How to busk legally in New York…

So for weeks and weeks and weeks on end I was trying to figure out how the hell you are supposed to busk (perform on the street) legally in this most over-regulated of American cities, our fair New York. Police on the street don’t know. Buskers don’t know. When you call up the precinct, they don’t know. There’s very little accurate information online. After more wrangling and researching than I ever did for a paper in college, I secured two busking slots for this coming weekend. Here’s what I learned in the process:

1. If you want to busk without amplification, you can do that pretty much anywhere, anytime. But the police don’t know the laws and they shut you down if they want to. Sometimes they don’t bug you, though, so you’re always just taking a chance.

2. If you want to busk with amplification, you’re relatively screwed. There are SO many more restrictions for you if you want to perform with amplified music.

3. To perform with amplification, you need to get a Sound Device Permit from the NYPD. They have an old, outdated form on their website (presumably because we pay billions of dollars in taxes so that they can NOT update their website or make anything convenient), but you have to print it out anyway and fill it in and bring it down to the precinct office of the area in which you want to perform.

4. God help you if you think you can drop off this form for the community affairs person to pick up later. Apparently the NYPD has never heard of mail, or leaving things on people’s desks, or God forbid, being able to email in a form (can you imagine how horrible and inconvenient THAT might be???). So, you have to call ahead to the precinct, find out when the community affairs person or whoever handles the permits in that particular precinct will be in, and go when it’s convenient for them, not you.

5. The permit application form says you need a permit from the Dept of Social Services if you want to solicit funds, which includes putting out a bucket or guitar case for people to toss money into. I literally spent 45 minutes on the phone being transferred to every single city agency, one after the other, because each one had never heard of this permit but thought the next person might know about it, and the process repeated itself about ten times before I gave up. Luckily, since no one in city government thinks this form exists, it effectively doesn’t. So don’t worry about this form. Just get your sound device permit and that’s the best you can do.

6. The process is basically this:

a. Fill out and print out the Sound Device Permit application, located on the NYPD’s official website. Don’t worry if you don’t know what something on it means because you can talk about it with the person who handles the applications at the precinct.

b. Call the precinct office for the precinct that contains the location in which you want to perform and find out who handles the applications, what their phone number is and when they’re available to accept your application.

c. Go meet with that person and they will tell you which locations they allow people to perform in. In all of the midtown north precinct, there are only four spots, and I assume other precincts are similar, because this city hates fun, noise, music and spontaneity now. I guess tourists will just have to be content with paying $90 to go to the top of the Empire State Building, or whatever they’re charging these days. And they are satisfied with that, so, fine.

d. The person you meet with will tell you when each location is available and you’ll pick the slot you want. Then they’ll tell you when to come back to pick up your permit, which costs $45 for the first day you perform under that permit, and $5 for each additional day. So for my two day permit, I paid $50 total. They like to be paid in a money order from the Post Office.

e. Spots get booked weeks in advance, so file your application weeks before you want to perform.

f. Pick up your permit at the precinct office.

g. Go perform, with your permit, and the awareness that even though you’ve followed all the rules and paid the fees, you could still get shut down by police who don’t know or care about the fact that you have the right to be there. And remember: HAVE FUN! Hahaha.

7. For any of you who might be interested, here are the authorized time slots and locations for busking in the midtown north precinct:

1. The northwest corner of 45th and Broadway, Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri, Sat 10a-4p, Weds and Sun 10a-2p.

2. The northeast corner of 49th and 7th, Sat and Sun 10a-4p.

3. The northeast corner of 58th and 5th, Sat and Sun 10a-4p.

4. The west side of 6th ave between 48th and 49th, Sat and Sun 10a-4p.

So, after the worst ordeal of my life, I’ll be playing the northeast corner of 49th and 7th this Saturday and Sunday. I better at least make my permit money back!

12 Comments

  1. A) I like that you use the word “wrangling,” because I use this in my up-and-coming blog post, although there is no “research” involved in my case.

    B) JC, JC, the world wants to know: What time on Sat and Sun are you playing?

    1. Not positive. My slots are 10a-4p, but that is way too long to be singing and talking, so perhaps I’ll start at noon? Remains to be seen.

  2. My daughter, age 12, and her friend, age 13 are going to be in NYC this summer for various dance and broadway intensives. My daughter plays the electric guitar and has a TINY little amplifier that clips onto your belt. If she doesn’t use some sort of amplifier, of course, you can’t hear her.

    She’d like to try busking, by singing and playing her guitar, and she and her friend would like to do some busking by tap-dancing to music.

    Do you think that we need to mess with all of this permit stuff for a few hours per week?……Thanks!

    1. No, I think she should just get out there with that setup and see what happens with the knowledge that she may get a ticket, but possibly not. Good luck!

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  4. So I am living in New York for the summer and i want to busk, just acoustic guitar and singing, no amplification, i dont need a permit no?

  5. I realize this is an old thread but I have a quick question. I play the piano and would like to try out busking… it seems like bringing an acoustic (i.e. a real) piano to a public place would be pretty much unworkable for me though. Can I play an electric keyboard in a public place without a permit? With speakers hooked up (so you can hear it)? Does this constitute amplification?

    Thanks,
    Peter

    1. My daughter busks in Columbus Circle regularly, singing with a hat out. She has been “looked over” by the park security and police, but they haven’t been able to make her move because she isn’t amplified in any way. I think that you could try it, but be ready to be moved because if you use any sort of electronics, you are limited as to where you can busk.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this! I was getting frustrated with the calls to city offices, and by the sound of it, I was only half done. Not only that, I didn’t realize that the permit was only for amplification, which I don’t have or need (i play vibes and marimba). I wasted a lot of time, but you saved me from wasting a lot more. So, again, thanks!

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