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Faneuil Hall street performers balk at new fees

Outside Quincy Market, a crowd gathered as street performer “Wacky Chad,” pogo stick and tiny bicycle by his side, began his show. He coaxed them closer, promising the show would be “really good.” After all, he said, he and other performers had to win an audition to be there.

Starting next month, street performers at Faneuil Hall will have to do more than perform — they will also have to pay for the privilege of entertaining the crowd.

In a move that has outraged the popular musicians, acrobats, and other entertainers, Faneuil Hall Marketplace management wants performers to pay fees that run as high as $2,500 annually, saying the charges are needed to offset administration, promotion, and security costs.

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“They don’t pay us, and now they are asking us to pay them?” asked Rebecca Liberman, a musician in her fifth year playing at Faneuil Hall. “It’s just ridiculous.”

The performers — or buskers — rely on tips from spectators.

Performers call the fees prohibitive and say they would rather quit than pay to perform. Many have been playing at Faneuil Hall for years and value their positions, which they won after a competitive audition process, in the marketplace’s entertainers program.

Jason Gardner, an escape artist who has performed at Faneuil Hall for more than a decade, said, “We’re not going to be taken advantage of, and we’re all on the same page.”

Performers learned about the new fees last month, just a week before summer auditions were scheduled to begin. Angry over the late notice, they boycotted the auditions, causing them to be canceled.

“It felt like a shakedown,” said Gardner.

A spokeswoman for market management said in an e-mail Saturday that they had postponed the auditions after hearing concerns about the new fees, which can be paid over five months from June to October.

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Performer "Jason Escape" freed himself from a straight jacket while hanging by his feet outside of Faneuil Hall.
Performer "Jason Escape" freed himself from a straight jacket while hanging by his feet outside of Faneuil Hall.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The controversy marks the second consecutive year performers have clashed with the marketplace’s property manager, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. Last summer, the group barred some performers from using sound systems in an effort to tone down the acts, a move performers said hurt their rapport with the crowds.

Management later changed course and allowed amplification again, the spokeswoman said Saturday.

The fees, which performers said ranged from $500 for solo musicians to $2,500 for variety acts, were far more frustrating, several artists said.

The management of Faneuil Hall Marketplace said in a statement Friday they hope to provide a “world-class public entertainment space that is professionally managed, safe, and appealing to those who visit from near and far.”

“There are significant costs associated with hosting an entertainment program including administration, promotion, scheduling, and security,” the group said. “For the past 39 years, Faneuil Hall Marketplace has supported the program in its entirety and paid all the costs without any contributions from performers. We look forward to an exciting tourism season with a range of performances and activities to entertain our visitors.”

The marketplace is owned by the city, which leases three of the four buildings to Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., a New York real estate firm. Ashkenazy took over the lease for $136 million in 2011, and in September announced plans for an overhaul of the tourist attraction.

Plans call for turning the central food court into open retail spaces, upscale bars, and restaurants, and adding several new glass pavilions for shopping and dining.

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Performers say they worry that a more high-end Faneuil Hall may have no need for their acts, which have charmed legions of locals and tourists over the years.

“It really seems as if they are trying to drive us out,” said Liberman, a student at Berklee College of Music.

Liberman said management is also requiring performers to use a device this season to monitor their decibel levels.

Gardner said performers will continue to fight the fees and are considering a lawsuit. While the city leases the property, it remains public land, he said. The mayor’s office declined to comment.

Chadd Deitz, who performs as Wacky Chad, said he found the fees insulting, given that performers already agree to forgo paying gigs to entertain the crowds.

“It’s like asking them to pay for my pogo stick,” he said. “I think they just threw out a number to see what they could get.”

Cate Flaherty, who does a handstand and juggling act, said the performers are part of the culture of Faneuil Hall, a crossroads of Boston where tourists and locals of all stripes mingle.

“Everyone can afford to see us,” she said. “We’re an attraction. Not only a reason people come, but a reason people stay.”

Flaherty said she was distraught when she heard about the fees and she will refuse to pay.

“The bottom literally dropped out of my world,” she said.

On Friday, visitors were surprised to hear that the performers had to pay to perform and said they hoped they made enough in tips that it wouldn’t hurt their bottom line too much. Even busking wasn’t free anymore, one quipped. And as Wacky Chad balanced the brim of his baseball hat on his nose, the crowd cheered in appreciation.

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Near Gardner’s show, Stephen Creagh prepared balloon animals for the children. He wasn’t affected by the fee increase, but wondered how much longer he would be welcome in an upgraded market.

“It’s basically a mall without the street performers,” he said.

Eric Royer performed outside of Quincy Market, where the management company is seeking to impose new rules and fees on buskers who work the area.
Eric Royer performed outside of Quincy Market, where the management company is seeking to impose new rules and fees on buskers who work the area. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.