Pedestrians enjoy downtown’s “unregulated” music

By: Lacey Davis

As Rachel Ehlinger walks home from dinner on a Friday night downtown, she pauses to appreciate the tunes of the guitar that a musician plays just outside of her apartment, which rests above a small store on Clayton Street.

The peaceful music before the craziness of the night begins on the overcrowded sidewalks is one of the many reasons Ehlinger loves living where she does. The musicians are friendly; the music is moving.

“The same older man plays guitar on the bench outside of my apartment most nights,” said Ehlinger, a sophomore from Roswell, Georgia. “We’ve never had a real conversation, just a smile and casual greetings. It feels homey to have him around now.”

The government does not step in to regulate the street musicians and performers, often referred to as buskers, in downtown Athens.  According to Sgt. Derek Scott who is in charge of downtown operations for the Athens Police Department, there are not ordinances that directly deal with buskers’ limitations, only ones that may apply to them, including obstructing sidewalks and noise control.

The police rarely bother the buskers. The only time the authorities interfere with the music scene on the street is when safety or noise control become an issue.  “I am not aware of any citations being issued,” said Sgt. Scott. “Years ago I recall getting called to College Square in reference to an altercation between musicians. A violin player was upset because a flutist was playing too closely to him.”

“My band hasn’t seen any altercations,” said Sean Stephansen, a sophomore from Suwanee, Georgia majoring in business. He plays banjo, guitar and sings for his band, Manmade Mountains. They play on the corner of Clayton Street and College Avenue on weekends between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

According to Daniel Krieger, a 27-year-old resident of Athens who works a “tedious nine to five job” during the week and plays ukulele on weekends, “Some guys out here get real defensive of their territory. If you aren’t in the spot you want at the start of the day then someone will come up and kick you out of their spot.” He enjoys playing to relieve stress. Krieger will play on any open bench he can find; he isn’t picky.

In many cities across the nation, including Asheville, North Carolina, for example, there are guidelines regarding when and where busking is permitted, according to the official Asheville, North Carolina government webpage. Athens is fortunate to have musicians from all ages, backgrounds and cities around the country who come and play for free on the streets.

“Buskers add to the atmosphere of Athens as a music town. The downtown district is an entertainment hub,” said Sgt. Scott. “I think the buskers understand and appreciate the fact that if they are to be successful and stay welcome that they must be respectful of the laws and the citizens they perform for.”

Sgt. Scott is not the only one who believes the musicians add to the atmosphere. “I love live music,” said Katie Tiller, a sophomore from Atlanta who DJs for the University of Georgia’s WUOG radio. “Just being able to walk the streets at any time of day and hearing live music makes my day a little better. I can’t imagine Athens without them.”

Athens has been known as a music town since before the B-52s arrived in 1976. Students such as Stephansen are able to enjoy the freedom from licensing and strict laws. Without a second thought, Manmade Mountains is able to have a fun night on the town with a few friends and good music. “We play downtown because we enjoy it. It’s an amazing experience. The tips are on and off, but the experience is always great,” added Stephansen.

Speaking of tips, they are few and far between. Krieger said, “I used to leave my case open for tips but there were so few anyways that I decided to start keeping it closed. It’s more about the music.”

When pedestrians were asked about their tipping habits, the majority had comparable responses.

“I don’t have cash on me very often. I feel bad because I’d love to tip some of the musicians. I definitely have a few favorites,” said Tiller. “On the rare occasion that I’m walking around downtown with some extra money, I’ll put it in their case.”

Not only do the buskers add to the music atmosphere of Athens, but they also receive very few complaints from residents or pedestrians. Sgt. Scott remembered a man playing drums loudly on a five-gallon bucket. After several complaints the drummer was cited and never returned. Most calls concern outside concerts or bands. There have not been many complaints regarding buskers recently, according to Sgt. Scott.

The lack of regulation on the music scene in the quiet college town has added to the overall experience of several students. “The music is one of my favorite parts of walking around downtown on a sunny afternoon,” said Anna Roberto, a senior from Atlanta majoring in finance. “I’ll smile and say hello to them as I pass by. The combination of live music, sunshine and shopping is a cure-all remedy for me.”

If rules, regulation or licensing were a necessity in Athens, there are differences that would ensue. With an added legal step, many musicians may not find the process worth it and not perform at all. This is more likely among the students who spend most of their time split between school, work and spending time with friends. With pedestrians, residents and students enjoying the music with few complaints, this is unnecessary to even consider.

Downtown Athens, Georgia has revolved, with few issues, around the free-spirited music and compelling musicians behind the tunes. This musical scene has thrived for decades, and as the saying goes, there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken.

On this particular night, Ehlinger drops a single and few coins into the man’s guitar case. “I know the song this time. I don’t always, and I don’t always have extra change. Tonight I do. Must be a sign that it’s going to be a good weekend,” she said as she walked through her apartment entrance.

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