The City Market is quieter than usual at this time of year. Yes, tourist season is winding down, but there’s another reason: Street musicians are no longer allowed to play for tips on Market Street.
Technically, this was already the case, but only in the last two months have police been enforcing the rule. City ordinances prohibit busking, or playing for tips, in and around the City Market, South of Broad, Waterfront Park, and the S.C. Aquarium. But some performers, including singer and guitarist Glenn Orange, have played on the Market for years without incident.
“This little corner right here is where I learned to play the guitar,” Orange says, standing at the corner of Church and South Market streets with his arms slung over an acoustic guitar that matches the busted red Chuck Taylors on his feet. “It’s what made me a performer, and it’s what led me to being a tour guide.” Orange came to Charleston in 1998 and worked in high-end restaurants for years before discovering his gift of gab. It was his side job as a busker, singing songs by the Who and the Indigo Girls and wishing tourists a warm welcome, that acted as a gateway to his current job as a leader of ghost tours and historical tours — as well as his other gig as an actor at Black Fedora Comedy Mystery Theatre.
Street performance, or busking, is a highly regulated enterprise in Charleston, where performers who want to ply their art on the sidewalk must pay $32 in fees to get a criminal background check and apply for a peddler’s permit — plus a $7 annual renewal fee. And while the Market is technically a no-no zone, it has been the stage for some of the city’s most eccentric acts. There was James Floyd, the fiddler who sat by the wall of Charleston Place and improvised to the tunes of hard-rock radio. There was the one-man band known as the Music Man, the pirate, the puppeteer with a singing rat, the hip-hop violinist.
But no more. Unless the artists decide to play for free, it will be a silent spring on the Market once the weather warms up and the crowds return.
Sgt. Heath King, head of Charleston Police Department’s tourism-oriented services, said he made the call to start enforcing the Market prohibition about two months ago. Usually, he says, there have been no more than two buskers at a time on the Market, but toward the end of summer, there were often as many as six. The hammer of the law came down after King received a complaint from a tourist about one of the performers playing at night.
“I can’t tell you if they’ve been out there one time before or 20 times before, but I got a complaint that a guy was extremely rude to a young lady,” King says. “And I explained to him that he wasn’t even allowed to be down there, period.”
As with bad cops, he says, it was a single rotten apple that spoiled the bunch. “Being fair to everyone involved, the only way we could do it is if we tell one you can’t, we have to tell all,” he says. “And it’s got to be enforced fairly and across the board.”
Glenn Orange’s attachment to the corner of Market and Church is more than just sentimental. He’s established a good working relationship with Lauri Buckner, the manager of the Tervis Tumbler store that serves as his backdrop when he performs.
“It gets attention to us, because they stop by and see him and then they see our store,” Buckner says. “So we have no problems with it, and we’re not quite sure why anybody else does.”
When it comes to foot traffic in Charleston, you just can’t beat the Market. Clarence McDonald, a longtime busker who plays pop songs on xylophone and melodica, says he makes half as much tip money as he used to now that he’s been forced off the Market. He’s had some luck on East Bay Street, but it’s nothing like his previous weekend sessions in the heart of tourist town.
McDonald says he has tried to talk with police about the issue of enforcement, but he hasn’t made any headway. “I don’t know how to go about fighting it and making them change their minds without upsetting the whole cart,” he says. “They could make the whole city a restricted area.
“But Glenn [Orange] is a good talker,” McDonald adds. “He can persuade people.”
Orange is pushing back. Whenever he gets the chance now, he returns to his corner. He wraps his guitar case in crime-scene tape, puts up a sign explaining his situation (and asking people to like Glenn the Busker on Facebook), and starts singing for free.
“It’s just such a letdown that they are ending it on the Market,” Orange says. “Market Street is where the Visitors’ Bureau, where all the businesses say, ‘Go to the Market to experience Charleston.’ But now they’re saying, ‘We just don’t want them to experience this particular part of Charleston.'”
Orange wasn’t sure what prompted the crackdown when it happened, and Buckner suspected it started with vendors on the Market who didn’t like the noise. Indeed, Orange and his fellow musicians get mixed reviews from the salespeople and artisans who hear them all day long.
“If they’re on the corner and they’re singing in a normal voice, you know, instead of yelling like they’re angry, it’s fine and it’s pleasant,” says Tammy Varn, who runs a booth selling Charleston alphabet photography just across the street. “But we have some musicians” (she nods toward Orange’s corner) “that aren’t like that, and our customers don’t like it, so therefore we don’t like it.” Varn and other vendors said they would support a system like in New York City’s subways, where artists must audition before a judges’ panel.
Orange, for his part, is unapologetic, and he has no illusions about his talent level. Now he’s trying to set up a meeting with Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. or with Ellen Dressler Moryl, founding director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
“Yeah, I’m out here yelling for two hours at a time,” Orange says, “but that’s Market Street for you.”