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PULSE Dallas Employs Musicians To Busk on the Streets

Taking a trip midday through downtown Dallas, you're met with a variety of musicians performing. The spot you saw a guitar-strumming songwriter on Monday is now replaced with an opera singer hitting impossible notes on Tuesday. By Friday, it's a violinist performing a one-man symphony to a nearby audience eating their lunch. This diverse selection of performers is the handiwork of PULSE Dallas.

David Wiley, founder of PULSE, has been a resident of downtown Dallas for a little over 10 years. His law firm, Gibson Wiley PLLC, was looking for a community service project that was more than a simple donation. Wiley recalls sitting at Pegasus Plaza and seeing the commuters coming in from the DART stations, all of their faces sharing a certain grim quality.

Nick Murphy busks in Dallas.
Nick Murphy busks in Dallas.
courtesy PULSE Dallas

“I thought, ‘I wonder what it is we could do for commuters downtown. Working people and just strangers,’” Wiley says. “I’ve lived in Nashville downtown before and New Orleans downtown before, and I thought those two cities had buskers outside. They had a real rich history of music. And I thought Dallas, from what I’ve heard, used to have that, and so I thought, what would be neat is to have some buskers out here.”

From there PULSE was born. It's a group of street musicians who get paid for their talents while brightening the spirits of the 100,000 commuters Wiley estimates make their way into Dallas daily. By all accounts, it was a win-win for both parties.

Wiley did some investigating and learned what the ordinances were for busking. Ordinances did exist. Performers could set up shop and people could give voluntary contributions in most areas. Performers could not solicit for cash, and selling merchandise would require a license. Armed with the knowledge of their boundaries, Wiley began speaking with musicians who had busking stories to tell, and he wanted to find out why they stopped.

“What I heard was this: The police used to shoo off performers as if they were like panhandles,” Wiley says. “Just kind of shoo them off. ‘Go get a job, get out of here, you’re bothering people.’ And so I thought, well, maybe it’s just some miscommunication, and the officers didn’t realize the ordinance was there. We can probably solve that by starting with a top-down approach. Let’s let the city councilman at the time here downtown, Philip Kingston, let him know what we intend to do. Let the powers that be in the police department know.”

With the safety of the buskers taken care of, it was time to locate a spot. As an area that would not distract drivers or be a safety hazard to pedestrians, Pegasus Plaza was the choice. It wasn’t long until other surrounding companies recognized the efforts and wanted to donate to the cause. In lieu of running the money through his law firm, Wiley created a nonprofit that could serve as a destination for the sponsorship money to then be distributed to the artists.

Performers are paid $50 for a 50-minute set, usually performing at noon for those taking lunch breaks. Someone from PULSE tries to record a portion of the buskers act every day, post it on the PULSE Dallas Facebook page and give a thanks to the sponsor. Wiley estimates out of the many sponsors they’ve had, Downtown Dallas Inc. has been one of the largest, as it coincides with the organization’s desire to bring activity to some of the parks they manage.

Richmond Punch works as a touring violinist, and his ability to mix the classical with the modern makes him an in-demand musician who has dates booked around the country. Punch remembers coming across the Facebook post about PULSE, and it immediately jumped out at him as a great idea.

“What I’m most proud of seeing is that there are so many musicians now performing downtown,” Punch says. “I would say there are probably hundred of thousands that don’t know about being able to perform downtown. They certainly didn’t know about it before. With PULSE, I know that more know now.”

Punch is intimately familiar with busking on the street corners of Dallas, starting his impromptu performances to West End shoppers when he was 9 years old. A student of Dallas public schools, Punch practiced so much every day that his mother encouraged him to find an audience to share his hard work with. She told him just to jam and play three songs, and he overcame the fear of playing in front of strangers to become a stronger player.

“I later realized that I needed that,” Punch says. “Because I needed to know how to perform in front of people. So playing in downtown has so many benefits.”

Punch is just one of hundreds of other musicians who have benefited from sharing their talents using PULSE’s program. Children not far from Punch’s age when he started are now on those same street corners, hands shaking a little less each time they see a smiling face walk by as they play.

Those stories can continue to happen with the support of donations from local Dallas businesses. Wiley says a small donation can go a long way to funding the musicians, and with enough participation, he sees a possibility for larger growth to PULSE, and ultimately, more music in Dallas.

“We want people in Dallas who dedicate themselves to the arts to have working gigs,” Wiley says. “Be able to, for some of them, realize their dreams of doing this full time — being an artist full time and being able to pay the rent.”

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