Street Music for Sustainability

Workshop Discussion Paper for Sustainable Fair, July, 2001


Buckhannon, WV. Musicians and other street performers are an attraction in world cities like Paris, London, Belfast, and Seattle. Why do we find so few street musicians in Charleston, Beckley, Morgantown, or Kingwood? The answer is that street performance is poorly rewarded; often actively discouraged; and at best merely tolerated. Can street performance be part of a program of community vitalization and renewal? I say yes. However, it needs to be encouraged and rewarded.

Morgantown, already thriving, is experiencing new and exciting developments: rail-trails, river-front park, wharf district; new trolleys; and more. I have interviewed many friendly merchants, professionals, civic leaders, and other citizens interested in preserving and enhancing local heritage, traditions, and customs. Most are enthusiastic about promoting street performance. I have yet to find a single person who is unconditionally opposed. However, on the way to consensus we must address conditions to be established for street performance.

Legal conditions are the first that come to mind. Two possible approaches for a street music enterprise are 1) for profit; and 2) not-for-profit. Additionally, there is a concern for the cultural acceptability of soliciting tips or donations. Finally, there is the question of educating or persuading the public to provide a sufficient level of financial support to sustain the motivation of street performers.

Basically, a for-profit street music enterprise is required to have state and city business licenses, to file quarterly reports, and to pay applicable taxes, like any business. "Red tape" is perceived as burdensome to small business generally, and especially to very small street-based entrepreneurs such as vendors and hawkers as well as street performers. I would like to think that a determined street performer could make a livelihood based on tips and perhaps sale of recordings. Ideally, Morgantown ought to be able to support a few part-time for-profit street-music entrepreneurs. A friendly environment would be essential for such a success.

A not-for-profit enterprise must have IRS 501(c)(3) status to obtain a city license to solicit donations. Under such a license, street musicians can solicit donations for a charitable purpose. Since street music itself can be regarded as a public good (like flowers, clean streets, etc.), it seems appropriate to solicit funds for the purpose of providing street music. After all, other public goods are purchased with solicited funds. Operating on this model, and acting as Executive Director of Harping for Harmony Foundation, I have tested this approach and it works. Of course, the nonprofit organization is responsible for assuring the public that donations are used in accordance with its charitable nonprofit mission and purpose. In this case, livelihood for musicians is a major part of our purpose.

With a legal basis established (for profit or not), another barrier to street performance is the cultural acceptability of soliciting tips or donations. Street performers are sometimes lumped with panhandlers who accost passers-by in an aggressive way. To resolve any controversy, a "jury" system could be established which would give authorization to qualified performers and exclude panhandlers.
The remaining hurdle would be to educate the public to provide financial support for street performance. The most obvious way would be to (re-)establish the custom and practice of tipping, regarding it as a proper and effective way to reward a public service. Could street music be promoted simply by paying wages, without relying upon tips? Perhaps. The key would be to establish the popularity of such a program with musicians as well as the public and merchants. To attract continuing involvement, the performers involved must become stakeholders.

In a late development, Main Street Morgantown (MSM) has expressed interest in funding a program of scheduled street music on Fridays from 11:30 to 1 PM, through October. Each Friday, two musicians, to perform in separate locations, will be offered $22.50 for a 1.5 hour performance ($15 per hour). Harping for Harmony Foundation will collaborate with MSM to work out details and promote the program. Interested musicians may contact John Lozier (304-599-8233, or Terry Cutright at MSM (304-292-0168,