Playing For Time: A Busker in Vienna

A law passed in June gives ­buskers less flexibility and more paperwork

Top Stories | Sophia Chung, Julian Delfino | September 2012

(From top) Didgeridoo players on Kärntner Straße; Policeman questions busker; Valentin Francu in Stadtpark (Photos: J. Delfino, S. Seng (bot.))

At the intersection of Kärntner Straße and Krugerstraße, an accordionist jauntily plays a Brahms Hungarian Dance, looking distractedly at the passersby. With his brown curls, moustache and soul-patch, he has all the scruffy sophistication of a character out of Dumas. An American tourist suddenly slows down and calls out, mockingly, "Stop. Just stop."

For a moment, the accordion yelps like a dog whose tail has been stepped on, as he jerks the instrument a little too hard. The tourist walks on, and the accordionist shrugs his shoulders, smiles sheepishly, and plunges a dynamic level softer, as if to say, "What else can I do?"

When he takes a break, we walk over to chat. "Vienna is not a good place for street musicians," he tells us. His name is Milan, a Viennese-born Serb who had learned to play the accordion from his father; he has been playing on the street for about six months to make extra money to finance his studies. But he’s getting frustrated.


Legally spontaneous

Since the passage of a new law in June, tighter restrictions have been placed on street musicians, including more limited hours and the categorisation of public spaces according to allowed volume.

Developed by an informal working committee of Social Democrats and Greens with City Councillor Ulli Sima (SPÖ), the new law set a limit of two hours a day and clarified the earlier definition of "unreasonable nuisance" to specific decibel levels, ranging from 45 to 65. In recreational areas like parks, musicians are limited to 50 decibels. Near mixed residential and business zones like Kärntner Straße, buskers are capped at 60, roughly equal to the volume of normal conversation from a metre away.

The law also designates 32 places where street musicians can perform, for up to two hours per day between 16:00 and 20:00. Buskers can only apply for a month-long Platzkarte (space reservation) on the last Monday of the previous month. The city assigns a maximum of 64 street musicians to marked areas based upon their instruments.

"We’ve just started busking after a five-year hiatus, but the new law has made it more difficult to get a permit compared to before," says Tom, 31. Outside the Mostly Mozart store on Kärntner Straße, he teams up with Marianne, 28, who cranks out a drone on a hurdy-gurdy, while he plays a jaunty melody on the tin whistle. With waist-length hair and a roguish smile, Tom charms pedestrians who watch in fascination as Marianne turns the instrument’s wheel and depresses small wooden keys. The two Austrians play what they call "wild folk music", a repertoire of traditional Irish and Finnish tunes.

They agree that regulation is necessary, but they believe the rules make it nearly impossible for musicians who only want to play occasionally. To get the prized Platzkarte, Marianne waited from 06:00, only to wrestle through long lines for the next five hours. Fingering her necklaces adorned with Celtic knots, she quickly adds, "Now, it’s like organised crime, with beggar street musicians congesting the lines for permits." She believes, there are too many who play the same music ad infinitum, crowding out those who play varieties of music or lesser-known instruments.

Singer and guitarist Sorin also has problems with the new law, particularly the larger pool of locations. While the city hopes this increase will create variety, Sorin says there are few "good spots", mostly along Kärntner Straße and Graben, and the new law makes a poor assignment more likely. The disparity of potential earnings between locations can mean the difference between €40 per hour or nothing at all. With the two-hour limit, he says, it’s simply not enough to make a living.

"The people who wrote the law don’t understand the need of street musicians," Sorin says. At Herbert-von-Karajan-Platz in front of the Staatsoper, for example, a musician must vie with the cacophony of passing cars. Foreign musicians also complicate the matter, he says, flooding into the city during the summer and increasing competition for the lucrative locations that Viennese musicians depend on.

After Hungarian Savane Seng lost her job in 2010, she and her Romanian boyfriend Valentin Francu set out to prove that busking can be an affordable way to travel through Europe. Since Seng and Francu depend on hitchhiking and rideshares, they missed the day permits were handed out.

"The planning takes all the joy out of doing it, since spontaneity and ‘freshness’ are two of the key ingredients in making art," he says. Travelling musicians also add variety to the busking scene. "We don’t displace the locals. We try to find areas where no other musicians are playing." Despite the difficulties, they document their busking adventures on their blog Ready for Busking.

Many say they want to challenge the stereotype that buskers are beggars. Eva, a 19-year-old violin student from Poland, busks to overcome stage fright, not primarily to earn money. It is the spontaneity and the anonymity that attract her, though storeowners on Graben don’t always welcome her presence. For others, like guitarist and singer Julian, the street is an open forum where he can test new ideas before performing on stage. He, too, claims the money is secondary.

And many get tangled in the application process, too rigid for such an unpredictable job. So they often play without permits, sneaking in blocks of time until asked to leave. Even those with permits disregard the rules, often playing on days not designated on their Platzkarte – not what legislators intended.

"The new rules are meant to create the same flair as Paris, where street art is an indispensable part of city life," insists Ulli Sima of the SPÖ. "But the quality of life of local residents should not be compromised." Harald Ringer, director of MA36 (the Municipal Department for Event Organisation), supports this view, claiming that the regulations ensure diversity in street art. In addition, he reminds musicians that there are over 20 spaces under the new law, like Sigmund-Freud-Park, where street musicians do not need a Platzkarte.

It is precisely this struggle to please street musicians, local business owners, and residents that has challenged legislators. For instance, the new law claims that the decibel level will be measured "on site or where the locals and residents are most affected", with fines up to €210. However, street music is a spatial experience, buskers say, and not an iPod that can simply be turned up or down. Most musicians will exceed 65 decibels from a metre away, though not necessarily from two metres or more. And it is virtually impossible to discriminate between music and ambient noise.

However strict, the recent changes are less drastic than those drafted by 1st District Council President Ursula Stenzel (ÖVP) in 2008. Following a 534-signature petition from Inner City residents and business owners, Stenzel proposed a plan to severely curtail street music, requiring vetting by a jury, allotting only one hour a day per performer, banning street art altogether around Stephansdom, and requiring CD players restricted to a certain volume. No agreement was reached, and discussions continued.

In the era of the mp3 player, people are accustomed to having control over when, where, and how loud they listen to music. But for street musicians, music is anything but mechanical; performance is difficult and often unrewarding. And if city councillors intend to give Vienna the "flair" of a cosmopolitan city of music, laws need to be compatible with the lifestyle of buskers and the desires of listeners and residents.

In front of the Bank Austria branch at Schwedenplatz, a blind man peals out a version of the folk song "Dark Eyes" in ebullient Russian, accompanied by a portable speaker. After each song, he reaches into the metal bucket hanging from his cane, feeling for his hard-earned coins. Marek, a Slovak, has been busking in Vienna for 18 years.

When he takes a break, we ask how it’s going since the new law. If anyone knows, he will. Is Vienna still a good place for street musicians?

He shakes his head. "No. Not anymore."

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