Subway Series, Part III: Stuck Inside the Subway With The Permit Blues

Few people know about the process that goes into becoming a subway musician. It’s not just propping up the instrument case and playing a couple of tunes, although some people feel it should be that easy. For many reasons that we can think of (including noise pollution, overcrowding, and turf wars between musicians—though none of these are officially stated), the city of New York requires every artist interested in subway performing to go through a process of applying and auditioning for the program titled “Music Under New York” (aka ‘MUNY’).

The application process requires a video or audio recording of a sample performance, a written application, and any press or recommendations the artist may already have. Auditions are then held in the Grand Central Terminal, of which approximately 350 musicians are selected each year. The entire process is a pretty trying ordeal for a very limited number of spots, especially when there are returning members. 2010 saw the entrance of only 27 new artists. The bureaucratic approach begs the question: Why bother even auditioning when you can just lay out a case and make some good money?

The subway system is owned by the city of New York and is therefore officially listed as private property; so any unwanted “disturbances” can be written off as trespassing. How seriously the rules are taken is mainly contingent upon the location of the station, how well it’s monitored, and how much of a hard-ass the management chooses to be. To sum up an ordeal in a few words, it’s a trying process to be officially permitted to play in the subway.

So, who are these people? The quirky musicians with drums made out of buckets or keyboardists in gorilla suits; the eccentric neo-bohemians who put themselves out there playing music to an often ignorant crowd that is more likely to pass by than appreciate their sound- who are they and why do they do what they do?

It’s not just about the money. At least that’s what we young, idealistic writers wanted to hear when we braved the sweltering furnace that is the midsummer subway station to interview as many subway musicians as we could find. The idea was to learn about the journey: where the music came from in their lives, what made them go underground, the challenges they faced in the subway system, and their ultimate musical mission.

Of course, money always helps. We knew that going in. They wouldn’t be there if it didn’t bring in the bucks necessary to keep them afloat in this expensive city. But the general consensus we got from the musicians we interviewed was not only that it’s not just about the money, it’s really not about the money at all. Or at least that’s what they told us.

The first musician we spoke with, a performance drummer named Mike, told us about how everyone wanted him to “go into the subway, go into the subway”—not because of the money that was to be made in the subway, but because of the publicity it would get him. He auditioned and was turned down, for whatever reason—he postulates that they just weren’t looking for drummers. However, “permit or not, [he’ll] continue to play in the subway until [he] land[s] a good gig,” he tells us. “Because that’s what the people want.”

Mike’s passion for music is made clear in the way he engages his audience, flashing a flirty smile at the group of nine-year-old girls who have gathered around him with their mothers. He throws his drumsticks at the subway platform signs, does flashy moves with the wooden sticks while simultaneously blowing on a whistle. Later he informs me he can even play with fire.

Mike’s played all the big venues in New York, but it’s never been full time: “Just, like, guest performer stuff, ya know?” What he is looking for is the real thing—a band or a permanent gig. He could get it, too. He’s really good, and owns a lot of stage presence. “That’s why I’m down here,” he says. “Until I get the big one.”

Mike seemed a lot more career-oriented than the second musician interviewed, a guitarist named Troy who composed his own gospel songs. His motivation, he told us, was just playing for the passengers. He hadn’t planned on coming down into the subway, and in fact he began performing down there informally one day when he was “just touched by the beauty of life” and started singing about the Lord. “At the end,” he told us, “people just put money into my hands.” That was a couple of months ago. Now he comes down here when he is not busy, several hours a couple of days a week. He, like Mike, also does not have a permit.

Troy taught himself guitar, but the singing and songwriting has always come naturally. The song he sang for us is called “The Lord is Blessing Me,” and was fairly decent. He mentioned briefly the hope that someone will hear him and give him a chance [at singing professionally], but he stressed the fact that he just wants to live his dreams—his love for singing.

“Sometimes it’s not easy though,” he told us, “Some people don’t have the same faith.” Faith or not, at the end of Troy’s set a number of people dropped money into his hat.

We attempted to interview several other performers, but they were less forthcoming. Whether it was because they were busy assembling their equipment or because they were afraid to talk to us was unclear. The last man we interviewed, a classically trained violinist named Valeriy Zhmud, was the only performer we found with an actual license to play in the subway. Even he reported having had some trouble with the police. He showed us his license, and a detailed schedule of where and when he was allowed to play. But the fact that both Mike and Troy were unlicensed and yet still able to log regular hours was evidence that perhaps despite legal barriers, a permit was not all that necessary.

Whether or not a license should be required is a different story. While it is obvious that noise pollution and competition for space could cause serious issues, it is also clear that forbidding individuals to play is at least a partial violation of the first amendment. Besides, the music really isn’t hurting anyone. I’ve seen some musicians on the subway who openly declare that they’ve chosen to play music for us instead of sell drugs or participate in another lucrative, more criminal, activity. And for those who don’t do it just for the monetary aspect, it seems ridiculous that people who just want to entertain us and bring music to the masses are refused the right to perform. The musicians we interviewed seemed to agree.

The subway is a great opportunity for an up-and-coming musician: it grants them a source of income, practice time in front of crowds, and publicity. It gives them a chance to be seen and heard. And really, they’re doing all of us a service. They’re bringing their talent, however great, and their passion for music, to the hottest and most uncomfortable environment in the city. They wouldn’t be doing it unless they loved it. They deserve the opportunity to show us what they’ve got, and the least we can do is allow them to play, and listen.

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– Calah Singleton


One response to “Subway Series, Part III: Stuck Inside the Subway With The Permit Blues

  1. You said: the city of New York requires every artist interested in subway performing to go through a process of applying and auditioning for the program titled “Music Under New York”

    Actually, it is NOT required – it’s only if the musicians want to play at the particular spots of MUNY. If they want to play elsewhere – they can do so without a permit. I learned about it from the blog of the ‘Saw Lady’ – have you seen her? She plays the musical saw in the subway. I always see her at the Union Square station in the afternoons. She is very friendly – she talks to everybody. I’m sure she would talk to you, too, if you approached her.

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