No Music Zones?

City tries to tell musicians where they can and can't play

Volume 113, No. 7July, 2013

Shane Gasteyer
Under a new “clarification” of city parks regulations, musicians who want to collect donations in city parks must confine themselves to certain areas. Above, a guitarist called Gypsy Joe Hocking performs in Central Park.

Under a new “clarification” of city parks regulations, musicians who want to collect donations in city parks must confine themselves to certain areas. Above, a guitarist called Gypsy Joe Hocking performs in Central Park.

The art of street performance, or busking, is something many musicians have experienced at some point. New York City’s public parks have long played host to musicians of all stripes, whether they just came out for a chance to play in the open air or because they make a living on the tips they earn. Go to any city park on a nice day, and you are sure to see countless musicians playing, both professional and amateur, both solo and in groups. However, the city’s relationship with musicians who perform in the parks hasn’t always been a smooth one.

In April of this year, the city announced a “clarification” of park regulations which would classify musicians and performers who solicit donations as “expressive matter vendors.”

These vendors are limited to special “medallion” locations in Union Square, High Line, Battery Park and Central Park, where they are allowed to sell their wares alongside those normally selling books, newspapers and artwork.

Even outside of those four parks, the rules state that expressive matter vendors must stay 50 feet away from any monument and five feet away from park benches, trees, and walls.

Since the announcement of these new rules, many musicians have raised concerns over this major restriction to where they are allowed to perform.

Although this amendment to the park rules was made this April, it is not the first time that the “expressive matter vendor” rules have been used to limit musicians’ rights to perform in Manhattan public parks. In 2010 and 2011, over a hundred summonses were handed out by the Parks Department to musicians and performers in Washington Square Park, in the enforcement of the expressive matter regulations. However, the city dismissed these summonses after much criticism and outcry from performers.

The new rules technically took effect already, on May 8. About a week prior to that, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro spoke at a Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront committee meeting to respond to some of the concerns from park performers. In his speech, he said he hoped to “allay” musicians’ fears, stating that the new rules were simply a “technical change” that would “not affect the musicians who come to the park to play.” Specifically citing Washington Square Park, he assured the audience that musicians would not need a permit to play and collect donations. Several attendees left the meeting even more confused, as Commissioner Castro’s comments were in direct opposition to the Parks Department’s rule amendment.

Robert Lederman, president of the visual and performing artists’ rights group Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics (ARTIST), filed a federal suit against the Parks Department in support of the first amendment rights of visual artists and performers in city parks. The suit seeks to overturn the 2010 amendment to the rules as applied to performers and visual artists. According to Lederman, “what the Parks Department has done concerning musicians is to make its rules hidden, deceptive, completely ambiguous and contradictory. This makes it possible to enforce the rules arbitrarily and selectively based on whatever pressure the real estate interests that now run NYC’s privatized parks want to exert at any given time.” If the city decides to fully enforce the rules in the future, he says that “musicians and performers in NYC Parks will wake up to the realization that the amended park rules have totally eliminated their rights”

So far, the NYC Parks Department has held off on any crackdown on musicians as a result of the new rules. However, as long as the restrictive rules are still on the books, musicians all over the city wait to see how the city decides to interpret them in the future.

A couple of things to note: if you just play music in the park for fun – without asking for money – you are not affected by the new rules and may still play wherever you like, according to our understanding of the current regulations. Also, these new rules only apply to parks. If you play on the street – not in a park – you can perform anywhere without a license or permit, and you can collection donations, as long as you’re playing without amplification. (Amplification requires a permit from the New York Police Department).