Buskers looking to bring spontaneous entertainment to Minneapolis parks this summer will have to pay the city before they play.
Discussed and rejected by previous park commissioners for fear of appearing too authoritarian, annual $40 busker permits were approved by the Minneapolis Park Board last fall and implemented for the first time this spring. Street performers intending to accept money must apply for the right to play in 10 approved, high-traffic sites throughout the park system.
Reactions from the diverse and decentralized Twin Cities busker community has been mixed, with some longtime performers chafing at any attempt to regulate a bohemian culture, others open-minded to the potential benefits of a professionalized scene and many more simply confused why the Park Board saw a need to create the busker program in the first place.
"For me, it's not the money so much as the principle," said musician Matt Yetter, who busked in parks when COVID-19 shut down his restaurant gigs. "Anytime you introduce bureaucracy, permits, laws and stuff like that, that takes the fun out of things."
Artists discussing the permit system on the Minneapolis Buskers! Facebook page have been largely opposed, with musicians speculating whether the program intends to banish homeless people from the parks or impose income taxes on buskers' tips. Annoyed musicians gave park commissioners an earful at their May 24 meeting.
"The nature of street performing is spontaneous, it's ephemeral, and it often arises out of need," said Myra Burnette of Miss Myra and the Moonshiners. "If you're homeless and without access to an internet connection, you're not going to be able to apply for this permit, much less pay that $40 when you're literally just busking to make money for food."
The truth is, busking for money on parkland has always been against park rules. Park ordinance states: "In any park or parkway, or upon any waters under control of the board, no person or entity, other than the board, shall sell, rent, or offer to sell or rent, any goods, services, or organizational memberships of any nature whatsoever, nor shall any person or entity solicit for donations, without a permit."
But enforcement has been sporadic, often falling to non-police park staff to ask buskers to leave. The main reason for the permit is staff wanted to create a legal avenue for artists to busk in parks, said Shane Stenzel, the Park Board's permit manager.
Another impetus was that Minneapolis had attempted to impose entertainment taxes on Minnehaha Regional Park's Sea Salt restaurant for allowing musicians to busk within their alcohol-serving area, Stenzel said. Wanting the musicians to play on and spare their vendor from paying an extra tax, the Park Board created a permitted space just beyond the restaurant's official service area.
Stenzel acknowledged that park staff have had a hard time engaging the busker community and articulating the point of the permit system. Homeless artists need not pay the $40 — exceptions can be granted on a case by case basis, he said. And staff can always add sites by request.
"We're still building this program out, but our intent is to get it similar to the concert series where you can go online and see who's performing at Lake Harriet tonight," he said. "We really want input from the buskers. Tell us what you want, what you need. We're here to help you."
So far, the Park Board has had about 40 performers apply for a busking permit.
Clawhammer Mike, a printmaker and musician who is frequently found at farmers markets and the Stone Arch Bridge, welcomed the permit system. The fee in return for explicit permission to perform without fear of being shooed off seems fair to him, even though he's skeptical of how the permit's myriad rules on time and space will be enforced.
"There's so many issues in Minneapolis right now with policing ... do we have time for all this?" he asked. "I'm not opposed to it. I'll gladly pay 40 bucks for a year, no problem."
Musician Jamison Murphy said he would prefer to see the Park Board provide more of a service in return for the fee — such as security. Buskers are occasionally harassed and robbed, and if the Park Board used permit fees to keep an eye on performers' safety, more might approve of it, he said.
To be fair, other major cities with notable busking scenes like New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New Orleans have busking permits and fees, Murphy said. Duluth charges $40 to access two performance spots, and St. Paul asks $32 for a temporary performance license. (Minneapolis won't require that buskers get licenses.)
"But I also 100% agree with the people who say it interferes with culture," Murphy said. "The whole idea of busking is the spontaneity of it. It's the pure knowledge that you didn't pay money to be there, and [spectators] didn't pay money to come see it."
Busking also has a nomadic element. Several musicians who spoke with the Star Tribune were confident that traveling street performers won't be paying the Park Board $40 for an annual permit if they're parachuting into town for a weekend.
"I'm just, like, doing whatever I want right now. It's no pressure, I'm just playing whatever that's coming to my mind," said Caylen Larsen, a saxophonist from New Orleans who spent a few hours playing on the Stone Arch Bridge last month while visiting Minneapolis for a friend's wedding. "The world is complicated. I don't see why they're making it more. Is [busking] a problem when there's so many actual problems?"