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The Right to Public Musicking

– This article is part of the graduate seminar series The Right to the City 2018-2019 –

It is difficult to explain to my German musician peers the idea that in Groningen one cannot simply perform music in the street. The idea that taking up sonic space is restricted, is well-understood: it’s an unwritten rule that in cities, such as Hamburg, a musician may only play at a place if they are far away from any other street musician. Competing for sonic space means to compete for audience’s attention and consequently also their money.

Physical and sonic space are resources that street musicians compete for on a daily basis in German cities – law and public policy professor Sheila Foster (2011) names these “tangible and intangible […] collectively shared resources” urban commons (58). Competition to these commons in Hamburg are not regulated by municipal law, but rather they are implicitly and collectively managed. Unlike Foster’s discussion of the concept of collective resource management (62), Hamburg’s street musicians rarely needs support from the city’s law enforcement. One may try to explain this by pointing at the affordance of Hamburg’s shopping streets: they are endlessly long, endlessly broad and endlessly well-visited. In other words, the demand for sonic spaces by musicians is justly met by the supply the city’s infrastructure offers.

These sonic spaces constitute important interventions to commercial city life. As a former musician, walking through different sonic spaces within the urban common of shopping streets is essential for me to enjoy a public space without indirect commercial pressure. For many, standing still and watch musicians perform constitutes an important part of daily ruptures in a busy city life. Ruptures that are critical for reflection, disorientation and re-orientation.

But ruptures have unpredictable outcomes. They may alter consumption behavior, they may fatigue potential consumers or they may outright push people away from certain areas (sonic interventions that influence consumption behavior have been theorized by authors such as Tia De Nora 2003 or Jonathan Sterne 1997). Perhaps one can understand this threat to commercial flow in shopping streets as the fear of regulatory slippage. Sheila Foster understands regulatory slippage as the decline of oversight or control by local governments over shared resources in the urban area (59).

But which resources precisely are under threat of being outside of local government’s control? I believe that affordances have to be considered highly contested resources in the shopping street. Affordance, as coined by James J. Gibson, refers in this context (and thus broader than defined by Gibson) to the configuration of multisensory attractors (scents, images, sounds) that ultimately have the power to nudge participants of the public into behavioral patterns (such as being inclined to spend more money or taking time to reflect). In that sense, considering the bombardment of sounds, scents and images in the city, it becomes evident how deep into a regulatory slippage many local governments can find themselves in.

In Groningen access to these resources is regulated by the local government. Perhaps not directly by restricting usage of sound, images and scents in shopping streets, but by indirectly regulating the sonic space street musicians may take. A first hurdle to claim some sonic space is a fee: the municipality Groningen charges 44,40€ for a permit to perform in public (Gemeente Groningen 2019). While many street musicians may make up for that sum in a day’s earnings of musicking, a fee nonetheless creates stakes and risks for artists. On a bad day (say, it rains a lot – not uncommon in the Netherlands) an artist may not make up for that sum after all. This is especially critical considering the second hurdle: a performance needs to be registered two weeks in advance. This limits a musician’s crucial spontaneity to decide whether performing is worth it or not. The third hurdle, and perhaps most crucial when discussing a right to the city, is space: the municipality clearly specifies spaces and duration in which musicians may play: musicians may not play in the main shopping street (Herestraat) and they may overall not play for longer than 15 minutes at the same place.

Limiting access to public spaces poses the question of whose city this is, anyways. David Harvey (2008) defines the right to the city as “far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves” and the places we live in (23). He argues that over the centuries, capital has steered urbanization to its own benefit “but at the price of burgeoning processes of creative destruction that have dispossessed the masses of any right to the city whatsoever” (37). Similarly, Groningen’s regulation of attention attractors seems to be shaped after logics of capital. Rupture, reflection and reorientation within the city space have the potential to endanger the flow of capital in shopping streets. By dispossessing musicians of their spontaneous engagement with urban commons, the municipal government in Groningen implicitly hands over the right to the city to the flow of capital.

Written by Manuel E.P. Reyes



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De Nora, Tia. 2003. “Music and ‘Control’” in After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology, 118-150, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foster, Sheila R. 2013. “Collective Action and the Urban Commons: Introduction.” In Notre Dame Law Review, 87:1, 57-134.

Gibson, James J. J. J. 1966. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. London: Allen and Unwin.

Groningen. 2019. “Muziekvergunning aanvragen” in gemeente.groningen.nl. https://gemeente.groningen.nl/muziekvergunning-aanvragen. Last accessed: Jan 19th, 2019.

Harvey, David. 2008. “The Right to the City.” New Left Review, 53,: 23-40.

Sterne, Jonathan. 1997. “Sounds like the Mall of America: Programmed Music and the Architectonics of Commercial Space.” In Ethnomusicology, 41:1, 22-50.