Busker Lyle Rickards entertains a group downtown. Street performers have "lost a lot of ground in Asheville,” he said. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Asheville loves its buskers so much that there’s a sculpture in the heart of downtown dedicated to street musicians.

But the buskers aren’t sure how much they love Asheville. Traveling buskers who once made regular stops here are no longer coming. Rising housing costs have made it tough for street performers to find a place to live near downtown.

The COVID pandemic brought diners onto the sidewalks and took away prime busking spots. And aggressive panhandlers, some buskers say, interfere with performances and scare away the audience.

It’s all led to a big drop in the number of street performers.

“I have noticed a dramatic loss of buskers in this town,” said Lyle Rickards, a leader of the Asheville Buskers Collective, a loose-knit group of some 300 street performers. “This year, I’d say there are 30 buskers in town for the season. Last year, we had 100.”

Busking has been such a part of Asheville’s culture that a sculpture was erected in the heart of downtown. // Watchdog photo by John Reinan

One musician who no longer performs in Asheville is Abby Roach, the legendary “Spoon Lady,” who returned to her native Kansas several years ago.

“There used to be a lot more bands coming out – three-, four-, five-piece bands,” Roach said. “A lot of the big bands don’t quite come out anymore. You have a lot of folks who have just kind of given up on street music.”

The world of street performance is “fragile,” said Andrew Fletcher, a longtime busker and community activist, and right now it’s damaged here.

“[Busking] exists when so many other things are going right and in balance,” Fletcher said. “Those factors changed in Asheville.”

No place to live

Buskers are often reluctant to reveal their income, but many performers say they make enough to live modestly. Several buskers said it can be more lucrative than playing in bars – which is a low bar to clear, they added.

“This has been my full-time living for 10 years. I pay rent, I pay taxes. I do well,” Rickards said. But with home prices and rents rising rapidly in Asheville, he said, it’s tough to find a place to live on a street performer’s income. Meanwhile, many buskers’ income is half what it once was.

“Half of us live in our cars,” Rickards said. “And we live farther out, because we can’t afford to live in Asheville. We are being marginalized.”

“This has been my full-time living for 10 years. I pay rent, I pay taxes. I do well,” Lyle Rickards said. But with home prices and rents rising rapidly in Asheville, he said, it’s tough to find a place to live on a street performer’s income.

Housing prices drove the Spoon Lady out of Asheville. Roach said she was able to buy a 2,000-square-foot house near Wichita, Kansas, for $50,000.

“Airbnb is kind of taking over any place that rents,” she said. “It’s kind of become a huge issue.” Some performers have gone to San Diego or New Orleans, she said. Other former regulars have moved across the Tennessee or South Carolina state lines, where housing is cheaper, and now come here only occasionally.

“The places near downtown are no longer there for people at the level of a performing income,” Fletcher said. “They’ve been replaced by people with more money.

“This is the story of gentrification. Artists make a place cool, and then when it’s cool, they can’t afford it anymore.”

The COVID pandemic also affected the buskers. Downtown restaurants received permission to create sidewalk seating areas and “parklets” at curbside. That ate up sidewalk space once used by buskers.

“We’ve lost a lot of ground in Asheville,” Rickards said. “When hotels are built, we lose sidewalks. Since COVID, a lot of tables have been put outside; parklets have been authorized outside. And they still have that outdoor seating.”

Roach finds it highly ironic that the busker sculpture on Hotel Arras property at the corner of Lexington and Patton Avenues took over a prime corner where busker bands once played.

“Somebody tagged that on social media as the Spoon Lady, and my head about popped off,” she said. “I felt I was used as hostile architecture.”

Problems with panhandlers

One sure way to raise the hackles of a busker is to compare them with panhandlers.

“It is an issue,” said a busker named Skyfox, who’s been performing downtown for several years and also works a retail job. “Not everyone knows the difference.

