Houston Matters

Houston busking ordinance challenger happy after courts strike down restrictions targeting street musicians

The now-defunct Houston ordinance required artists to get permission from business owners and only perform in their allowed spot. It was also restricted to one neighborhood in the city.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
FILE: A lone street performer tunes his guitar on a mostly-empty Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Anthony Barilla says like many musicians, he doesn’t like to sit alone at home to practice playing the accordion. So he decided to hit the streets. Along with gaining an audience and fine tuning his skills, he was also able to generate some income.

But he soon learned that playing on the streets – also called busking – is a bit tricky in Houston. A city ordinance required street performers to have a permit in order to perform.

“I found (the laws) to be super restrictive,” Barilla told Houston Matters with Craig Cohen on Thursday. “First of all, it was really hard to find out what they were.”

Barilla said when he would Google the laws in 2018, all that would come up were old forums of musicians asking what was up with the busking laws in Houston. But no one seemed to have an answer. So he decided to go through the permitting process himself to see what it entailed.

“I went to the permitting office, they sent me to another place, I ended up figuring out what it was,” he said. “You had to take a form and get the business that was abutting the sidewalk where you wanted to be on, and get the business owner to sign off on it. You had to stick to that one spot that you chose, and it all had to be in the downtown theater district; it was illegal everywhere else in Houston.”

Barilla said he believes the laws were developed over time because they weren’t a priority.

“When I finally found the source for the form I needed to have, I don’t think anyone had asked for that form in years,” he said.

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Barilla said limiting buskers to the theater district was also restrictive. There isn’t as much foot traffic in the area, with many people going from parking garages to the theater. The requirement of having business owners sign off also hindered them.

“If you think about the properties in the area, who owns those properties? It’s these big property management companies,” he said. “I would go to restaurants, they would say ‘Honestly, we don’t know who you should talk to about this.'”

He said eventually he did find a business that would let him busk in front of them. But the experience showed the challenges that artists can have.

“Sometimes I think cities tend to think of artists as a resource when they want to trumpet the good things about their city,” Barilla said. “But they don’t tend to necessarily take care of that resource in a broader way. Allowing an artist to work in a freer way could be beneficial to artists.”

On the flip side, Barilla said a busker should not be annoying and would want to attract a pleasing crowd.

“You don’t do that by being annoying,” he said. “I think buskers should be respectful, and business owners should be respectful of the free public space that runs in front of their business.”

Barilla ended up writing an article in 2018 about his process and he would hear from people who wanted to challenge the laws. A law firm was interested in pursing the case, and it went to court. The first judge sided with the city, but after appealing it, the judge sided with Barilla.

“I don’t know if we need an ordinance on (busking),” he said. “It wasn’t illegal to play music on the streets before the ordinance, it was just illegal to ask for tips.”

Barilla said there are already enough laws to prevent people from being nuisances.

“I don’t know if they’re trying, but maybe they should realize that they are making life a little unnecessarily difficult for people who already … musician’s not the highest paying job in the world. Busking can be a beautiful thing.”

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