With questions of quantity or quality, it’s certainly not the latter when it comes to the current state of street performers on the Promenade.

The issue of street performance once again featured prominently during a recent Public Space and Placemaking (PSP) committee meeting with the board at Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM) raising issues over the volume and ultimately, quality of local performers on the Promenade.

You may have seen Public Service Officers hanging about from time to time near an over-audible artist holding their phones using a decibel app. The noise level regulations vary a little bit depending on time of day, but from Monday to Friday, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. the maximum noise level as measured 12 inches from the source is 97 decibels, roughly the equivalent of a lawnmower, power tools, blenders and air dryers.

However, as the law currently stands, there’s no way that any kind of a minimum standard in singing, dancing, juggling or escapology can be enforced. So, to all intents and purposes, a talentless, tone-deaf, screaming banshee could butcher “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” endlessly, on a broken set of bagpipes, all day.

“The Promenade is public space and anyone is entitled to perform on the Promenade for donations if they secure a permit through the City of Santa Monica. Because the street is public, the performance is protected by the First Amendment,” explains the CEO of DTSM, Andrew Thomas.

“DTSM has the ability to monitor and report, but we have no enforcement authority, nor do we have the authority to change a city ordinance, we can make recommendations to the City,” said Jeremy Ferguson, DTSM Operations & Placemaking Director.

In London, for example, strict rules apply to street performing and a permit must be obtained, much like Santa Monica. However, since there are many potential locations throughout the UK capital for street performers, or buskers as they’re traditionally called, including Covent Garden, Kensington and even Underground platforms, the regulations vary slightly from place to place. That said, most remains the same and regardless of location, every permit application requires an audition. Yes indeed, if your act is awful, filters are in place to protect innocent eyes and ears.

The permit needed in Santa Monica is more about not taking up space within 10 feet of any street corner or a marked pedestrian crosswalk or within 10 feet of a bus stop. They exist as a minimum level of screening to ensure basic safety is maintained and no publicly accessible passage is blocked or obstructed. The permit also allows performers to accept donations, but you don’t need a permit to perform if your performance isn’t for money.

In London, specific areas are designated for street performers. Moreover, time slots are allocated, so no single busker can monopolize a prime location. In a survey conducted earlier this year that looked at the top 100 city destinations, London came out on top by quite a clear margin. Using data from The Busking Project, local governments and social media, the city offered the highest quality and the most varied genres of acts, from the incredible acoustics of a didgeridoo reverberating through the corridors of Kings Cross Tube station to captivating magic shows in Covent Garden.

However, local laws differ at both the lowest and highest levels.

“The only way to control which performers are allowed to perform on the Promenade is for the street to be privatized. Controls can also be implemented for periods of time when there are events on the Promenade at which times we can program spaces as we choose,” says Thomas.

The First Amendment allows the right to free speech and while that’s an essential part of modern society, it also provides broad coverage for just about every form of expression, even clog dancing

Tragically, Santa Monica’s once legendary Promenade has taken a few hits of late and like everything everywhere, it too changed forever following the Covid Pandemic. Just as the area took a hit in foot traffic and tourism spending, many of the pre-pandemic era performers have not returned.

Finally, let’s not forget where we are: Santa Monica is still part of the entertainment capital of the world, so why not capitalize on that and have a televised talent contest?

“This is a really interesting idea,” laughed Thomas, adding, “I think the challenge is that the Promenade is a very large space and programming all of it is challenging even for big events like Pride and holiday activations. It would take a considerable amount of time, money, and labor to program performers for the entire Promenade.

“The best solution, in my opinion, is to continue to build the Promenade up, to attract great destinations, and encourage users to visit the Promenade. The more people on the street, the greater the chance a performer will receive a donation. With fewer people on the street, the chances of securing a donation are less and thus the better performers are not choosing the Promenade as often, but especially on slow weekdays. On weekends, the quality of our performers tends to go up.”

While there have been ongoing concerns about homelessness and petty crime on the street, officials are hoping new programs may address some of those issues. Covered 6, a private security company, will begin patrols on an as-yet unconfirmed date within the next four weeks.

However, no-one can be arrested for yelling a poorly remembered version of “Single Ladies” into a scratchy microphone.


Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.