A busker named Skyfox performs in downtown Asheville. “A lot of times there are people acting crazy,” he said of panhandlers, “and it ruins the vibe for everybody.” // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

“So a person sees me, and there’s [a panhandler] next to me, and they lump us together: ‘Oh, those are both people asking me for money.’ I get treated in a way that’s less than respectful. I’ve been honing my craft for 10 years.

“A lot of times there are people acting crazy, and it ruins the vibe for everybody.”

The panhandling problem has gotten worse in recent years, said Rickards. He’s been mugged several times, he said, and has to ward off aggressive panhandlers almost every time he plays.

“Panhandling has interfered with my busking in the last year and a half more than it ever has,” he said. “This city has been gracious to us, to allow us to do this. And we in turn have our code of conduct. And we’re put in the same class as panhandlers. That’s an insult.”

“Panhandlers can make buskers look bad,” Fletcher said. “When there’s a lot of panhandling going on, a panhandler can kind of make you look like a panhandling musician.

“[But] there’s no comparison. There’s no overlap between panhandling and busking. They are completely separate activities that unfortunately share protection under the First Amendment. The panhandling issue is just a symptom of inequality in our society.”

Rickards is skeptical of current proposals to crack down on panhandling, especially along roadways and highway medians.

“If they stop the median panhandling, guess where they’re all gonna end up?” he said. “They’re all gonna end up in the center of town. That’s a bad idea.”

City: ‘We love and appreciate’ the buskers

The city realizes the issues buskers face and is sympathetic, said Dana Frankel, Asheville’s downtown projects manager.

“The city values our street performers and busking community very much,” Frankel said. “We recognize that in other cities, this is an activity people are trying to have.”

Frankel said she often gets calls from officials in other areas asking what they can do to encourage busking.

The city must balance many factors in managing the downtown area, she said. Safety requires that sidewalks and streets be kept open for passage. Restaurants and hotels want to best serve their patrons.

“The other uses of public space 100% conflict [with busking], and we try to do our best to manage that,” Frankel said. “We’re constantly looking for opportunities to get multiple wins for how our public space is utilized.”

The city maintains a hands-off policy with buskers, arising out of an episode about 10 years ago when officials proposed tighter regulations on busking, including designated spaces for busking and requiring buskers to wear a photo ID on a lanyard.

Lyle Rickards said buskers are being marginalized in Asheville. It’s a feeling many of his fellow buskers share. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

The Buskers Collective was formed in response, and the city agreed to let the buskers govern themselves under a code of conduct the group developed. Frankel said she thinks the system works well.

“Every time the city has kind of explored having a more active role in management, we tend to get pushback from the busking community,” she said. “And so we’ve kind of remained hands-off. We don’t want to interfere with something that’s working.”

In the coming years, she said, there will be more sidewalk space in downtown as projects get built out. The Flat Iron building, long a popular busking spot, is getting additional sidewalk area as part of its conversion to a hotel. The city is also exploring incentives for restaurants if they move their tables and chairs off the sidewalk during non-business hours.

“We want to be as supportive as possible while balancing the other needs our community has, and the demand for use of public space,” Frankel said. “We love [buskers] and appreciate them.”

Fletcher, who busks occasionally but mainly plays now in traditional venues, fondly recalled performing on Asheville streets in the ‘teens’ with Big Nasty, a New Orleans-style jazz band that was once a regular but no longer plays here.

“We didn’t know it at the time,” he said, “but that was sort of the golden age.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Reinan was a reporter for seven newspapers from Alaska to Florida. He was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Email jreinan@avlwatchdog.org.

18 replies on “ Asheville buskers are singing the blues”

  1. You guys have made it very hard for everyone who has a business downtown. Fox News had a heyday with your last article. Perhaps something positive? Maybe CNN will do a puff piece.

  2. Busking can be a great asset. Amplifying the music IS NOT. if buskers want to play amplified electrified music, then play in bars.

