Underground Music — Literally!

NaBloPoMo Day 17!

I lived in New York City for four years, back in the ’90s (that’s in the last century! 😯 ). I did a number of things there — worked as 1) a church organist, 2) a research assistant for a music consulting firm, 3) an administrative assistant for a small investment bank (I spiced up that button-down environment with my artsy, bohemian cachet! 😉 ). Ate lots of great food. Lived in apartments with varying degrees of health- and building-code passability.

And of course, I rode the subway almost every day. You know how in TV shows and movies set in New York, the characters are always taking cabs? I suppose there are folks who really do that, but I did not breathe their rarefied air very often. 😛

There are perks, though — most taxicabs don’t feature live music, but the subway does. I once stopped to listen to a steel drum player as I waited for my train, and when he noticed how intently I was watching, he invited me to try it for myself. That was cool! I think I figured out the beginning of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” before the train arrived! 😀

But when I saw this article in the New York Times, it kinda threw me for a loop. Musicians playing on the street for tips is a familiar sight in big cities, and sometimes you’re technically supposed to have a permit for it, but I think many times it just set up and wail til the law shows up and chases you away. But it turns out that if you want to play in the subway, you have to audition. Apparently it’s been that way since 1985.

The most recent auditions were held a couple of weeks ago — in Grand Central Station, naturally! A group made up of music professionals and transit employees judged the aspiring buskers for 20 open spots on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s roster.

The online article features a video highlighting the procedings. Short clips from different auditions show a wide range musical styles, including an unaccompanied singer who seemed to be on the cusp of Broadway and opera — at least that’s what it sounded like to me as she sang Rogers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” in a rather highfalutin manner.

Then there was a marimba player. A marimba player! Can you imagine lugging that thing down into the subway? It has wheels, but it weighs around 120 pounds! (A few subway stations have elevators, but it’s mostly stairs, stairs, stairs, with escalators at the larger stations and transfer points.)

The video profiles one of the auditioners in particular, singer-songwriter Joe Taylor. He was seen leaving his brownstone, loading his gear — which included not only a guitar but a big amp and other audio gear — into his car (you have to be crazy to drive in New York City, and I don’t know where he parked near Grand Central without paying a months’ rent 😯 ), then towing it into the audition space on a little wheeled luggage rack.

What I really mean to say here: it looked like a whole lotta no fun!

He had a smile on his face the whole time, though, as he spoke of how he was doing what he loved to do, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Now that I think about it, I know exactly how he feels! 😀

Several of the musicians interviewed in the article spoke of the immediacy of the connection with listeners that this venue provided, as opposed to the distance between stage and audience in a concert hall. But then, others mentioned how most subway riders are in a hurry to get where they’re going, and don’t take the time to stop and listen as they pass by. (Train delays that keep passengers standing on the platform longer must be a dream come true for the musicians! 😉 ). I’m curious as to whether the players really get regular listeners out of this — does anyone stop and ask then between songs: “Do you have a Myspace?” 😛 )

And then, there was a mention of the, um, interspecies nature of subway audiences — evidently, at off-peak hours, the music is “sometimes heard by more rats than people .” From my time as a frequent rider, I rememeber one station in particular, the 14th Street stop on the F train, where the rats — big as housecats — roamed the platform particularly boldly. :shudder:

I also wondered whether playing on the subway was a stepping stone to something bigger in terms of bookings. The director of the whole program puts it this way:

Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts in Transit, the cultural arm of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said, “This isn’t a stepping stone to some other gig or a path to fame,” as a mariachi guitarist, a theremin player and a man with a modified electrified cello strapped to his chest played nearby. “This is the gig, this is fame, becoming one of our musicians.”

Wow — the big time! Who’da thunk it? 😉

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    5 Responses

    1. wow! coming from the opposite side of the world, i only know about subway musicians from what i see in movies. thanks for this!

    2. Same process in T.O. ; audition for the busker licence. Terrific variety of talent.
      You’ve been here but I noticed in the same edition of NYT a travel article for Toronto. Pretty good.

    3. Fascinating! I’ve never been to NYC, but when I do finally make it there I will make a point of stopping to enjoy the underground musicians.

    4. @reeyah — welcome! Nice shoes! 😉

    5. @ Norm — I’d like to spend more time in T.O. It reminded me of NYC, actually.

      @ tpg — Yes, you should go, it’s fun! If only SD had such good public transit…

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