Late last year, a violinist began showing up in front of River Park Square. He played popular music that could be heard at least a block away and often drew appreciative crowds.
A video of the busker, Bryson Andres, performing in front of the downtown mall has been viewed nearly 2 million times on YouTube.
The increasing frequency of musicians playing downtown, especially more-professional ones like Andres, is a sign of life downtown that some worry might be stifled by a proposed overhaul of the city’s noise ordinance.
But supporters of the proposal, which will be considered by the Spokane City Council on Monday, argue that the changes are needed to help police enforce noise rules when musicians are overly loud, annoying and stay perched in the same area for extended periods – behavior they say actually drives customers away and disturbs employees.
The city’s current law requires an officer to take a decibel reading of the noise in order to issue a violation. The law has only been on the books a few years, but almost immediately after its passage police officials said it was unreasonable for them to have to carry decibel meters, and the city began considering changes.
The new ordinance relies less on decibel readings and bases many noise limitations on how far away the music can be heard, a standard that many other Washington cities use. Performers on public rights-of-way such as sidewalks would be barred from making noise that is “plainly audible” 100 feet away if other factors are at play, such as if the noise is rattling windows or includes “heavy bass frequencies.” If a performer were playing between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. they also couldn’t make noise that was “plainly audible” on adjacent private property.
Greg Youmans, who plays bass for the Spokane Symphony and has busked in other cities, said it would be difficult for performers to know if they are breaking the proposed law.
“It has the danger of being a strictly subjective call, and there’s potential for abuse,” said Youmans, who serves on the executive board of the local musicians union, Local 105 of the American Federation of Musicians.
Julie Schaffer, an attorney with Spokane’s Center for Justice, which opposes the proposal, said the proposal doesn’t even require the 100-foot distance to apply, and a busker could face violations if an officer determines that an “unusually loud” noise “unreasonably annoys” a “reasonable person.” She said the proposal has the potential of chilling free expression.
“Its confusing and subjective standards, we believe, will lead to arbitrary enforcement,” Schaffer said.
City Councilman Mike Allen, who is co-sponsoring the proposal, said a noise ordinance needs to give officers some leeway.
“I’d rather use common sense to approach it rather than write a piece of legislation that has every conceivable outcome of noise,” he said.
Allen added that the law gives musicians increased protection from receiving a violation because it would require that officers give buskers and other noise-makers a warning and a chance to stop before being cited. That doesn’t exist in current law. It also would lower the first offense from a misdemeanor that could include jail time to an infraction, which can’t include jail time.
Rick Bocook, a harmonica player who plays with an amplifier and goes by the name Harpman Hatter, said using decibel readings for a noise ordinance is a fairer, less-subjective approach. He added that downtown businesses that are annoyed by his or other buskers’ music “should soundproof their windows.
“They should realize that they’re in a noisy part of downtown,” Bocook said.
Bocook successfully led the charge a few years ago to stop the city from requiring buskers to get a license before performing on public property.
Downtown business leaders say they’re not trying to stop busking, but some musicians have played so loudly that they have been known to annoy people working in the top stories of downtown’s tallest buildings.
Mike Tedesco, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said businesses like the increased presence of street musicians because it’s a sign that downtown has enough pedestrian traffic to support it.
“I want that person strumming the guitar with a suitcase open on the sidewalk,” Tedesco said. But some performers go too far, he said.
“The noise ordinance will help stop that nuisance and try to return the environment to a more normal atmosphere,” he said.
Bocook has criticized many downtown businesses, especially River Park Square, which he says tries to stifle busking, in part, by the music it plays outside through speakers. The mall is owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
But River Park Square General Manager Bryn West said the mall is not opposed to busking and that most musicians easily play over the speakers.
“We have actually turned it down in recent months to comply with the ordinance,” West said. She said she believes the piped-in music would comply with the proposed rules, too. If not, she said, the mall will adjust.
As for Andres’ popular performances, they likely were loud enough to have been illegal under the current law or the proposed one – at least if anyone complained to the city.