  3. While I appreciate some street performers, I won’t ever support an ‘amplified’ busker. Also, what’s their endgame in terms of housing and putting down roots? Sounds like Wichita is an option that more folks should consider…

  4. We love the busking to close audiences– those people who interact and contribute. Being downtown residents, we are many times bombarded with “LOUD” – bongos- drums- loudspeakers– huge LOUD –from modified exhausts- flag wavers singing into amplifiers– None of this is busking — The NOISE is driving out Busking. The noise is driving us out. The city has some infrastructure for controlling noise- but seems to be unwilling to do enforcement — I was even told that bongos were not “continuous noise” so would not even be enforced. The noise people and the police need to work 10PM – 2 AM especially weekends. The police department personnel (who are never to be seen at Pack Square durng 10-2AM.. ) ignore the very loud vehicles- ignore the modified mufflers and hugely amplified “sounds” of music- both are heard for blocks. All this is anti- busker– and anti residents – and I would guess anti-business as those business owners affected are reluctant to complain worried about retaliation. All this is anti- residents of downtown- all of this reflects on a lack of commitment by the city council- to adequately address and control “noise”. They talk – sure– The last 3 years the noise has increased tremendously. It is overwhelming. Where is the city council? Do they need another “study” – or can they— and the police department actually “act” ?

    1. I agree. I wrote a letter to Mt Express re: rabbit rabbit and the noise variance they received from the city, allowing them to exceed noise limits. No one seems to care.

  5. What actually is the “Busker Collective”? Are they registered somewhere, are there minutes of meetings, votes, officers, etc?

    Buskers that I know are struggling to be heard when people with amps drown out the the busker on the next corner. The only way to stop that is if buskers have to be permitted. Amped buskers have gotten much more agressive in the past few years.

    Otherwise the abusive amp people will continue to drive out the musicians who are truly talented and don’t need amp to hide the fact that they’re mediocre. True buskers add charm and atmosphere to the downtown streets and I miss the days when Asheville had an abundance of them.

    The author needs to dig a bit deeper; Spoon personis a trust fund baby, whose Father owns all the Pizza Huts in North and South Carolina. She is not some struggling busker who eaked out a meager living on the streets of Asheville.

  6. Mr. Rickards represents the type of busking which used to constitute a norm in Asheville, and which was valued by most as an asset to the community (residents, businesses, and tourists, alike). He is skilled at his craft, and has something to offer those who choose to stop and listen to him. The operative word being, “choose.”

    Like most traditional buskers, he does not rely on amplification, and thus does not impose himself or his music on a “captured audience” of those who may otherwise not wish to listen, or, who are in neighboring offices, businesses and apartments, attempting to go about their own lives without loud music blaring.

    For the past couple years, however, as the technology has evolved, there has been a mounting musical “arms race” within the busking community, having to do with amplification and volume. A growing number of buskers, rather than seeking to entertain passersby who will briefly congregate, enjoy a mini-concert, and then tip as they go on their way, now broadcast themselves over an entire block, attempting to attract the attention of captive audiences dining outdoors or walking down the street.

    The area stretching along Battery Park Ave., between Woolworths, the Flat Iron Sculpture, and the Grove Arcade is just one corridor where loud amplification has now become the norm. This should be a concern for the city, as well as a concern for other buskers. With amplification, people no longer are inclined to gather in close, interact with the musician, and listen. Rather, they are subjected to amplified outdoor concerts of greatly varying quality, imposed on any and all who happen to walk, dine outdoors, live, or work within a block of the amplifiers.

    The city should continue to try to maintain a supportive environment for buskers, but that also means that it must take into consideration the interests of other stakeholders. And if the busking community is going to be more self-governing, then it too has an interest in assuring that the actions of those who amplify their playing and singing, does not result in more of a backlash than there already is.

    Not only does the growing trend toward amplification end up disturbing far more people than it entertains, it also changes the norms for busking, squeezes out acoustic players who might wish to set up nearby, but cannot compete with the volume, and ultimately turns busking into more of a competition to see who has the bigger amps and speakers, than who, by virtue of their talent and entertainment value, can attract the most listeners.

  7. We visit Asheville often and have been saddened by the lack of street performers….a lot of Asheville’s charm has been the amazing talents of the Spoon Lady and musicians from all over the country and it is noticeably missing. The panhandlers have become aggressive and scary…we spend a lot less time on the sidewalks.

