Here's why you'll be seeing more street musicians in Chattanooga

Here's why you'll be seeing more street musicians in Chattanooga

June 26th, 2016 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Randy Croy, left, plays trumpet along with Jaxon McCord, center, and Jazalyn McCord, who got their plastic trumpets from Croy.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Street Cred: New program puts local musicians in front of downtown visitors

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Sidewalk Stages rules

› Perform in public places, such as sidewalks, pedestrian bridges and the parks between

› Perform between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

› When on a sidewalk or other pedestrian right-of-way, provide a minimum of five feet of pedestrian passageway.

› Play well with others. Maintain 150 feet between you and another street performer.

› Street performance places are first-come, first-available. No performer has a right to a specific public space over another performer.

› An open receptacle, such as a guitar case, hat or box indicates a request for tips. Aggressively and vocally requesting donation or payment is not permitted.

› Selling records, tapes or other merchandise is not permitted.

› Be considerate. Work with business owners, law enforcement and others to understand how their activities may be affected by your presence.

› Do not perform within 150 feet of a school, library, hospital, funeral home or church while in session. Abide by noise ordinance regulations.

› Do not perform in public places where a community event is being held or on private property without the written consent of the event organizer or private property owner.

› Substance abuse is not permitted. Do not perform while under the influence.

› Leave no trace. Remove any trash, props or other materials upon completion of the performance.

Randy Croy likes working a crowd, whether he's dressed in a Santa costume, making balloon characters at a fair or playing trumpet with the Music City Brass, something he's done since 1969.

The guys in the band are looking to scale back a bit, doing less travel and fewer gigs. Croy also retired recently, so he's found himself with extra time on his hands. While his desire for travel might have waned, his love of playing has not.

To feed that jones, he signed on to be a busker as part of SoundCorps' new Sidewalk Stages program in town.

You can find Croy, as well as any number of other street musicians, performing at a dozen or so locations around town on weekends.

"I just love to play," he says. "I do it because I enjoy playing, and I like to watch the different reactions from people."

In addition to his own trumpet, Croy brings along plastic versions that he hands to young children, especially the shy ones or the ones who might be having a meltdown moment.

"I tell them this is a no-cry zone and give them a trumpet," he says. "That stops the crying, and mom and dad get to take pictures or videos and the whole family gets involved."

It's that kind of interaction that Stratton Tingle, executive director of SoundCorps, a local music advocacy organization, had in mind when Sidewalk Stages was conceived. The idea behind the program, which began a few weeks ago, is to increase the number of people who see local performers, to entertain downtown visitors and to create revenue opportunities for musicians.

Almost 50 musicians have registered to participate to date, but nowhere near that many sign up to perform each week, he says. The musicians include guitarists, cellists, singers, keyboardists and a person who plays a didgeridoo, the wind instrument developed by indigenous Australians about 1,500 years ago. Twelve-year-old fiddle/violin player Ishmael Sanford is among the registered musicians.

Sidewalk Stages locations include the Walnut Street Bridge, the Chattanooga Airport, Warehouse Row and in front of the Carmike Majestic 12 theater in the Tennessee Aquarium area. The program, which runs from April through October, only deals with musicians since music is the basic mission of SoundCorps, Tingle says.

"We want to help performers build their business," he says.

Each of the 15 to 30 musicians who are scheduled to perform two-hour sets from Friday through Sunday is paid $25 by SoundCorps; they also they keep any tips they make. Tingle says those tips are averaging between $40 and $70.

For blues guitarist Rick Rushing III, the tip money wasn't quite what he had hoped, but he blames that on people not understanding that the musicians are performing for tips.

"I could have stayed home and written a song," he says, "but I will do it again. I like the idea."

Croy says it's not about the money for him.

"It's OK, but no way could you do it and survive. I don't do it for that."

Overall funding for Sidewalk Stages, like all SoundCorps programs, comes from the Benwood, Lyndhurst and McKenzie foundations and from revenue raised at any of the workshops or events that SoundCorps produces.

The organization keeps a database and a weekly schedule for Sidewalk Stages. Tingle says his office budgets for up to 30 performers per weekend, and that's the number he'd like to see performing each week. So far, data shows that each performer plays to about 300 people during their two-hour slots which, if you do the math, could add up to about 60,000 people watching local artists perform over the 10-week Sidewalk Stages series, he says.

Matt Downer, himself a veteran of the local busking scene with the old-timey music he plays, is Sidewalk Stages' program general manager, which puts him in charge of things like scheduling both the performers and "Busker Bosses," the SoundCorps staffers who check in on performers to make sure they're OK and that city and SoundCorps rules are being followed.

The city doesn't have laws governing street performing as such, but it does have rules against panhandling. Buskers cannot solicit tips, nor can they sell CDs or tapes. They also can't block pedestrian or auto traffic nor create a crowd that does.

"They have to play nice," Tingle says.

Unfortunately, Downer says, busking is too often associated with panhandling.

"Part of what we do is educate people that they are not the same thing," he says. "We have strict guidelines against soliciting, and we've got a rich tradition of street performing here. Bessie Smith got her start singing on the streets."

Potential performers are vetted by Downer and Tingle to ensure they can indeed play music, and that they understand the rules. The Busker Bosses visit each musician throughout the weekend and do brief surveys after the performance.

Downer says being a street performer has many advantages for musicians.

"It's a great way for me to try out new material. It's exciting because you get to meet people from all over the world. It's good for the performers, good for tourists and it's good for the city."

As for the amount of money the buskers might make in a day, Downer says it's a lot like fishing.

"Some days are better than others."

Multi-instrumentalist Butch Ross says that, while busking is not new to Chattanooga, it's good to see it getting some kind of organized support.

"There have been people busking before, but it's nice to see people being supported and encouraged by someone like SoundCorps and the city," he says.

Ross says that, early in his career, he developed a certain way of looping his music through a tape machine then playing live over it while doing four-hour shifts in front of the Tennessee Aquarium. He liked the instant feedback from listeners.

"You could literally make something up and tell how good it was by how close the people were standing to you," he says. "If they liked it, they'd come closer."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.