UPDATE, JUNE 2014: The City of Charleston has changed its rules for buskers, peddlers, and charitable solicitors. Buskers are no longer required to apply for a permit from the city. Click here to read more about the new rules and no-busking zones.
Gone are the halcyon days when a minstrel could gambol into town, set his hat on a sidewalk, and employ lute and lyric to earn his daily bread. Today, if you’re interested in busking, or playing music in a public space for tips, you’re going to need to deal with some red tape first.
The City of Charleston requires all street musicians to display peddler’s permits. In fact, if you don’t have a permit and are caught regaling tourists with Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits, police could slap you with a $470 fine — and there won’t be a woman to blame for that.
Yes, it’s asinine. But if you want to keep things legal, here’s what you have to do:
1. If you have a regular job, get a copy of some sort of credentials showing your relationship to your employer.
2. Request a criminal records check from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) within 30 days of submitting your permit application. To do this, mail a $25 money order or business check, along with your full name, date of birth, Social Security number, mailing address, and phone number, to the following address: South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Attn: Criminal Records, PO Box 21398, Columbia, S.C. 29221.
3. Print a photo of yourself that clearly shows your face and shoulders.
4. Take the credentials, background check, and mug shot to the city’s Revenue Collections Division on the third floor at 75 Calhoun St. and fill out a peddler’s permit application. And guess what? You get to pay an additional $7 for an application fee! Then you get to wait while Revenue Collections faxes — yes, faxes — your application to the police department for approval.
5. If the police approve your application, the director of revenue collections will question you about the nature of your business and your anticipated revenues. This might result in yet another business license fee.
Your permit will expire on Dec. 31 every year, and you’ll have to pay a $7 renewal fee each time. And there’s no busking in or near the City Market, South of Broad, Waterfront Park, or the S.C. Aquarium.
If you’ve made it this far, you should bear a few pointers in mind. Ask any veteran of the downtown busking scene, and you’ll hear tips like these:
• Learn some crowd-pleasers. As well-versed as you may be in the Great Indie Songbook, if you don’t learn a few John Mayer songs, your open guitar case is going to stay depressingly empty.
• Interact with your audience. Glenn Orange, a street guitarist who has made a name for himself with his catalog of Indigo Girls covers, has been known to do double duty as a Charleston tour guide.
• Get the timing down. Shoot for peak tourist hours during peak tourist seasons so that you can maximize foot traffic.