Sax on the Streets
Chapter 21:
Munich, Germany

Rushed Along by Regulations

© Dan Gordon, 2003

Back across the Iron Curtain, we rejoiced in our return to the land o’ plenty. Not that we could partake of that plenty, though—true to Eastern form, we left Hungary with no currency. The only useful money we had was a few Austrian shillings from our foreign coin collection. We spent them on a packet of biscuits as we changed trains at the station in Vienna, and that had to hold us over until we got to Munich. But even broke and starving, the West never felt so much like home.

It was now mid-July, and with time running out on the summer, we had to pass right through Vienna without stopping. Pity; Vienna probably would have offered excellent busking, although I have heard that the city is overrun with street musicians. The pretzels and beer of Munich held more of an attraction for us, however, so that’s where we headed.

We arrived at Munich’s central station in late afternoon and immediately hit the streets to lift us out of financial ruin. We didn’t even have money to check our packs or to take a bus. Good thing the pedestrian zone was right outside the station. The long, wide cobblestone promenade was rife with buskers of every kind, making a merry ruckus for the large crowds of pedestrians they attracted. We found an empty spot and pitched with a clear conscience for the first time in weeks. No looming threat of Eastern authorities breathing down our necks any more.

Telemann soared; coins flew. The hat sang with the rattle of Deutsche marks at Western levels once again. The joy of busking anew in the West catapulted the music to greater and greater heights. Each passing duet spiraled to unprecedented altitudes in space—until a pair of policemen cut us down to earth. The two officers informed us that playing in the pedestrian zone was forbidden without a permit. They handed us a leaflet printed in four languages that spelled out the rules for busking in their town:

Dear Street Musicians!

Although the city and the City Council generally welcomes your street

performance in the pedestrian zone, our experience in recent years has

shown that the large number of performing musicians as well as certain

instruments have occasionally annoyed residents and local businessmen.

The Munich City Council has therefore decided to introduce some regula-

tions in this respect. On one hand, the new regulations will ensure that

the greatest possible number of musicians are given a chance to perform,

on the other hand, residents and local businessmen will be protected

from disturbances.

From today on, new regulations apply. The new regulations are different

from those introduced in 1982 with which you may be partly familiar.

1. Every day, up to five permits are given out for the morning hours (per-

mit to play between 10.00 hrs. and 13.00 hrs.) and five permits for the

afternoon (permit to play from 15.00 hrs.).

It is strictly forbidden to play between 13.00 hrs. and 15.00 hrs.

The permits are available on every workday between 8.30 hrs. and

15.00 hrs. from

Sondernutzungsbüro des

Baureferates in der

Landwehrstraße 26,

1st floor, room 102

For saturdays, [sic ] permission is available on friday [sic ] only, at the above

mentioned time.

2. As a rule, every musician can be given a chance on one day per week


3. Every musician is under the obligation to change his performance lo-

cation every 60 minutes. Every location may be used only once a day.

4. Applicants can only apply personally, identity card or passport must

be submitted.

5. If several musicians perform together, the group will need a joint

permit on which the names of all persons involved are listed. The

permit is available at the aforementioned office (see 1.).

6. Disturbing instruments are not allowed; this applies especially to:

— Wind instruments (trumpet, trombone, saxophone, etc.)

— Percussion and similar rhythmic instruments

— Bagpipes

— Grinding organs

7. Loud speakers, amplifier systems, megaphones as well as sound

transmission systems of all kinds are not allowed.

8. It is forbidden to play music in and around arcades.

The City of Munich regrets that this new regulation is also connected

with a certain amount of bureaucracy, although street performances are

nice and pleasant in general. We would ask you to understand that con-

flicting interests sometimes call for a certain amount of regulation.

Yours faithfully

The City of Munich

And we thought we were through with petty regulations when we left the East! Obviously, much deliberation was taken over setting down these rules. The compromises between buskers and merchants seemed fair enough. Some of the rules, however, had strong implications. Rule 2 totally eliminated the possibility of earning a living as a busker in Munich. It essentially limited busking to those who did it only occasionally for fun, referred to in the profession as “riff raff.” I had nothing against riff raff; I was one myself. But that regulation kept all the full-time buskers out of town. It was undoubtedly intended to do so. And Rule 6 did not fall kindly on our eyes, since mention of saxophones meant trouble. I foresaw some arguing in order to get a permit.

Fortunately, during the naïve half hour we had played before learning all this, we’d pulled in a healthy hatful of change. Such were the advantages of busking without asking about regulations first. Our earnings covered a supermarket dinner and a night at “The Tent,” the renowned circus tent on the outskirts of town that housed 250 backpackers a night in the summer. For just 5DM, we got a foam rubber pad, as many blankets as we liked, hot tea, a tourist information booth, volleyball, and a spot anywhere we could find it on the wooden floor under the big top. It really was a circus tent, and the atmosphere in there was simply carnival.

