Subway Series, Pt. II: The Neon Madman on Grand St.

You are sitting on the subway or standing on the platform waiting for the next train and a violinist breaks into a rendition of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” or a drummer begins to bang out some beats on empty buckets and tin cans. What do you do? Do you throw in some change? Do you watch? Or do you stare off into space while listening to your iPod and pretend he/she is not there?

The answer is as varied as politics or religion. Videographer Hunter Stuart, writing intern Calah Singleton, and myself hit Central Park last week to ask the general public this very question. Some people told us they never toss change: other’s—every time they can. What’s the difference? And why?

“Look man, they’re trying to make an honest living. I’d be more than obliged to let them have any spare change I can give,” says one gentleman. Others weren’t so eager, mostly citing financial obligation and the fact that they just can’t afford it as reason number one. “Hey, if I had lots of money, I’d drop some every time. They’re doing something beautiful, and I support that. But,” the visitor from Texas pauses for a moment, “I just can’t afford to do it.”

This seems to be the case for most people. I would love to see a study where a subject takes as many $1 bills as possible and walks the streets of New York for a twenty-four hour period and every time he comes across a musician, busker, or performer, he has to kick a buck into the proverbial hat. I wonder how much money he would have spent in a day? I wonder what the figure would be when multiplied by 365? Probably a fair chunk of change.

It’ not that no one wants to take in the music that exists all over the streets of any major city, it is more of a matter of when is enough enough? Busking and street-music is an integral part to any urban aesthetic structure, it is just unfortunate that it has to come at the cost of guilt for so many people. One baby-boomer we spoke with was eager to share her opinion on how musicians separate themselves from the rest of the street crowd looking for handouts, “Music is as free as expression. You shouldn’t have to pay for it. But at least they’re doing something for their money. They’re providing a service. They’re earning it.”

If this is a service to the public that leads to income, we wondered what people thought about the notion that the musicians should have to audition for the right to play. Not surprisingly, the responses varied greatly. A teacher, and self-proclaimed “lover of the arts,” was clever in his quick-witted response: “Who is to say what the quality of music is or should be?” Good point.

A pair of young twenty-somethings brought up another good point when asked about the licensing process, “Really? Noooo. That’s no good. It makes it all the less real.”

I am not entirely certain I agree with their sentiment, let alone understand exactly what they mean, but it does paint the picture of a limited romance behind the lone saxophone under the single street lamp in Soho when you picture him going through piles of red-tape and an audition just so he can stand and play his horn to the wandering public.

An older gentleman from Harlem felt quite different about it, and saw the upside to the licensing and auditioning process as a positive, remarking that, “it is good that there is some kind of structure.” A tourist from New Orleans and a visitor from the Ukraine perhaps offered the best response to the question about whether or not New York City should have a licensing process for its public performers saying, “It’s more survival of the fittest, isn’t it,” said the visitor from Louisiana. “I mean; if you suck, maybe you just shouldn’t even bother coming back.”

It sounds like the old jazz test—c’mon on stage, but if you can’t hold your own, don’t ever plan to come back. The man from the Ukraine feels the same way: “The only real judges are New Yorkers anyway, so who cares what the audition judges think.”

So we know you don’t have to give them any money, and maybe the audition process can be a little redundant, but what about taxes? What if I were to suggest to you that a high quality street performer who is at it five days a week for about six hours a day makes somewhere between sixty to seventy thousand dollars a year in this town, yet a grade school teacher makes something closer to twenty-eight thousand. The teacher has to pay income taxes on those earnings; the musician—not so much.

“It’s an informal occupation,” offers a young Asian female we spoke to, “they shouldn’t be taxed on it.”

“Isn’t paying for their license enough government fee,” offers another gentleman. For the most part, we found that from the fifty or so people we spoke to, the general consensus is that subway musician income should be a tax-free profession.

A few people suggested that if the musician “reaches a certain income level, they should be taxed for it.” This seems to be a diplomatic suggestion. Whether it would hold any truth is yet to be proved. How many bartenders and servers claim the tips they make on their income tax return?

The message to take away from our video and survey is that subway music is as free as the air we breathe. But if you think it’s good and entertaining, you should do your best to tip into the open case or bucket. Almost everyone we asked alluded to an enjoyment received from public performance, and felt that musicians should not have to be auditioned or pay taxes. The courage of trying to make it with a guitar, violin, or pair of drum sticks on the streets of a major city seems to have earned them some privileges and respect from their urban-peers that others just don’t deserve or get.

Make sure to check out part one of this three part series. And check back next Thursday for the final installment.

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– Kory French


One response to “Subway Series, Pt. II: The Neon Madman on Grand St.

  1. I really enjoyed reading about your project – very cool.
    You know that musicians don’t HAVE to audition to play in the subway, right? They only have to audition if they want to play in the designated performance spots in the subway, but if they want to play elsewhere in the subway, they don’t have to audition.
    I read about this in the ‘Saw Lady’s blog:
    Have you seen her? She plays the saw in the subway.
    Also, I think you are grossly exaggerating the amount of income you think these musicians make.
    Anyway – very cool, you guys! Keep up the good work!

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