Busking 101: Street and Subway Performers Earning a Living

Friday, June 21, 2013

Just how much money can you make singing in the subway?

Thanks to generous tips and CD sales, some buskers can earn enough to support themselves.

But performing on subways platforms or on the street is also about networking and booking even better-paying gigs in more conventional venues.

As with real estate, it's all about location. 

In subway stations, Music Under New York (MUNY) governs some of the most popular performance spots. It was created in 1985 by MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design to improve the often dreary commute.

One artist who joined MUNY this year is Susan Keser. She’s still playing in Central Park most weekends, but now she’s an official player in subway stations as well.

"I highly recommend busking because it’s the best way to get yourself out there," Keser said. "It’s better than the internet." 

Keser estimates 60 percent of her gig offers come from people who pick up her business card while she's busking."Free publicity," she called it.

As a new member of MUNY, Keser has her eye set on Union Square, generally agreed upon by members in the busking community as the most profitable MUNY location in the city.

How much are the performers on the subway and in the parks making at the end of the day?
Depending on factors like location and weather, many musicians can make a living from busking.
Each member of the band Gypsy Train took home about $300 after performing on the subways last Christmas Eve. From left to right Eran Fink, Miguel Lantigua, Tommoraw Mortimer, and “Gypsy” Joe Hocking.
The band Select Blendz performs at the Union Square subway stop. Musicians say the right location is key to making money.
Select Blendz is a doo wop group that is permitted to perform in various transit stations by the MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design program, Music Under New York (MUNY).
Musicians from all over the city performed on this stage in Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal in mid-May hoping to gain access to the more than 30 big money-making spots of MUNY.
One artist hoping to get a chance to perform at profitable MUNY spots like Union Square is Julian Hintz, who performed his "accordion alternative" music as Squeeze Rock.
Susan Keser waiting to audition in Vanderbilt Hall of Grand Central Station for MUNY, in which she was accepted late May.
Susan Keser plays in Central Park most weekends but also auditioned for MUNY in May.


Charlie Herman and Daniel P. Tucker


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Comments [11]

Sonic pipe amps

Check out the busking practice amps from sonic pipe amps. The E-3 is perfect for guitar and harmonica and the E-4 is good for the bass.

Apr. 05 2014 05:02 PM
EMAC from Sydney

Possible long shot here;

Anyone know if it's possible to HIRE a busker in NYC???


Nov. 15 2013 12:41 AM
Sean from Central Jersey

I busk in a few small touristy towns nearby where I live playing bagpipes. I pull in over 90 bucks an hour on average. But thats all on the weekend. I wonder if I could make a similar rate during the week performing in New York or Philadelphia.

Nov. 02 2013 07:19 PM
Bob B from Brooklyn

Why is it I never see any pole dancers stripping in the R T.rain? I'd pay like 5 bucks to see that

Jun. 22 2013 07:11 PM
Dylan from Bklyn/Queens

To clarify: EACH MEMBER of a group of 4 to 5 musicians can make $30+ and hour, under the ideal circumstances.

Jun. 21 2013 05:59 PM
Dylan from Bklyn/Queens

I know many musicians who have performed in the subway stations, and have done so myself. The highest earners tend to be groups of musicians who present a well-rehearsed, energetic show, are dynamic and aggressive salesmen, and have a dedicated hat-passer to solicit tips. Under the ideal conditions, and at the peak times of foot traffic (in the afternoon and evenings, when people are less rushed to, say, get to work on time), the best groups of 4 to 5 musicians can each make around $30+ per hour, with significantly diminishing returns after 3-4 hours of work. However, very few performers can maintain the necessary level of energy for longer than that period of time. Also, performers cannot appear in the same location more than a few times a week and expect to generate the same amount of revenue. Location and material must be changed regularly to avoid a degree of market saturation.

Jun. 21 2013 05:56 PM
Russ from Plainfield

I tend to agree with Tom. With the exception of a Spanish guitar group I've seen, most everything on the subways reminds me of Yakof Smirnoff, "You have captured audience." And, yes, some of them should keep their day jobs. But there are also some exceptional talents. In the long run, those that that perform good material well will make the lion's share of the money. I, too, wonder just how much that is, though.

Jun. 21 2013 02:25 PM

I'm a little fed up with riding the subway and being subjected to musicians playing in a moving subway car. At least you have the option of walking away if they're playing on the street, subway tunnel or platform. You don't have that option with loud bongo players in a fast moving E train. My subway ride is, or should be, my quiet time to read, sleep or stare at pictures of Dr. Zizmor. Where are the police to restore order on the trains? And don't get me started about break dancers swinging from subway polls.

Jun. 21 2013 01:51 PM
beachsiggy from NY NY

I have no clue what these hard working people make, money wise, but there must be some satisfaction in being able to make music, and be in front of an audience, even if they are running for a train. A couple of my favorite buskers are the guy who plays in the 66th St IRT station after Lincoln Center performances (usually snippets of what you paid to hear that evening), and the young soprano who has a really lovely voice who sings in the 59th St station. Nothing quite like getting off a train to the sound of sola, perduta, abandonata!

This morning there was a string quartet on the lower concourse of Penn Station, playing Vivaldi. I personally prefer that to the steel drummer, or the electric guitar guys, but that's just my taste. Music is music, and the more we have of it, the more tolerable the city can be. My opinion.

Jun. 21 2013 11:14 AM
flynne from NY region

You didn't answer the question of "how much do they make?" Enough to support yourself? What's that? In what fashion? Does the musician have roommates, a penthouse in UES, an apt in Jersey City? - You also don't mention the hell of heat in the summer, and the icy platforms in winter, and whats entailed in lugging equipment up and down endless stairs. There is noise (music's worst enemy) abuse, and unless your playing in the middle of the night, an inability to complete more than a phrase before the trains come by and the pedestrians once again choke the space you've set up. Whats a good day or bad days take? Do your research better.

Jun. 21 2013 10:12 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Doesn't how much one earns busking depend upon one's talent? I've heard plenty of "buskers" who really should find another line of work and they never get a cent from me.

Jun. 21 2013 08:40 AM

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