In the morning, we got up early to ensure favorable placement at the permit office. By the time we arrived, a line had already formed. We were handed a number and waited behind an Inca band, a pair of clarinetists, and a harmonica player. When we finally made it into the office, we found a man sitting behind a desk. He asked what we played. Keeping in mind the regulation forbidding saxophones, I answered, “We play flute music.” That was not a lie, but pretty close to it. On the permit, the man wrote “two flutes.” It wasn’t my fault he misinterpreted what I said.

The permit was free, valid for later that morning. At the allotted time, we found a pitch on the pedestrian zone, placed the permit in full view at the bottom of the hat, and started to play. The assurance of being legal freed our minds of everything but the music. The duets flowed with a sweeping ease that only our undivided attention could provide. During the next hour, several policemen walked by. None stopped to say anything. They all saw the permit and therefore let us play in peace. Meanwhile, small crowds gathered to listen, intrigued by our peculiar instruments.

About ten minutes before we planned to stop, two police officers approached. They walked past the onlookers and told us we could not play saxophones on the street. Gary immediately whipped out our permit. “You can’t stop us,” he argued. “We have this permit. Did anyone complain?”

“No, but you cannot play saxophones on the street,” one officer said.

The onlooking crowd came to our aid, complaining to the policemen in loud and angry German. Soon a circle formed around us, with crowd members and the policemen arguing in both German and English. Gary continued to protest vehemently. I kept quiet. We had, after all, acquired the permit under false pretenses, so I didn’t feel right making a stink about it. Had the permit stated two saxophones rather than two flutes, I would have argued as hot-headedly as Gary. But if we had said at the permit office that we played saxophones, we might not have gotten a permit at all.

Even the second policeman was not sure who was right or wrong. “Isn’t it brass instruments that are prohibited?” he asked his colleague.

“That is a brass instrument,” the other replied.

“Brass instruments do not have a reed like those. I think they might be okay.”

At the hint of uncertainty between the policemen, Gary and the crowd argued louder still. The first officer would not back down. Probably more in defense of his pride than of the law, he demanded that we stop. The cops wouldn’t leave until we packed up.

Because of the doubt, we considered playing more after the cops left. A few minutes later, however, they returned to make sure we didn’t. Gary was livid. He didn’t care about any misinformation on our permit, particularly since the officer didn’t look at it.

Gary and I consistently differed on issues like these. As far as Gary was concerned, if no one complained, no one should be able to stop us, especially when we had a permit. Until someone did complain, we had the right to play. All that cop wanted to do was flex his muscles, and Gary did not like being pushed around. My viewpoint was more sympathetic to the regular merchants who could get annoyed by all the vagrants who constantly busked on their terrain. To me, busking always treaded a fine line between entertainment and nuisance. It was entertainment when everyone enjoyed the music; it was a nuisance when anyone found it objectionable. If someone objected, or even asked us to stop because they thought it might create a conflict, I never argued. We were merely visitors and had to take care not to disturb the local order. It was as much that policeman’s job to avoid the potential conflict our busking posed before it occurred as it was to resolve the dispute afterwards. My philosophy presumed buskers wrong until proven correct; Gary’s presumed buskers correct until proven wrong.

Equally at issue here is what that officer was thinking when he ordered us to stop. Was he enforcing the letter of the law, or the intent of the law? The letter of the law in Rule 6 of the leaflet stated that saxophones were prohibited. We clearly violated that. The intent of that law, however, was to prevent noisy instruments from disturbing local residents and merchants. Whether we violated that or not was entirely subjective. Gary assumed that the policeman followed the letter of the law without considering its intent. I gave the officer the benefit of the doubt; if the cop thought we were too loud, he could rightfully ask us to stop. We could not climb into the policeman’s head to see what he was thinking. We had to interpret the cop’s actions just as the cop had to interpret the law. We will never know if that officer stopped us in defense of the letter of the law, the intent of the law, or merely his self-esteem. But once he made up his mind, we had no hope. The authority, whether right or wrong, was always right.

Despite all the controversy, the hour’s pitch had fed the hat with a hearty meal of coins. In fact, in the hour and a half of total busking in Munich, we had cranked in more than 100DM, over $55. But with our permit time used up and police clearly on the lookout, we had to push on or go broke again. If we had been able to busk Munich as long as we liked, we could have cranked in a bundle. It made our pockets heavy just thinking about it.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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