OC Should Keep Tweaking Busking Law

OC Should Keep Tweaking Busking Law

The out-of-tune opus in the key of “WTF” that some are calling Ocean City’s street performer debate has been boomed at such a shrill decibel level for so long, people are becoming tone deaf to the arguments.

As both a journalist and a professional musician, I can unequivocally say that the arguments coming from both sides of the busking debate are becoming as repetitive as a commercial radio station’s A-rotation.  It’s the same five songs (or arguments) being beaten into your head over and over and over again until you find yourself begging for sonic mercy or you shut your stereo off entirely.

Compromise is not only the hand that will pick up this skipping needle from the record but it is also the “best and cheapest lawyer” as Robert Lewis Stevenson once said.

I believe the Boardwalk task force is trying to find this compromise, but they haven’t quite found the balance yet.

This has turned into a fiasco that no one really wanted, but it began because the City Council overshot on an ordinance drafted several years ago to appease complaining Boardwalk business owners who reported buskers were getting in the way of the natural pedestrian flow on the Boardwalk and because buskers (and to be fair, some stores) were making too much racket.

That resulted in two court cases in as many years and the city lost both, with a judge deeming the city’s law unconstitutional.

But perhaps more importantly, those court rulings also created the wild-west-like landscape on the city’s famous wooden walkway that yielded not just an explosion of performers and costumed characters, but also attracted the scantily clad, spotlight craving pole dancer who sent the court of public opinion into a screaming tizzy of fear and outrage and changed the argument about buskers forever.

The moment that pole got placed on the Boardwalk, the public lumped performers of all kinds and skill levels into one giant tip bucket and put a Mr. Yuk sticker on it.  Sure, it’s unfair to many of the performers, but it’s the harsh reality of this situation.

But what the wild-west landscape also proved is that the street performers can’t self-regulate themselves, and therefore, some sort of reasonable regulation is necessary.

Monday night’s meeting of the Boardwalk task force also proved that the definition of “reasonable” is still very much in question.

Is it a reasonable request to have some sort of registration process for buskers in order to have some written accountability for who is up on that Boardwalk, and oscillate the performers to different locations each week, so folks on 3rd Street don’t have to hear the Titanic song every 45 minutes? Yes, I believe it is, and furthermore, it seems business owners and most street performers agree on this point.

However, it is not a fair request to make people sleep out in front of City Hall each night, so they can get a spot.

The city doesn’t allow homeless people to sleep on city benches or panhandle on the Boardwalk, so, it shouldn’t allow buskers, who many in the community have publically called everything from panhandling vagrants to tax-evading hobos do the same thing.  If nothing else, let’s give poor Diana Chavis, the Ocean City Clerk, a break from the onslaught of zombified cartoon characters each morning when she gets to work.

That bit of the local bill needs fixing straight away, as does the part about whether or not buskers should be able to sell things on the Boardwalk. The feeling here is they should not. Tips yes, CD’s and paintings no, that makes them vendors. This would be a valuable compromise, i.e. see Asheville, N.C.’s law.

Yet,  several buskers I spoke with after the meeting on Monday admitted that the narrative coming from the busking community involves too much whining about how they’ve been “wronged” and too much in-fighting over petty things like seniority about spots south of 9th street.

If you look at the facts, the city has amended the newest law half a dozen times to try and get it right.  But, again, the registration bit needs further tweaking, but seems to be a warranted and necessary part of the law’s future success.

But, while each side’s idealistic soap box arguments are old and tired like an Atlantic City lounge singer’s act, their solutions are often worse.

While I agree with the gentleman who railed into the busking community for complaining that they had to wake up early to register for a spot, because you have to work hard to succeed in life, I disagree with that same fellow who three minutes later, pitched an idea to build essential wooden boxes for buskers to perform in (facing away from the crowds).  Why not just go all the way and pitch putting them in metal cages and we can dangle them above the Boardwalk and that will increase pedestrian flow? Oi to the Vey I say.

You are also not entitled to have a larger say in this debate because you pay taxes or you pay astronomical monthly fees to rent a Boardwalk shop?  The “I’m a taxpayer argument” is like a parent wanting credit for reading to their child each night.  You are supposed to do that.

On the other hand, buskers have to stop the “heartstrings” argument.  I learned a long time ago as a musician that people are there to hear your songs, not whine about how my royalty checks are literally dwindling to less than a dollar per quarter because of streaming services like Spotify.

It’s tougher than ever to be an artist, but that’s the choice you’ve made, and that’s no different than how tough it is to run a business, and try and survive when you pay astronomical rent on the Boardwalk.

But this stalemate can end when the sides realize that the other is not going to go away.

So enough with the heartstrings and the whining, the entitlements and the name-calling and let’s talk about Constitutional rights and reasonable solutions for the greater good of the community.

Lastly, I would also advise the buskers to be wary of any swill merchants or rabble rousers that are trying to take up their cause for personal gain.

Just because someone quotes Thomas Jefferson, it doesn’t make them a founding father or a freedom fighter.

I can’t imagine the busking community will be better served by hitching their wagon to someone who is more interested in seeing their name in the paper for egging the faces of elected officials than anything else.

All Tony Christ has done in this debate is show that lawyers are really, really expensive and divide the sides even further. This week’s attempt to seek $1 million in damages on behalf of the street performers serves as the most recent example of division being the goal.

Neither side needs Christ to fight for their rights or strive for compromise. He will only muddy the waters and widen the already vast divide between the two parties.

I hope we are getting close to the end of this sad little symphony, and we can follow it with a jazzy little uptempo number.  I just wonder if everyone has already turned the channel.