  8. Amplified Buskers – bad.
    Acoustic Buskers and Magicians
    – good.
    Loosing the landmark Obelisk -bad.
    Symphony in the park and Friday night drum circle – good.
    Panhandlers and doorway sleepers – very bad.
    Yes, Asheville can loose it’s charm.

  9. As a musician who has played over the years at both inside and outside venues in downtown Asheville, I would say this is a well-written article.

    And as a resident in Buncombe County since 1999, I’ve raised a family here and worked over 7,000 Uber/Lyft rides.

    The overwrought, oppressive public pandemic response, combined with the social upheaval in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020, really crippled Asheville. It’s just not the happy place it used to be, and it’s a ghost town on weekends compared to what it was in 2018 and 2019.

    35% of our restaurants are gone. 40% of our police officers are gone. A number of different factors have precipitated a severe labor shortage in Asheville. Businesses that once stayed open till midnight or later, including restaurants, bars, and other venues, literally can’t find the employees to work the extra hours, which in turn drives the crowds elsewhere. Of course, when the patrons aren’t here, businesses can’t justify staying open — later, or at all. It’s a vicious cycle.

    Asheville has now been in the national spotlight for its rising crime and growing homeless population. When you add to that population restaurants with additional outdoor seating and traditional buskers, there’s just not enough room for everybody on the sidewalks, especially tourists. It doesn’t create an inviting atmosphere.

    I certainly get the point about amplification. There’s this one guy I’ve seen on the Cambria corner of Battery Park Ave. and Page Ave., across from the Grove Arcade. He has a keyboard, amp, and mic. He sounds pretty good, but I have to say, he is really loud. I just hear him passing by when I’m doing Uber, but I can certainly see why he might be irritating to others. I think it would be more acceptable if he just played a keyboard with internal speakers, and he sang without a mic. That would approximate the volume of a good acoustic guitar, and I think it would be more respectful of others around that corner. There are other street performers amplifying themselves around downtown. That’s just an example.

    So there it is. With the general mismanagement of the city, and real estate prices holding steady at all time highs, even in a climate of rising interest rates, I don’t see Asheville’s downtown scene rising to its former glory anytime soon.

    It’s not the same vibe — and that’s fine — but West Asheville’s Haywood Road is looking and feeling groovier all the time.

  10. With the original article and the thoughtful comments, the subject of buskers in downtown Asheville has been pretty well covered but I do have one comment. Much like the buskers are unfairly conflated with the panhandlers downtown, the same is true for motorcycles and cars with their illegal, aftermarket mufflers and giant amplifiers mounted in the trucks of cars. My experience with dining on patios downtown is that the worst noise is caused by loud cars and motorcycles. Recently, I observed a guy riding a motorcycle up and down on the same street with loud music playing. While incomprehensible to me, it seemed to be how he dealt with his low self-esteem.
    Asheville busters are of great value to Asheville and it is incumbent upon us not to confuse them with panhandlers and loud vehicles. If the Asheville police would crack down on loud noises coming from passing vehicle‘s downtown, the buskers questions would be resolved by the buskers themselves as they did in the past.

  11. Please Help this beautiful city and restrict and ban the Panhandling. It’s hurting Asheville’s image, our culture, tourism, business, busking, locals, and it’s incessant. These addicts are getting violent, they aren’t homeless first, they are addicts who face real issues that money and hand outs are enabling. I hope this city rallys and looks long and hard at the symptoms of it’s complacency.

  12. As a busker, I keep to the Pack Square area. Mainly because I AM LOUD. Ha! I play drums. My electric kit is of course amplified. If you asked the passersby, I think you’d find two things. First, the vast majority of the people floating through the area are tourists. Second, they like what I’m doing. Any time I play Lizzo’s “Good As Hell”, I see people mouthing the lyrics. When I strike up, “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO, people smile. Little kids are mesmerized by what I’m doing. That makes me smile.

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