Music on the Street: Noise Ordinances and Busking in Austin (Opinion Piece)

Albeit a great city boasting live music each day, Austin has a few peculiarities that limit the music experience. Prior to ever visiting Austin, I had been to other major cities know for music: Chicago, NYC, San Francisco, etc. They are all vibrant in culture with shows of plenty, but a factor that stood out was the street performers and late night scene. NYC and Chicago seem to have talent bursting at the seams, from train stations to rounding random corners downtown, saxophones playing carols near Christmas or bucket drummers crushing it on stoops.

So, what’s the deal? Why doesn’t Austin, the “Live Music Capital of the World” have street musicians? Why don’t we see blues guitarists laying their hat down collecting singles at bus stations? In short, it’s illegal, but the future seems bright for this aspect of Austin’s live music. Turns out Austin has limited busking significantly. Yes, those of you who have been here have seen a percussionist or two on the edge of 6th street, but Austin has nothing compared New Orleans where entire bands setup for impromptu shows across the French Quarter. Recent legislation is pushing to legalize busking. Check it here.

Musicians CAN busk (play for money on the street) in Austin, but only on private property where the owner of said property gives permission. This means government property (bus stations, streets, sidewalks, etc.) is off limits, and musicians are required to find a local business owner who is generous enough to allow late night busking. Could a talented street musician bring an appeal a local business, agreeing to pay at the entry to bring folks in? I guess that is up to the musician to argue.

What happens to musicians who busk in Austin? Well the penalties range from warnings to tickets to getting equipment taken away. Seemingly extreme measures, but Austin’s police department has their hands full during festivals such as SXSW and ACL. Speak softly and carry a big stick – the risk of losing equipment isn’t worth playing for many musicians.

Neighborhoods in Austin have long since been limited to music ending at midnight. Given the city has been booming with new bars and clubs opening daily, it makes sense to protect the long-standing residents. 6th street, on the other hand, is a different story. Walking from “Dirty 6” to “West 6th” after midnight and you’ll see that sound ordinances have limited bars, patios and venues to cut off amplified music (decibel requirements can be found at at midnight. Why? Well, the same apartments that advertise “Come live downtown, where the beer is cold and the music lasts all night!” have residents complaining of music going until 2pm. Seems like if you’re buying a place above Austin’s premiere nightlife, you shouldn’t be able to complain about the noise.

A local shooting a video boasting how he has called the cops at 10:30pm on West 6th

Many open rooftops, patios and bars struggle to keep clientele with these music bans. What was originally the host hopping, profitable times (midnight-2am) are now dead zones. With restrictions like this, how was Austin self-proclaimed as the Live Music Capital of the World? I’ll research and write about that soon.