Winston-Salem buskers crave consistency

by Brittany Mollis

Adrian Byington readies himself for a night of street performing in downtown Winston-Salem.


When Julian Robson wakes up in the morning, he drinks his coffee. He gets dressed, and he prepares for his work day. He works in downtown Winston-Salem, and he even has a “corner office.” Like anyone else, Robson admits that some work days are easier than others. There are even days that Robson puts in 14 hours at the office. He doesn’t mind because he has a genuine passion for his job. With any line of work, there are always complications. Robson’s line of work is no exception.

Julian Robson is a busker. For those who may not be familiar with the term, a busker is a person who sings, dances or recites on the street or in a public place. Buskers perform to entertain the public, and they accept tips for their performances. Buskers are not to be confused with panhandlers. Panhandlers approach strangers and solicit them for money or food.

“There is a huge difference between the two,” Robson says.

Robson’s “office” is at the corner of 4 th and Spruce streets, and he works there with his friend and fellow busker, Adrian Byington. The two form a duo called “The Adventures of Sandman and Thunderdrum.” They have been performing there, rain or shine, for nearly nine months.

Winston-Salem is known as “The City of the Arts,” so it’s no surprise that the majority of the public seems receptive and supportive of this duo. As people walk by this corner, they smile, dance and even tip the young men for their music.

“We are just out here trying to make an honest living. It may be an unorthodox way to do it, but it’s still an honest living.” Robson says.

With any line of honest work, there are rules. Busking has rules too, but at this time, they are not crystal clear in Winston-Salem.

Unlike a lot of bigger cities, Winston- Salem does not offer a busking permit, and there currently is no action being taken to create this permit. If there were a busking permit, the applicant would typically perform before a council, and that council would decide if the applicant’s talent would be beneficial to the culture of the city. If the council decides to approve the applicant, he/she would need to sign papers to agree to the City’s rules. These rules differ from city to city, but the general message is that buskers can’t make a nuisance of themselves, and they can’t beg for money. If they break the rules, they are subject to punishment by law, and they could have their permit revoked so they can no longer make a living by busking.

Since Winston-Salem does not offer a busking permit, buskers are required to get a foot peddler’s permit to perform on city streets. This permit allows them to busk for a living, but as Robson explains, “only until midnight.”

The permit itself does not forbid them to play after midnight, and they have played until the early hours of the morning on occasion. Recently, however, there has been a problem.

BUSKERS: ‘Buskers perform to entertain the public’

Because there is no busking permit that states what time of day or night they can perform, the buskers of Winston-Salem are subject to dealing with noise ordinance complaints after midnight. These complaints hurt the duo financially.

“Midnight until about 2:30 is when the bar crowd comes out, and that’s a big time for us. So it hurts when we can’t play for this crowd.”

The complaints come from the 15 th -18 th floors of an apartment complex a block down the street from where The Adventures of Sandman and Thunderdrum are located. The block that separates Robson from the apartment complex includes at least two bars that feature live bands.

“If we’re not making any more noise than the bars down here, I don’t understand what the problem is.”

The problem is that when residents complain about the noise after midnight, the police have to show up to the scene, and that is when the situation gets confusing.

Because there is no busking permit, the police can’t enforce the rules that would go along with such a permit. The peddler’s permit doesn’t have time restrictions, so the duo isn’t breaking any type of agreement or law. Even though they are not doing anything wrong, they are being forced to close up shop before their biggest financial backers have a chance to hear them play.

Heath Combs, lead singer and guitarist of the group “Twin City Buskers,” is sympathetic toward street performers in Winston-Salem. He and his bandmates began playing downtown six years ago.

“For a lot of artists in this town, playing on the street is the only way they can become accessible to a larger audience. Playing on the street is a way to hone your craft and it kind of serves as an arts incubator. We’ve secured many regular gigs because of our busking gigs.”

While he encourages busking, Combs also understands that not everyone is a fan of the art.

“From what I understand about the science behind sound, it can ring a lot louder upward than it does on the street. There are street performers who can be a nuisance, and I completely understand police cracking down on some who’ve been annoying to folks who just want to drink a couple beers downtown.”

If he could offer a solution, it would be that the City adopt some kind of a way to keep performers on the streets.

“They do it in Asheville. It has to be an area that gets a lot of foot traffic so performers can generate some cash.”

Combs also wants to point out that Winston-Salem streets have seen some of the best buskers of all time.

“At least two blues legends busked the streets of Winston-Salem. They are immortal in blues circles – Guitar Gabriel and Big Ron Hunter.”

Combs believes in the City’s talent, and he hopes a solution is found to make everyone happy. He believes in the future of downtown.

“Hopefully more street performers is just one more reason to come downtown.”

Until Winston-Salem adopts a way to work more actively with buskers, there will be issues. Robson just asks that the City be reasonable.

“I understand that the City wants to have a certain degree of prudence, but if I’m not making any more noise than anyone else, I don’t understand what the problem is.”

“We live in a country of entrepreneurial spirit and in the ‘City of the Arts,” Robson says,” We just want them to live up to their name.”

Robson hopes that a solution will soon be found because he wants to keep playing for the people of Winston-Salem.

“We love the people here. We want them to know how much we appreciate their love and support.”

Robson knows that every day on the corner of 4 th and Spruce is unpredictable. The foot traffic is different. The money is different. The weather is different. His line of work is filled with variables, but two things remain consistent: his love for the City, and his desire to play for its people.

Julian Robson will still get up in the morning. He will still drink his coffee, and he will still get ready for work. He will still head over to his corner office, and he will still play his music for the people of Winston-Salem until he is told to close up shop for the night.

Robson believes in being consistent in a line of work filled with inconsistencies. !


Due to a reporter’s error the contact information for a record store in an article last week was incorrect. The correct information for Jukebox Oldies is 120 Reynolda Village in Winston-Salem. The telephone number is 336-408–8383. Contact to report errors in print.