Lexington Farmers Market implements fee and time limit on musicians

The Lexington Farmers Market recently adopted new restrictions and imposed a $50 fee for musicians who want to perform there.
The Lexington Farmers Market recently adopted new restrictions and imposed a $50 fee for musicians who want to perform there. Herald-Leader

Lexington Farmers Market has become a lot less musical since the end of July when the market adopted a $50 fee and two-hour limit for musicians who want to perform there.

While that stymies those with limited musical ability and grating voices, it also limits those who play heritage music and busk for money to support school music programs.

"We are not opposed to music, not opposed to busking, but a lot of people in the community don't realize that even our farmers have to pay to be there," said Jeff Dabbelt, executive director of the Lexington Farmers Market.

Already the lack of music has made a positive difference at the market, Dabbelt said. Farmers and merchants have "noticed the benefits. They can hear their customers. That's a lot of what our marketing is about, relationship marketing."

The market's street entertainer policy says that city ordinances require that street musicians:

■ Not be located so closely to another street entertainer so as to interfere with his or her performance.

■ Not obstruct pedestrian traffic.

■ Not unreasonably disturb the operation of adjacent businesses.

The abruptness of implementation of the new music policy has disturbed some longtime farmers market fans.

Charlene Dunn of Versailles, who comes from a farming family, said her daughter and a friend were embarrassed to be prevented from playing old-timey music at the market.

"I've always loved the arts and I have an appreciation for commerce because my father was in the farmers market," Dunn said. "I love the market. I love the farmers, and I appreciate their work. At the same time, I think music added so much to the atmosphere."

Musician Stephanie Jeter, who performs traditional Appalachian music, played in East Tennessee farmers markets before coming to Lexington and was surprised at the Lexington market's policy.

"Back home, there was a special place for musicians to play," she said. "Sometimes they would get produce, tips or even get paid."

The anti-musician rules are adversely affecting the quality of the market, she said. Music "adds to the ambiance and atmosphere of being in that environment," Jeter said.

The $50 fee is a big deterrent, she said.

"I have a band that I play with back home, and we've made $75 of tips for an entire morning's worth of music," she said. "You're not making a whole lot of money doing it. A farmer's market is a good place to try out music. You see what turns people's heads."

Others say that the market has had a problem with the proliferation of bad music — unskilled and inconsiderate musicians who are less about atmosphere than headaches.

"As a vendor, as well as a life-long lover of music, I welcome the new-found silence," Leo Keene of Blue Moon garlic farm in Richmond wrote in an email. "The popularity of the market as a venue for buskers had exploded in the last year or so. It's a tough job, setting up your business on the street, and when you have Take It Easy in one ear and Lay Lady Lay in the other, both at excessive volume as you struggle to understand a soft spoken customer's wishes, it's a bit too much."

Farmers pay membership and gate fees to finance the advertising and administration of the market — which is not the case with the musicians, Keene added.

"We are a cooperative business, not a charity, and all members and guests of the market must pull their weight."

Musician Keith Otterson, who moved to Lexington in 2000 and had previously played street music in New York and Boston, said the large number of musicians at the market "had gotten out of hand."

Otterson favors better managed musical offerings and has asked market management to have an audition process or a nominal fee for playing at the market.

"A lot of the musicians and their parents have decided that it's a chance to get exposure ... in public without booking a gig," Otterson said.

Ned Farrar, a Fayette County public school music teacher, has taken his violin students to Lexington Farmers Market for at least 10 years and has used the proceeds from their playing to purchase instruments, strings, rosin and other supplies for his school programs.

The public exposure provides students "with valuable performance experience, builds camaraderie and establishes a positive reputation for the schools we represent," Farrar said. "... I have not tried to play since I heard about this new policy. It is pretty unusual to collect more than $50 after playing for a couple of hours."

Music at farmers markets has been a hot-button issue across the country.

In Chestertown, Md., the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, supported the buskers on First Amendment grounds. Ultimately, the town upheld the right of musicians to perform for tips in a nearby park during the farmers market.

In Everett, Wash., performers apply to be included under a "music canopy," listing formal musical training and references. In Portland, Ore., buskers are permitted when space allows and are asked to move to a new location after an hour, but buskers are limited in volume so that communication between vendors and customers is still audible.

The decision about musicians performing at the Lexington market rests with the market itself, explained Susan Straub, a spokesman for Lexington mayor Jim Gray.

"The decision about the buskers is theirs. They have a purchase of service agreement with the city to run a farmers market in a designated area — the plaza. The ordinance allows them to control buskers or charge a fee in that designated area."

Late last week the market was in the process of "pulling in community partners that are much more in tune with the music scene" in hopes of returning music to the market at an as-yet undetermined point, said Dabbelt.

"I'm putting together a brief proposal for my board to review in September," he said, noting that will include "a little more oversight on our part to make sure it's conducive" to an optimal marketing atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Charlie Hendricks, one of the owners of the Three Toads Farm in Winchester and a farmers market vendor as a flower producer, said that the new rules aren't intended to pick on musicians.

"It's surprising how much it costs to run the market," he said, noting that musicians have sometimes set up in spots that could be rented to vendors. "I don't think there's a problem with people playing music. Sometimes there's a problem if they're playing next to you. ... I get there about 4:30 in the morning, and after a couple of hours, it wears on you."

Hendricks suggested displaced buskers find other places to play, such as the steps of the old courthouse.

"There are places they can go," he said.

But Wildside Winery owner and market vendor Neil Vasilakes said that he enjoyed the music around the market.

"I've heard both sides," Vasilakes said. "I've heard neighboring vendors complain about it, and at the same time, I've heard people say how nice it was to have the music. I think it depends a lot on the vendor personality. I haven't had any problems."