Ray Russell has been playing blues guitar around Fort Worth for more than 25 years. For the past year, he has been a busker, meaning that he performs on the street instead of playing in traditional venues. He says he earns more in tips on the street than he would in a club. He’s not alone. Fort Worth police and the performers themselves say the number of buskers performing in Sundance Square has increased significantly over the past few years.

music_1Soon after Russell started performing in Sundance Square, however, some other buskers told him he was not allowed to ask for tips. Russell was nonplussed. He figured that he could just open his guitar case and let whatever tips he generated lie there, possibly inspiring further tips.


But the bicycle officers who patrol downtown soon told him that he could not even leave the money in his case. “If anyone throws a dollar in my guitar case now, I have to get it out immediately,” he said. “I think that’s going too far. I’ve seen a decrease in the amount I make in a night, probably down by 60 percent.”

Fort Worth Police Capt. Billy Cordell, whose division includes Sundance Square, equated money in a guitar case with panhandling. “It’s a fine line with regards to performers,” said Cordell, who heads the police department division that covers Sundance Square. “If you’re sitting there with the guitar case open, and there’s a lot of money in it, and people are coming up and putting that in, I’ll ask you as a citizen, ‘Do you reasonably think [buskers] are soliciting money by doing that?’ I think the reasonable answer is, ‘Yes, they are.’ And they are not supposed to do that. There’s a value to street performers, but we don’t want people out there harassing citizens, begging them for money.”

However, a federal appeals court recently ruled that busking is not begging since the person giving the money is paying for a service. In a case called Berger v. Seattle, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “speech that solicits funds is protected by the First Amendment.”

Fort Worth has no specific ordinance regulating busking. The police are using the city’s panhandling ordinance to address busking. Both Cordell and Sgt. Pedro Criado, a Fort Worth Police Department spokesperson, said they were unfamiliar with the Seattle case and would not comment.

Not all local street performers object to the restrictions. Musician Ron Boyer, who has been performing in Sundance Square for years, feels the restrictions are reasonable. “If you’re not offensive, [the police] don’t hassle you,” he said. “You can’t look like you’re asking for money. You can’t say, ‘Put $5 in, and I’ll play you a song.’ [The police] say that if you can ask for money, then we can’t stop the panhandlers.”

Amplification is another issue causing some tension between the buskers and the police. With more and more people living downtown, some buskers said officers have been selectively enforcing the noise ordinance only against buskers and not against clubs. Russell, who uses a 15-watt amplifier, tried to challenge this double standard. “The thing is not even as loud as a trumpet,” he said of his amp. “But after 11 p.m., I have to turn it off.

“At the same time,” he continued, “I’m sitting on the corner of 5th and Houston in front of the [bar formerly known as] Aqua Lounge, and I can hear their music, and I can hear the music from 8.0 [Restaurant & Bar] down the street.”

Russell recently asked a police officer to issue him a ticket so he could argue the issue in court. “He said, ‘I won’t write you a ticket, I’ll take you in.’ ” Russell complied with the officer’s request to unplug.

Criado said that in a situation like Russell’s, the best option is for a busker to accept the ticket and then ask to speak with a supervisor. If the cop refuses to put the musician in touch with a supervisor, the department spokesman said, the musician should wait for the officer to leave, then “call the non-emergency number … and ask for a supervisor.”

Cordell said there’s no clear answer on the issue of noise — whether it’s coming from an amp or a nearby club. “If you ask if the speed limit is 60, and someone is driving 65, is that a violation of the law? Yes,” he said. “If you’re asking me does this amplifier violate the law when it’s sitting next to a club where the music is louder from the club than it is from the amplifier, then that’s not a simple answer.

“We’re no different than any other large city that has a growing residential population downtown,” he continued. “It’s interesting: People move into a downtown area because of the entertainment and the value of the area, but sometimes the entertainment, when you’re trying to sleep at night, becomes an issue as well. So the compatible space issue is a tough balance for us: not interfering with a businessperson’s right to have their business and not interfering with the residential population. We struggle with that one on a regular basis.”

