Subway Series, Part 1: Shakespeare’s In The Alley

Busking – the act of playing music or performing for voluntary donations in the public streets, parks, or subways. It stems from the Spanish word buskar, which means to seek or to wander. Over the next three weeks, as part of our “Live Music New York” theme, BreakThru Radio, will be taking a close look at musicians who perform in public places (mainly—the subway).

What are the rules to subway music? Are there any licensing requirements? Are these policies justified by the city, or a municipal tax-grab? Do you give money to the musicians, and if so, is the amount or decision to donate dependent on another variable, such as effort, quality, style, or looks? Should these musicians be permitted to play anywhere? Do you think these musicians should be taxed for the donations they receive from the public? And what about the musicians themselves—are they performing or practicing? How much do these guys make?

Through writing, public polling, surveying, and other investigative work with the Ministry of Transportation Authority of New York, I, along with Videographer Hunter Stuart and culture intern Calah Singleton, intend to answer these questions (and many more) for you over the next three weeks.

Busking in New York is as old as the city itself. Immigrants arriving on the Battery Park shores who were not able to find work would turn to talents in singing, dancing, or performing magic and tricks just so they could earn enough money for food. In a small way, busking is one of those perennial professions that link this über-modern, 21st century city to its glorious past. Still today, we have immigrants and migrants coming to New York City and trying their hand at playing music on the streets just to earn some grub. Sometimes, when discussing the arts, its not that hard to see just how the times haven’t changed.

Of course it takes a little more money to get by nowadays, but the public are willing to give more too. What we don’t see as much anymore is the “sing for your supper” method; that being the wandering soul who shuffles into town and performs an act of song or comic theater in return for a meal and sleeping quarters from a tavern-owner instead of donations from the audience. Traditionally (and by this, I mean centuries ago), buskers were anticipated by communities to be more like news reporters than performers, and were relied upon for the statewide gossip of the day.

Traveling minstrels soon realized that performing the news in an entertaining fashion, whether it be through comedy, song, or theater, would earn them more street-money and street-credit, thus the art form of busking began to evolve. Unfortunately, busking also began to evolve as the employment for the socially inept. Crippled, blind, and malnourished orphans extended the act of performing on a street corner for money into something that received donations out of pity rather than appreciation for the talented.

Today, performing on the subway or a street corner can usually earn you a fair (fare?) chunk of change. For every dollar you earn, you also get a couple hundred passer-bys, but that comes with the territory and is to be expected. Busking will probably never die.

As long as there continues to be creativity in humankind, an appreciation for music and laughter, and Big Brother doesn’t squeeze the meat press too hard, people will always continue to play in public places. It is just a matter of what you want to do with it every time you walk by.

Link to this article:

– Kory French


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