A New Nonprofit Wants to Pay Street Musicians Wages to Liven Up Downtown Dallas

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David Wiley and Rachel Roberts have a dream to enrich downtown Dallas with a new wave of street musicians. Buskers are already regular fixtures at night in Deep Ellum, playing music for tips from passersby, but Wiley and Roberts want to do more than just bring busking to downtown and out into the daylight; they want to pay the performers an hourly wage.

Wiley and Roberts, both of whom look to be in their early 30s and work as professionals in Dallas, want to bring their busking vision to Pegasus Plaza on the corner of Main and Akard streets, organizing performances  through a nonprofit funded by local businesses and corporations to provide for vetted street musicians to stand on the corner and fill the streets with their music for an hourly wage.

“Even though Dallas has a really rich, vibrant history, you don’t see a lot of street performances here,” Wiley says.

Wiley, who’s been living in downtown Dallas for 10 years, points out that cities like Nashville and New Orleans have street musicians standing on corners, playing everything from a saxophone to a plastic bucket. Music is the lifeblood of those cities, and that's true of Dallas too, he says. Busking has been part of the city’s culture for generations. Blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson is probably one of the most famous buskers, perfecting the blues on Dallas street corners. Today, it’s people like a young violinist named Jay with an old Chihuahua named Bunches strapped to his chest, playing his grandfather’s violin to perfect his art. “Some people prefer the lifestyle,” he says. “For me, it’s a chance to get out here and practice, and that’s the only way to learn.”

People watching in Pegasus Plaza is what led Wiley, a Dallas attorney, to write a Facebook post seeking interest from like-minded people to design a nonprofit busking program designed to “fill our streets,” he wrote, “with more music — all in compliance with City ordinances/licensing, of course.” He saw a need for street musicians to spread some joy among the hundreds of commuters who looked miserable heading to work downtown. “I just kind of wanted to do something for the community,” he says.

Roberts replied to his post, which led to a phone conversation and a discussion over how to raise funds to start a busking program. “I’ve lived in Dallas for a long time,” she says, "and I love Dallas and I love downtown and I’m really excited to see life come back to the center of the city and I love the arts. So it’s an easy match for me to throw my passion and energy behind.”

Wiley and Roberts checked the city ordinance and discovered that Dallas does allow busking in the Central Business District as long as street musicians receive only voluntary donations and don't solicit. “So you couldn’t go around with a bucket to the crowd and say, ‘Please, pitch in,’” Wiley says. 

Wiley and Roberts are artists, too. He plays the guitar, and she’s a former ballet/funk dancer who also moonlights as a fitness trainer. So they decided to reach out to musicians from reputable music programs at places like Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing Arts, the University of North Texas and Southern Methodist University, as well as ones who may be living on the streets or performing at area festivals or even the symphony. The musicians simply must have real talent, Wiley says.

They plan to pay the buskers to play downtown near Pegasus Plaza between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., and noon and 1 p.m., when the weather’s nice, so that people can enjoy an “otherworldly experience” usually only felt late at night. 

They don’t have a name for their nonprofit yet, although Roberts’ company has already donated $10,000 to help launch it. The funds will allow the pair to start offering street musicians near Pegasus Plaza as early as next week. But they’re thinking about calling their organization “Dallas Pulse” — and "pulse," Roberts says, would be an acronym for “performers for the urban living street experience.”

Roberts wants to branch out later and offer other street performers like dancers, sketch artists or even mimes, and they’re also looking for more corporate and local businesses to sponsor what she calls “a community service effort and a community investment.”

Wiley also thinks bringing busking to the Pegasus Plaza area will drive the panhandlers away, similar to the classical music being played at the library entrances to keep loiterers away. He sees it as a less-harsh alternative to the city’s arresting of panhandlers en masse.

“So the idea is if you have musicians playing, that might be a kinder, gentler way of discouraging panhandling,” he says.

Wiley and Roberts are calling this spring their pilot season for the organization, testing to see which times work as well as people's' response to the street music. They’ve been in talks with DART and plan to reach out to the Presbyterian Church, which runs an arts program for the homeless.

“We’ve been looking for ways to encourage a busking program,” Wiley says. “But the problem is for busking — if it were lucrative, I’m assuming there would be more buskers down here.”

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