Musician’s City Hall Feud Carries a Hefty Price

Jakob Schiller
Friday December 05, 2003

For Michael Masley, Wednesday was the day the music died—at least for a day. That’s when Berkeley Police hit Masley, a well-known local street performer, with two citations totaling $800. 

A cymbalom player who usually sets up on Telegraph or Shattuck avenues, Masley was slapped with a $500 citation for vending his CDs without a permit and a $300 citation for using an amplifier without a permit. 

Berkeley residents will quickly recognize Masley—whose instrument is a precursor to the piano—for the Edward Scissorhands-like finger attachments he invented to help him play. 

Two decades of pedestrians have gathered—or sometimes fled—the unique and somewhat indescribable sounds Masley creates. 

Credited as the inventor of new cymbalom techniques by the Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Masley has a fairly long list of musical credits, including studio sessions with Ry Cooder, Tom Waits and Butch Vig from the group Garbage. His work was also included on the National Public Radio collection CD, All Songs Considered. 

Wednesday’s citations weren’t Masley’s first, but they’re certainly the most severe. Back in 1993 he was issued a citation at the same spot—Channing and Telegraph—and spent a night in jail for failure to obtain a permit for vending.  

According to the Berkeley Police Department’s Public Information Officer Kevin Schofield, Masley was issued a warning three weeks ago for selling without a permit, and was issued another non-permitted amplifier ticket on Tuesday—a ticket Masley said was prompted by a complaint from inside one of the buildings at Center and Shattuck where he was playing. That citation didn’t carry the steep fines of those issued Wednesday. 

“I don’t begrudge a ticket when there is a complaint,” he said. Nonetheless, he said his last ticket was over the top. 

“I thought I must be seeing an extra zero. They were thrilled to give this to me and wanted to max it out,” he said. 

According to Roy Phelps from the City of Berkeley’s finance department, the citations issued Wednesday followed standard rules that require permits for street vending. Under rules enforced by the city’s Office of Environmental Health, amplified music, including Masley’s small battery powered speakers, also requires permits. Phelps said the steep fines resulted from a policy where citations for repeated offenses carry heftier punishments. 

Phelps said he’s offered Masley a vendor’s permit on numerous occasions, a process that he says can be completed in a day. Masley acknowledged Phelp’s offers and said he tried to acquire a permit after he first came to Berkeley almost 20 years ago. 

After borrowing the $104 needed for permit fees, he went to the finance office, where he said he was laughed out when he expected to acquire the permit that same day and was instead told the wait was six months. The experience was enough to dissuade him from ever going back. 

Since then he’s bounced around town and done his best to avoid citations by asking for donations instead of advertising CD sales with signs and leaving his music un-amplified. 

But because he supports himself on CD sales, he continues to vend whenever he can. With sales down 60 percent this year and his income well below the poverty line, he said there’s no way he can pay the fines and may end up spending time in jail. 

“I certainly don’t want to go to jail, but I don’t have $800,” he said.  

BPD spokesman Schofield said the vending citation is a civil offense and won’t immediately result in jail time. Like parking tickets, however, failure to pay can lead to an arrest warrant, followed by time behind bars.  

But the amplified music citation is a criminal offense and jail time is also likely if the fine is not paid. 

Besides his concern with the fines, Masley said he’s upset that the city is charging street musicians. 

“Given that I’ve lasted this long, what’s going to be achieved by removing me from the streets? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. 

He’s also concerned that the citations were issued because of the high shopper volume downtown and on Telegraph Avenue. 

Alan Ross, owner of Cody’s Books on Telegraph, said he is generally very supportive of street vendors and street performers. 

“I have no problem at all with people who play the violin and don’t drive you crazy,” said Ross. “They contribute to the street and make it more interesting. Some people however, are more annoying than others. It’s a difficult public policy issue.” 

He says amplified music is fine as long as the decibel levels are within the permitted range.  

“I have had some very annoying problems with people who are very unresponsive about turning [their amplifiers] down,” he said. 

“I certainly don’t object to [street vendors and musicians] being here, there should be more of them, but I also think its okay for the city to ask for a license if people are on the street.”  

He said he couldn’t comment specifically on Masley, who has never performed near his store. 

Masley, who was back at it again on Thursday, performing at the Rockridge Bart, says he’ll test out the scene and continue to play. “I’m a survivor, this is all I have to live on,” he said.