”

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