Boston’s Biggest Stage: Everything You Need to Know About Beantown Busking

There are over 1,600 miles of sidewalk in Boston, arguably making sidewalks your biggest and most accessible stage. Busking, as street performing is traditionally known, is a great way to get in front of people and work on your stage presence. Even Amanda Palmer once graced the sidewalks of Harvard Square in Cambridge as the living “Eight-Foot Bride” statue. In her TED talk, Palmer extolls the benefits of having exposed herself to the generosity of strangers and how it helped her artistic development and career as a performer.

Busking is alive and well in Boston, and it’ll give you the opportunity to demo new songs in a low-risk environment. Find out about the regulations affecting street performances in and around Boston, and how to get started as a successful busker.

Take your performance underground

Apart from staying warm in the winter, being a subway performer tests your ability to quickly grab an audience’s attention. According to the 2014 MBTA Blue Book, there are more than 750,000 riders waiting to hear you perform on an average weekday. If making people’s commutes a little more enjoyable isn’t enough to convince you busk underground, then imagine trying to find other venues that offer such a large, captive audience!

All you need to get started as a subway performer is a $25 permit from the MBTA. To get theMBTA Subway Performers Permit, you will need to make an appointment to visit the Massachusetts Realty Group office and present two IDs, a recent piece of mail, two character references, $25, and your permit application. Your photo ID permit will be good for 12 months, and will give you first-come, first-serve access to more than 60 locations throughout the network of MBTA stations. Keep in mind you will have to play by the MBTA rules, including: look neat, pay your fare, keep the sound level below 80 db(A) at 25 feet, no trumpets or drums, bring your own power, and perform only in designated areas.

Hit the pavement

Boston is a city of walkers with over 20 million visitors per year. The city’s 1,600 miles of sidewalk space is enough to run a continuous sidewalk from Boston to Miami, according to the City of Boston Department of Public Works.

With dozens of museums and tourist attractions in one of America’s most walkable cities, Boston provides lots of opportunity for buskers. Popular performance spots include Copley Square and the bridge over the pond in the Public Garden, but considering the vast amount of musical talent in Boston, there are hundreds of other spots throughout the city that are underutilized. When considering performance locations, search maps for areas of high foot traffic – these might include shopping districts, museums, parks, restaurants, and popular walking routes such as the Freedom Trail, Walk to the Sea, or Harborwalk. Foot traffic is especially high in areas near large museums and historic sites. The 3 largest Massachusetts museums by attendance are located in Boston, which each enjoyed well over one million visitors in 2013. Areas around the New England Aquarium, Museum of Fine Arts, and Museum of Science could all make enticing performance spots as well.

No permit is required to perform on the sidewalks and parks of Boston, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules – local noise and safety ordinances still apply. These regulations limit things such as how loud you can play and prevent you from blocking the sidewalks, streets, or building entrances. In Boston, municipal noise ordinances limit amplified sound to 70db(A). You can tell if your band is louder than 70db(A) by downloading one of the many decibel reading apps available for smartphones and tablets.

According to Stephen H. Baird, executive director of Community Arts Advocates, there are several documents you can show to police if they try to discourage you from street performing. Links are available in his detailed history of busking/street performing in Boston.

Be a tourist attraction at Faneuil Hall Marketplace

Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall have everything necessary to ensure that street performers have a large, willing audience. The area is a combined historic attraction, shopping district, and tourist area with over 18 million visitors each year. Performance slots are so exclusive and highly sought after that auditions are held every spring to determine the lineup. Performances typically include a mix of musicians, jugglers, human statues, dancers, and acrobats.

To become a Faneuil Hall Marketplace street artist, you will need to submit an application and get selected at the live auditions. Applications are due in mid-April and must include two video samples, two references, and a headshot. The live auditions are by invitation only and take place in early May. You can apply as a full-time, part-time, or traveling performer, depending on the number of days you would like to perform. As an approved performer, you will be allotted certain days and time slots, with the added benefit of having your picture and a hyperlink displayed on theStreet Theater section of their website.

Busk among the Ivy Leaguers at Harvard Square

In addition to being in the heart of a vibrant academic community, Harvard Square is also a major tourist destination with busloads of people snapping pictures of the ivy covered buildings. Because Harvard Square is located in the city of Cambridge, you will need to get a permit to perform there.

Getting the Cambridge permit is easy, and you do not need to be a resident of Cambridge to apply. Permits cost $40 and expire at the end of December of the year they are granted. Thestreet performer application is available online, but must be submitted in person at the Cambridge Arts Council office. The application is simple, only requiring basic contact information and a few details about your performance. If there is more than one person performing, each person must apply for a permit and display it when performing. Regulations including approved performance hours and and noise level are available in the Street Performer Ordinance.

In addition to granting you permission to perform in Harvard Square, a Cambridge street performer permit also opens the possibility of performing in areas such as Kendall Square,the dwelling place of many creative startups and big tech companies such as Google.

Tips for successful busking

Aside from landing a prime performance spot, there are a few things you need to know to maximize your success as a street performer:

  • Don’t block the sidewalks or doorways.
  • Try find performance spots in areas with a lot of foot traffic.
  • Always display some flyers, CDs, and/or business cards.
  • Remember to give people a performance, not just a practice session.
  • Put out a hat or an open case so that people can show their appreciation.
  • Be prepared to take requests (children especially love to ask for their favorite songs).
  • As a busker you are always on stage, so be kind and mindful of your actions in between songs.
  • You will never have a more diverse testing ground for your songs, so pay attention to people’s reactions. If adults stop to listen and kids start to dance, then you’re probably doing something right.

