ByWard Market buskers upset with new booking fee

Ottawa busker Joey Albert, who performs as Rockabilly Joe, said the incoming fee means performers like him will have to take on a major financial risk for each show they run. (Joey Albert - image credit)
Ottawa busker Joey Albert, who performs as Rockabilly Joe, said the incoming fee means performers like him will have to take on a major financial risk for each show they run. (Joey Albert - image credit)

Some ByWard Market buskers are frustrated about a new booking fee required to perform in select areas this summer, the latest disagreement between street performers and officials who manage Ottawa's popular tourist area.

In a statement to CBC News, Ottawa Markets — the authority that controls the ByWard and Parkdale markets — said they will add a new $50 performance space booking fee in areas where acts like jugglers and large musical groups can perform.

Each payment gives these performers two hours of reserved space at either the William Street Plaza or George Street Plaza, said Zachary Dayler, executive director for Ottawa Markets.

Dayler said the new charge is to help cover maintenance costs, including cleaning up the performance areas after shows, while there will be no permit fees for other buskers in 2023.

Ottawa Markets hopes fee changes will attract new performers from other areas "who might see the opportunity in booking a marquee location and having security in that time," he said.


Changes are risky and unappealing, buskers say

Affected performers say the incoming booking system and fee makes busking in the market unattractive. Some even doubt whether they'll perform at all if the policy remains in place.

Joey Albert, who has performed as a juggler and acrobat called Rockabilly Joe for 17 years, says the new fee is a "huge markup." His performance usually lasts between 30 to 45 minutes.

"You went from charging us $100 for the year to $50 every two performances. ... We'll be spending thousands and thousands on this," he said.

No matter how successful or well-known buskers are, there's still no guarantee they can consistently draw crowds large enough to eat the new fee without problems, Albert added. Despite his experience, he said there are still times where he can't get a crowd.

"The streets keep you humble," Albert said.

Other performers like Yoshi Chladny, a juggler and performer for the past 10 years, say adding a booking system undermines how street performers typically manage themselves.

According to Chladny and Albert, street performers do random draws in the morning to determine who gets priority in picking their time slot for the day. But they say a booking system, which could allow performers to pick the best times ahead of the day, might lead to tensions between artists.

When it comes to maintaining the spaces, Chladny said he understands there are costs to keeping the areas clean, but those funds "shouldn't be from the performers."

He said there could be a conversation between buskers and Ottawa Markets over how both groups can keep the spaces in a good state.

Submitted by Joey Albert
Submitted by Joey Albert

Performers feel unheard

Circle show performers — who busk while the audience forms a circle around them — have sparred with city officials and ByWard Market authorities for more than a decade. In 2011, street performers said they were ready to ditch the city after a bylaw was passed that balanced performance spaces with the ability of market merchants to attract customers.

In 2018, circle show performers claimed Ottawa Markets was displacing their weekend shows so Casino du Lac-Leamy could operate a shuttle service. That same year, buskers were told they needed to buy general liability insurance, which became another point of contention.

Chladny said buskers were never consulted about this latest booking fee — which he calls "absolutely prohibitive" — and he thinks officials are trying to deter circle shows from happening altogether.

Albert said city authorities don't consult buskers and "don't take us seriously ... don't consider us professionals."

"I don't want to create this drama with them," Albert said. "I want them to talk to us and I want them to respect us."

Dayler said the fee would be reconsidered if found to be prohibitive to performers.