Cordell did concur with Criado on asking for a supervisor. “That should not be offensive to our officers,” Cordell said. “If it is, I’ll take corrective conversations with them on that.”


  1. Great article, I have also been run out of Sundance Square by the “Basstapo on Bicycles” . I sell newspapers. The Journey Street Newspaper. It kinda made me wonder about the first Amendment as well. So I called the permit people, “There is no permit needed for that” I was told. Not quite satisfied I called the City Attorney’s office and asked whether or not I was allowed to sell my newspapers on the sidewalk. I was told by the Senior Assistant city Attorney and by the Section chief who is also the attorney for the FWPD, that newspaper sales on the sidewalk ARE covered by the first Amendment. You must be on the sidewalk, not on private property without permission, and stay out of the street. I don’t know if this will work for your friend, but I intend to try again with our December Edition.

    Thanks for the article it was good.

    Stephen Karnes

  2. I was a busker in the stockyards i took pictures with the visitors and tourists alwas had good repore with most but as alwas when there is drinking going on there will alwas be someone not happy well i worked in fromt of cowtown colisum till i was kicked out by the gen. Manager saying i was rude to people which wasnt the case at all when i refused to pay them A$100.00 a day all of the sudden everything i did was wrong. Finally they ( the manager) revolked my permit so i was.forced to leave the area and go on the road doing events which wasnt lucrati e because of the cost of travel so i came back and worked infront of the white eliphant and the love shack with there permishion never a problem then all of the sudden when the Gen. Manager of cowtown col. Would walk by here would come the police or code inforcement i got a ticket for $560 but no one else did i went to the city to obtain a permite was told there wasnt no permit but yet the longhorn steer foto opp. Claimed they had one and they were never hareased i went to court and plead not guilty wanted a jury tryel cort was posponed then i got a notice in the mail there was a warrent for my arrest for failiar to appper so i called the court they.removed the warrent got another notice of court but because i was not allowed to work without harrasment. I was forced to go on the road again i rote a letter to the judge xsplaining my situation and was told it would be reset instead of dismised my ? Is tx is a rite to work state so y cant i work and y was i singled out and ignored by the city councleman when i tryed to talk with him he literly hid when i went to councle meeting so once again i was forced to leave and go on the road for events which is hard because of the cost of travel the way i see it it is the little moffia the cowboy sinicat of the stockyards if they arent mKing nothing off of you or it isnt there idea they dont want you there and i am prob. One of the most recognisex figures in the area and no mater where i go i am recognized as the stockyards indian i have had emails from litterly all over the world people thanking me for what i do to keep history alive and they hoped to see me again on there next visit when i tell them i got kicked out they have attempted to contact the city the stockyards the mayors office the. City att. Office with never a responce so if anyone can help please let me no ura! (Thankyou)

    • Kevin — Are you referring to Hub Baker at the Coliseum? What was the $560 ticket for (what law did you allegedly break)? Now that Ace Cook is dead, do you still have permission to play in front of the Bull Ring?

  3. Hi! I am helping some buskers in the Dallas/FW area can help me. My son (who just turned 14 years old) is a busker and plays outside St. Louis’s Cardinal stadium (we are from St. Louis). He’s been busking since last year. The law recently changed in St. Louis to allow all buskers to perform anywhere (except private property of course).

    Anyway, I am driving him down to Dallas for a camp at the end of June. he will be attending during the camp during the day and can busk at night. We are going to bring his busking stuff with us and was hoping to get some tips on good busking spots. He plays the keyboard, sings and has an amp and generator. Looking for places that are relatively “safe” – where we won’t get kicked off. Just a lot of gear to have to move around, so I want to play it safe.

    Thank you, fellow buskers for any help you can provide. Here is a clip of my son playing outside Busch Stadium last son: