In Madrid, Street Performers Worry They'll Be Regulated Out of Existence

New rules limiting busking have not gone over well at all with the city's struggling arts community.

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Potato Omelette Band/Facebook

Finding a steady income in Spain these days is no easy feat. In a country where unemployment consistently hovers around 25 percent, thousands of musicians and other artists have turned to busking on city streets as a way to get by. In Madrid, however, even that is becoming increasingly difficult to do.

Since January 1, a new law passed by the Madrid city council has banned amplifiers, limited performance times, and required that all street performers remain no less than 75 yards away from each other, with violators potentially facing fines for disturbing the peace. And in central Madrid, officially an "acoustic protection zone," Mayor Ana Botella has said that enough noise complaints from residents in the medieval city center warranted a new requirement that all artists audition for a permit to play on the street (parks and public transit stations are still permit-free). 

That meant that in December, buskers had to sign up to audition in front of a "suitability committee," be selected by a panel of civil servants, and only then, be given a one-year, renewable permit for the privilege of entertaining tourists and pedestrians.

Although similar regulations exist in Barcelona, the new rules have not gone over well at all with Madrid's struggling arts community. Two musicians in particular have become the face of the recent outrage after stealthily recording their government audition and posting it online. 

Gerardo Yllera and Laura Nadal, who together perform as Potato Omelette Band, a playful, beach-themed musical duo (Yllera on the ukelele, Nadal on the xylophone), decided to audition with a popular song by the Puerto Rican band Calle 13, "No hay nadie como tú," to which they'd added their own, revised lyrics:

Thanks mayor

For closing and privatizing our theaters

Thanks mayor

For closing all the concert venues little by little

Thanks mayor

For permitting us to take a test to play in the fucking street 

The video has been a hit, registering over 350,000 hits on YouTube last month. And while the duo got their government authorization, over 100 acts did not, and that doesn't include the hundreds, according to Yllera, who chose not to audition as a matter of principle. Yllera and Nadal now say they're rejecting their own authorization while continuing to perform (and with an amplifier for good measure) as a sign of solidarity with Madrid's anti-Botella artists.

We spoke with Yllera over email to find out what's happened since the his audition video went viral:

What kind of cultural significance does street performance have in Madrid?

Madrid has always had a big street performance culture, with a rich mixture of flamenco, rock, latin, reggae and arabic music. Many famous Spanish musicians started playing in Madrid's streets, like Alejandro Sanz and Joaquin Sabina.

There’s a central park in Madrid called “El Retiro” which has always been a hideout of musical theater and circus shows, in spite of the continuous presence of the police. Lately though, there's been a more relaxed attitude about music and amplifiers.

It's more important now than ever to have music on the streets, musicians playing for free and making people feel a little bit happier. We're living in a very difficult time. The people in power are trying to make us feel sad and depressed so that we don’t react to their unfair economic and social measures.

Has there been a noticeable increase in the amount or variety of street performers since Spain's economic struggles began?

We don’t know if there are more or not. What we do know is that we've been doomed to play in the street.

Nowadays there's almost no cultural programming at public libraries. Music schools are too expensive, so there's no more work for music teachers, and it's impossible now to make a show in theaters without losing money. People can’t pay a ticket over five or six euros, so it's impossible for the theater companies to survive. The government has forgotten what public cultural services are. Anyone dedicated to culture or art nowadays feels economically and politically harassed. Sometimes the street is the only way for an artist in Spain to survive.

When you did your audition for your permit, what did the city officials say to you guys after the song? 

They said we were very explicit with our lyrics and reminded us that this authorization is only for the central district, that if we didn’t pass we could keep playing in other parts of the city. They were pleasant with us.

How long after the audition before you found out you got a permit?

The results were published two weeks later. We were very surprised with the results. After coming to the casting with prohibited elements such as amplifiers and percussion and criticizing the process and the mayor, we still managed to pass. But we know of several professional musicians who didn’t pass, including a singer that the city council hired last year for the San Isidro celebrations in Plaza Mayor.

The auditions were a masquerade. They only want to have control over the people who play music and have the legal tools to decide how many people can play. That's why we reject the authorization. We don’t want to be an accomplice to this process. If a policeman comes we’ll have to leave and hope they don’t fine us, just like the rest of the musicians who didn’t get the license or like the hundreds of musicians who didn’t even try to get it because they are in disagreement with it.

Are you surprised at how popular your audition video has been on YouTube?

When we put the video online we figured most of our musician friends in Madrid would like it and share it, but we didn’t think it was going to be so popular throughout the country or around the world. We've had some offers to play in street music festivals and pubs since. When we played in the street in Madrid after we put up the video, some recognized us from it but most of the people there were tourists and didn’t know our background. We made more or less the same amount of money as before.

Have you noticed a difference in the street performing culture around the city since the new rule?

We are still waiting for the city council to get in contact with the musicians who passed the audition. They said that they were going to give the authorizations before Christmas so musicians could play for the tourists, but that didn't happen. Right now, it's prohibited for anyone to play until the authorizations are given, so the only difference has been that very few musicians have gone to play in the street since the auditions took place. Let’s see what happens. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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