Street Performers Don't Always Play For Tips In Decatur

Jun 7, 2018

The centuries old art of busking — or performing in public places for tips — is currently encouraged in Decatur.

The city is trying out a program that makes it easy to get a permit and take art and music to the streets.

While most musicians want to earn a living with their art, that’s not always the case with street performers.

Brian Roberts is a man who considers himself a classical clarinet musician. He recently applied for a permit to play in Decatur's city limits. But he said he's not doing it for tips.

"For me busking is good practice," Roberts said. "Because I consider myself a professional classical musician. So this is just preparing me to do concerts series and perform on any platform."

He stood on a busy corner playing in May as families passed by enjoying the afternoon. A crew with a TV camera asked if he’d play on film. He smiled, nodded in agreement and continued.

The art of busking dates back centuries. The term comes from the Spanish word “buscar,” which means “to search for.”

In some cases that’s performers searching for tips.

Shelley Satonin-Hershkovits teaches at the Frank Hamilton School of Folk Music in Decatur. She developed a class on busking shortly after she learned of the Decatur Arts Alliance project. The goal of the busking is to hone performance skills. 

"We have a lot of really serious musicians who love doing what they're doing, but they're amateurs and they haven't got performance experience," she said. "But you can kind of just tell they're dying to get up there and do it."

One of her beginning guitar students was among the first people to get a permit and start playing.

"He came out he played three or four chords that he knows and sang and had a really good time, so, that's what we're about," Satonin-Hershkovitz said.

A small grant is paying for the permitting program, with the money going to marketing, supplies and administrative support. By the end of May, 34 buskers had signed up.

Jim Anderson retired last year after a 30-year career in computer technology and decided to get back to playing guitar. He enrolled in the busking class and got a permit to play in Decatur with his classmates.

"We go out and perform a little bit just us student musicians," Anderson said. "I'm just an old beginner. That's the way I think of it." 

The Candler Park musician said he enjoys getting out of the house to perform with others.

Angie Macon, the executive director of is the Decatur Arts Alliance, said the monthly permits for the performers are free. They just have to fill out a form and get a photo ID.

"I think it's a great way for folks to just give it a whirl," Macon said. "I mean, we have one fellow who is a brand new magician and he's just going to throw it out there and see how it works."

The pilot program runs through the end of the year. Macon said that will give the community enough time to see if they like it.

Panhandlers might drive customers away, but buskers can encourage people to get out into the square and visit local stores.

"I think what we're trying to look at is how well received it is by the local businesses, restaurants and retail businesses, and see if they like it," Macon said.

There’s a wide range of people who are ready to busk in Decatur, Macon said.

"We had a lot of really interesting folks [apply for permits]; we have some dulcimer players," Macon said. "We have some musicians from the Frank Hamilton School of Folk Music here in Decatur."

One recent permitee was a French singer and a fife and drum duo plan to perform historical music celebrating the life and career of Stephen Decatur, she said.

Macon said when it comes to money, buskers can collect tips, but they can’t actually approach anyone. But these guys aren’t in it for the cash.

Anderson said any money he makes will be donated to the Frank Hamilton school. And though Roberts said he’s made a few tips, he’s more interested in improving his art.

"I get a lot of thank yous," he said.