Would-Be Subway Musicians Vie For Right To Be Legit

Wednesday, May 16, 2012 - 02:36 PM

The Belle Tones, following their audition for the Music Under New York program (photo by Kate Hinds)

Seventy musicians lined up in Grand Central Terminal on Wednesday to audition for the New York MTA's "Music Under New York" (MUNY) program. Each act had five minutes to sell themselves to the judges. (According to MTA rules, performers are welcomed on subway platforms, but must audition in order to be under the literal banner of the MUNY program.)

(Listen to WNYC's All Things Considered this evening for an audio tour of the auditions. And to contribute photos of your own favorite subway musicians, visit WNYC's culture page.)

Steel drum player Caesar Passée (photo by Kate Hinds)

While many talked about how important it is to bring music to the masses, 14-year old Queens resident (and classical pianist) Jason Cordero was more pragmatic when asked why he wants to play Mozart on a subway platform. "I practice at home. When I practice in the subway, I ... get donations."

Shae Fiol, a musician with the all-female group Mariachi Flor de Toloache, said MUNY is "a great program." Plus, she said, since they're already playing in the subway, they might as well make it official. "We want to have our own banner that says our name on it and be able to call up and schedule a location and a time and be legit."

Members of the Mariachi Flor de Toloache, prior to performing (photo by Kate Hinds)

Musicians in the MUNY program don't get paid, but they are allowed to solicit donations from their underground audience.

Joe D's Glamma Twins (photo by Kate Hinds)

One of the judges is David Spelman. His day job is as the director of the New York Guitar Festival. But as a judge, he’s listening with the perspective of a subway commuter – not a music professional. "This may not be what I want to hear at 7:30 in the morning," he says of one steel drummer performer, "but I could definitely handle this after work."

Fourteen year old pianist Jason Cordero talking with Bob Holman, the audition's MC (photo by Kate Hinds)

The MTA holds auditions for the MUNY program annually. There are currently about 350 individual performers and groups taking part; Wednesday's auditions were expected to add another 20 names to the pool.The MTA said it will announce the names of the new musicians who have been accepted into the program after Memorial Day.


Comments [3]

Matthew Christian from Brooklyn, NY

As a subway performer and leader of a subway arts advocacy organization, I was disturbed by inaccuracies about the legality of subway performing in this article.

The MTA rules, which are easily available online, state that "The following nontransit uses are permitted by the Authority, provided they do not impede transit activities and they are conducted in accordance with these rules: [...] artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations." A banner or MUNY membership is not required to perform. And in fact, the rules as they read today were created specifically to protect freelancers following a 1985 court decision!

Nonetheless, this article contains phrases ("the right to legitimately perform in the subway system," "be legit," "Musicians in the MUNY program [...] are allowed to solicit donations from their underground audience") that suggest that freelance performers are somehow "illegitimate" or "illegal." We are not -- and that claim is both recognized in New York law and clearly stated in the MTA's own information on the matter!

What's more, inaccuracies like these are not without consequences. Because many police officers and MTA riders have seen misstatements of the facts in articles like this one, harassment, summonsing, and even wrongful arrest of freelancers is an on-going problem in the MTA. (My organization, BuskNY, works to document these incidents -- and I can tell you based on my own experience as a performer that incorrect 'common knowledge' leads to harassment from police!)

As performers and advocates, we love to see accurate media coverage of our work, and we'd all be thrilled to see a correction in this story. Kate, please feel free to reach out to us through Twitter or our website!

Aug. 16 2013 10:26 AM

Ohhh my they are! I saw them once and they blew me out completely!! I know who they are now.

May. 17 2012 11:15 AM

One of the things I like about NYC is the quality musicians in the subway, like the amazing Doo-wop groups, Andean groups and not to mention the 'Saw Lady' they brighten up the boredom of waiting for the train.

May. 16 2012 06:58 PM

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