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  • Council considers busking ordinance

    Street musician wants licenses issued in Nevada City

    Tom Durkin

    Nevada City Advocate 

    From the ages 18 to 28, Janssen Kuhn busked for a living from Portland, Oregon, to freezing subway tunnels in New York City.

    Now 34, Kuhn plays his violin (not a fiddle) on the sunny corner of Broad and Pine streets in downtown Nevada City. These days, he busks “for fun,” although he still enjoys the coins and bills tossed into his violin case.

    Since he is one of the better known – and best dressed – local buskers, Kuhn has become something of an advocate for local street performers’ rights and responsibilities.

    On March 14 during the public comments portion of the Nevada City Council meeting, Kuhn proposed that the city adopt a busking ordinance. Sometimes, transient buskers do not respect the rights of established local buskers, he told the council. 

    Furthermore, he explained competition for busking spots intensifies in September and October when trimmigants (itinerant marijuana trimmers, often from other countries and cultures) occupy Nevada City and compete with local buskers.

    By law, the council could not discuss or vote on Kuhn’s suggestion, but Mayor Duane Strawser affirmed the council would put it on a future agenda for discussion. He commented that the council might want to include a busking ordinance in conjunction with a similar need to regulate pop-up food vendors.

    Deputy City Clerk Loree’ McCay reported March 20 the busking ordinance is tentatively scheduled to be on the agenda in late April.

    In a subsequent interview, Kuhn said, “I’m hoping for at least some rules.” 

    For instance, he said a modest licensing fee of perhaps $18 would weed out “bad actors,” such as panhandlers making more noise than music. Licensing serious buskers would improve the quality of music, he reasoned.

    The reception to Kuhn’s proposal has been lukewarm. 

    “I have no issue with folks paying for music and having a guitar case open for donations. If the music is good, we all benefit,” Council Member Evans Phelps said in an email.

    Phelps added, however, that she didn’t see any urgency for an ordinance when the council is dealing with higher priority issues like cannabis, homelessness, lack of parking, finding a new police chief and other concerns.

    Lt. Paul Rohde of the Nevada City Police said, “I don’t really view buskers as a problem.” Besides, he added, busking is a free speech right protected under the First Amendment. 

    Longtime local musician Kelly Fleming said that he busked his way through Ireland in his youth, but he’s never had to busk in Nevada City because he gets enough indoor gigs. (He’s practically a fixture at the “guitar bar” in Friar Tuck’s restaurant.)

    Fleming had mixed feelings about a busking ordinance. “It’s a slippery slope,” he cautioned.

    Nevertheless, Fleming is a strong proponent of busking. “It gives the town color – and I’ve heard some of the best music I’ve ever heard on the streets.” 

    Itinerant buskers Zackery Hoopergarner and Jon Monargent arrived in town about six months ago – and have no intention to leave anytime soon. 

    “Nevada City is a very special place,” said guitarist Hoopergarner. “People are so open and receptive.”

    Monargent, on digeridoo and beat box, stressed that they hope their music is “giving back to the community” for welcoming them as street musicians.

    Both agreed they had no problem with the idea of being regulated by ordinance.

    For almost a decade, the highly popular Ruckrich Family Band of Grass Valley has been successfully busking in Nevada City.

    Although the family band – fronted by musical prodigy D’Jango, now 13, and his little sister Jasmine, 9 – is currently on a busking tour of Spain and Southern France, father Phil Ruckrich said in an email, “During the street fairs, we often draw large crowds complete with dancing children who love to put their parents money in our case.”

    Regarding the ordinance, Ruckrich said, “I respect Janssen and consider him a colleague. I imagine he has shared some good ideas with the city. We will be home in early April, and I would be happy to contribute to the discussion at that time.”

    Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada County. Contact him at tdurkin@vfr.net or www.tomdurkin-writer.net.

    About the photo:   

    Busker Janssen Kuhn plays on in downtown Nevada City as a passer-by donates a dollar under the watchful eye of Kuhn’s dog, Rex. 

    Photo by Tom Durkin