Where are the buskers?


With all the struggling musicians in El Paso, I have to wonder why I don’t see more buskers.

Last week I asked City Clerk Richarda Momsen if the City had any ordinances prohibiting, limiting, or restricting the live performance of music in public places. Yesterday she told me she kicked the question to the City Prosecutor’s office. So far, they haven’t come up with anything.

Claire told me she was walking downtown a few years ago and saw a couple of bicycle police officers ask some itinerant guitarists for their permit. In fact, they didn’t need one, according to this article on Wikipedia:

In the United States there have been numerous legal cases about regulations and laws that have decided the rights of buskers to perform in public. Most of these laws and regulations have been found to be unconstitutional when challenged. In the US, free speech is considered a fundamental right of every individual, guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth constitutional amendments, and in the majority of legal cases it has been concluded that practicing artistic free speech is legal. Busking is legally considered to be artistic free speech and clearly not panhandling or begging.

In the United States, reasons to regulate or ban busking behavior include public safety issues and noise issues in certain areas such as hospital zones and residential zones. In residential zones, a reasonable curfew may be allowed. Such laws must be narrowly tailored to eliminate only the perceived evils by limiting the time, place and manner that busking may be practiced. They must also leave open reasonable alternative venues. The only exceptions to these free speech rules are sedition, as defined by the Smith Act, public displays of pornography and obscenity as defined by the Miller test for obscenity, criminal behavior such as fraud or defamation, certain commercial advertising and the common laws talked about above. In the US, laws regulating or banning busking must be applied evenly to all forms of free speech according to the first and fourteenth constitutional amendments and the judicial decisions listed below.

Busking cannot be prohibited in an area where other forms of free speech are not prohibited. For example, if busking is regulated or banned but people are allowed to conduct free speech behavior for pickets, protests, religious, political, educational, sports, commercial or other purposes, then the law is illegal. In the United States any form of regulation on artistic free speech must not be judgmental, and permits must not be so restrictive, complex, difficult or expensive to obtain that they inhibit free speech. It is also unlawful per federal court decision for law officers to seize a performer’s instruments.

Buskers would add a lot to the urban fabric downtown and help to humanize the sterile landscape. And there’s foot traffic downtown. Itinerant musicians could take advantage of the baseball fans streaming to the ballpark (next season) and all the other entertainments in our city center, including the Plaza.

Downtown could be human again.

And wouldn’t it be cool to see a conjunto trio playing there next to Luis Jimenez’ sculpture? Wouldn’t that be a legitimate expression of the soul of El Paso?


  1. Wouldn’t buskers need a lot of tourists parading around in order to drum up (pun intended) any real business? Do we have a lot of tourists walking around downtown?

    1. Don’t you think their fellow locals would support them? You know, the young professionals?

      It might not be economically viable, but they’d get experience performing in front of people.

      Kind of like blogging.

    1. I don’t care if it’s conjunto music, or a guy and his guitar playing Rush covers, or some original singer/songwriter folk. Let’s just see some buskers.

  2. I was busking at San Jacinto Plaza until security kicked me out because they said It as “soliciting”. I didn’t know getting donations for playing was soliciting but oh well. They told me that busking in the streets is fine but not within the San Jacinto Plaza because it’s city property. Even the security guard didn’t agree with it but those were his orders. Before they started enforcing that rule, they usually enjoyed it and sometimes tipped me.

      1. If you leave your guitar case open in front of you and people put money in it, what can you do about it?

        Imma look into that.

  3. Nice article, thanks. Do you know if you need a permit to busk with a small amp (e.g. for acoustic guitar & vocals)?

    1. I don’t know if you need a permit for amplification. I discovered that busking is guaranteed by the first amendment. Free speech. And if people want to support your free speech by giving you tips, that’s their free speech.

      Isn’t America bitchin’?

  4. Dann, the commenter above who said the rent-a-cops kicked him out, sent me a follow-up email a couple of weeks later.

    Actually it was the plaza security the ones who kicked me out, not the cops. But good news the whole thing was fixed thanks to another friend who also busks there. Security tried to kick him out too but he told them to get the cops there and it turns out the cops where the ones who helped us out and didn’t allow security to kick him out for busking. As long as we are not actively asking for money or being in the way of people there, there is no way they can kick us out.

    I just found out about that two days ago so today I was able to go and perform for some time. The security guard kinda approached me and I thought he was going to tell me to leave but he didn’t say anything and just left so I kept singing happily.

    So I’m pretty sure someone in charge of San Jacinto Plaza, like a manager or something, told security to kick us out, but the cops didn’t let them.

    So there’s that.

  5. I tried busking in downtown El Paso today for the first time. I started down by the Plaza Theater and was asked to move repeatedly from the storefront areas between Starbucks and the Plaza because it was private property. I asked where the private property ended and the public property began and I was told “on the other side of the bicycle racks.” Following these directions I sang in front of a “Singing in the Rain” poster for a coup!e of hours, then was told again it was private property and I had to move. I asked where was the public property and they said San Jacinto park or the Art Museum Plaza. At San Jacinto park security told us we could play but not collect tips. Being my first day I didn’t push too hard but the article and comments here are very helpful.

    1. I’d like to say that the authorities in El Paso aren’t fascists, but it’s hard to believe that they’re not. Please keep fighting for your right to busk. It’s protected by the First Amendment.

  6. ill try my handpan out there tonight and let you guys know how it goes’ 🙂

    Thanks to all for the support and spreading information of our given rights!

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