Borrowing Success: How to Legally Sample Music

Often associated with ’80s rappers, sampling occurs when songwriters and recording artists use borrowed sections of music from other compositions or recordings in their new works. The motivations for using clips of preexisting music and recordings in a new song are varied; sampling can lend new songs a sense of nostalgia, quickly give artists and producers a desired sound or riff, and even help new songs benefit from the proven success of a hit. To hear sampling in action, listen to this medley compiled by William Goodman for his Huffington Post article entitled “12 Hit Songs You Never Knew Used Samples from Older Songs.”

There’s a reason, however, that sampling isn’t as widespread among mainstream artists today. Contrary to popular belief, the US courts have ruled that sampling in commercial recordings is NOT fair use (no matter how short the sample) and have even referred infringers like Biz Markie, whose story is below, for criminal prosecution. So if you’ve ever considered using a sample in one of your recordings, make sure you do it legally.

How do you legally sample a song?

It’s important to remember that samples typically contain two individually copyrighted works: the underlying composition (the song itself, usually owned by the songwriter or publisher) and the recording (usually owned by the artist or record label). When you sample, you must get permission from both the owner of the composition and the owner of the recording beforeyou release any copies of your new recording. If both parties approve your request to sample, you’ll need to enter into a sampling agreement with each copyright owner.

Getting permission to use the composition (the song itself)

To record songs that don’t belong to you, a mechanical license (typically available through theHarry Fox Agency) is usually all you need. When combining two or more songs into a single song/recording, however, you need special permission from each song’s owner because you’re making a derivative work, which renders a standard mechanical license insufficient and forces you to go directly to the song owner/publisher.

Find out who the publishers are for each song you wish to use (try ASCAP’s ACE title search) and request a license to sample the song. To be successful in your request, be prepared to offer them as much information as possible about your planned use of the material. Be ready with information such as which section of the song will be sampled, how many seconds the sample will last, timing of the overall recording, the number of units you plan to create/distribute, and what types of media you will use (CD, ringtone, streams, etc.).

Getting permission to use the recording

As with the request to license the song itself, when you seek to use part of someone else’s recording in your new recording, you’re making a derivative work. Artists and labels may be wary of requests to sample because of the possibility that the new song will diminish the value of the original recording. Find out who owns/administers the master recording that you want to sample (start by contacting the record label) and request a license to sample. Just like the request to sample the underlying composition, you have a greater chance at success when you’re prepared to offer them as much information as possible about your planned use of their recording. In addition to the information listed above, you might even be asked to include a demo of what your new recording might sound like if it were to include the sample.

How to be a good copycat

Although it’s illegal to actually use someone else’s recording, it’s not illegal to sound like someone else (just think of all the Beatles tribute bands). So if you’re able to get permission to use the composition but not the recording, you could create your own soundalike recording and sample your own recording instead of the original. It might not be as authentic-sounding, but it’s legal!

How much does it cost to legally sample a song?

How much it costs to legally sample a song will depend on the owners of the underlying composition and the recording you’re sampling. Because there’s currently no compulsory license for sampling, there’s also no statutory rate. So unlike typical mechanical licenses, which cost 9.1 cents per copy for songs of five minutes or less, you’ll have to negotiate sampling rates for each song you sample.

The 2010 edition of Kohn on Music Licensing suggests that royalty rates for samples of sound recordings range from a fraction of a cent to five cents per unit and carry advances starting at several thousands of dollars, but the rate you negotiate will depend on several factors including the success of the initial song and recording, your own success, the length of the sample, how it will be distributed, and more.

Upon receiving your request to sample, both the owner of the composition and the owner of the recording may refuse to license, or they might try to negotiate one of the following payment methods:

  • Mechanical license for a flat fee or for a royalty
  • Mechanical license for a royalty and share of performance royalties
  • Co-ownership in the new composition/recording
  • Complete ownership of the new composition/recording

As always, if you’re considering entering into any type of legal agreement concerning one of your songs, consult an attorney specializing in entertainment law first.

What happens if you sample illegally?

In a 1991 landmark case on sampling, a federal judge ruled against rapper Biz Markie for his sampling of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song/recording of “Alone Again (Naturally)” in Markie’s “I Need a Haircut.” In addition to an injunction (taking all copies off the market) and a huge fine, the court actually invoked the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” and referred the matter to the US Attorney’s office for criminal prosecution, resulting in the case Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., 780 F. Supp. 182. But for his next album, Markie made it clear that he understood the court’s message, titling it All Samples Cleared.

There’s still a streak of defiance from some musicians such as Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis who, along with his record label Illegal Art, purposely and unapologetically samples in the name of artistic freedom. Although he doesn’t seem to have been the subject of a scathing legal action (yet), the laws regarding sampling haven’t changed, and illegal sampling can be difficult to cope with financially.

According to the precedent set by the O’Sullivan and Markie case, if you sample illegally, you could be taken to court, made to pay profits and damages, have all copies taken off of the market, and be criminally prosecuted. So before using a sample, make sure you ask for permission (and get it in writing), and don’t use the sample if your request is refused.