Sound Field

S1 E28 | FULL EPISODE

What It's Like Busking in the NYC Subway

Busking, also called street performance, is the act of playing in public for donations. The tradition goes back to ancient history and has launched the careers of artists Robin Williams, Ed Sheeran, and Sheryl Crow. Nahre Sol visits the amazing musicians of the New York City subway to learn about why they busk. Later she gets tips from the pro buskers and attempts busking herself with her friend.

AIRED: February 14, 2020 | 0:17:47
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TRANSCRIPT

(fast percussion music)

- There's a whole world beneath the city,

visited by over four million people each day.

This urine scented metropolis is

not only home to pizza stealing rats,

but one of the most diverse music

scenes in the United States.

(upbeat piano music)

(collective singing)

Artists come from all over the world to play on the stage.

When you turn a corner or exit a train,

you never know what kinds of sounds you'll be met with.

(R&B music)

Sometimes it's classical violin.

(slow violin music)

Sometimes it's EDM violin.

(fast violin music)

So we're here in New York City,

we're about to run around and interview

a bunch of street performers and seasoned buskers.

I'm excited because I've never

performed on the street before.

Even though I've been performing and

playing the piano for about 20 years now.

So we'll see what happens,

and maybe later on I will get a chance at busking myself.

- [DeeWho] Good day ladies and gentlemen.

My name is DeeWho and I'm here with a song for you.

(blues music)

- [Nahre] Street performance, often called busking,

goes back to ancient times.

As author Patricia J. Campbell puts it,

"There have been street performers at least

"as long as there have been streets."

♪ Oh I said all the wrong things ♪

♪ Oh I stood my ground ♪

- Just day to day, going through being on the train,

walking through the city, my wish is always to be anonymous.

But this is sort of the opposite of that.

You're putting yourself out there,

and I think it's really brave.

♪ You were ignoring all the signs ♪

♪ You took my hand and you set me down ♪

- [Nahre] There's a little bit of tension

in the train that's also good for performing.

But it's like a different feeling.

- Like the reason I think I'm able to do this,

is because I come and I bring a sincere energy.

- [Nahre] And how long have you been doing this?

- Done this actually as my, basically my day job,

for like the last five years.

I make better money doing this

than I certainly did waiting tables.

And definitely than I did doing a

lot of other jobs that I only did

for no reason other than money.

So I mean hell, I was doing this for free anyway.

♪ Ohhh ♪

(clapping)

- I moved to New York City, to pursue my dream of music.

But I was nannying part time,

I love kids and I was like this is a good part time job

that'll allow me to, to still like,

go to open mics and like, do music.

And I would see people busking and I

always just thought it was like so courageous.

And I would see like amazing buskers where

I was just like wow.

Like they're so talented and they were so, like, care free.

And I was just like I wish I had those guts.

♪ Light it up ♪

♪ YOLO is what I believe in ♪

♪ Fight it up ♪

Finally I was like, let me try it,

worked up the nerve and I did it.

And I was making more than I was nannying.

So since then I just, I started busking.

♪ As we light it up ♪

(upbeat electronic music)

- [Nahre] Here in New York City

there's a complicated legal history with busking.

(upbeat violin music)

And over the last century the city has gone

back and forth on whether or not it's allowed or banned.

During the great depression,

busking became a popular way to make money.

That is until Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia outlawed it in 1936,

calling the street performers beggars.

(upbeat violin music)

The ban continued all the way to 1970,

when poet Allen Ginsberg,

challenged the ban as unconstitutional and won.

Busking is protected as a form of free

speech in the U.S.

Meaning it can't be prohibited in areas where other

forms of free speech are not prohibited.

But even though busking is now legal in the subways,

that hasn't stopped the police from arresting buskers.

- [Man] You can't do that.

- [Yut] Cops are so annoying.

- Are they?

- Yeah, even I, even I have the permit,

they come up to me sometimes.

It's like it's to loud, or it's just annoying.

- It was really a struggle,

if you weren't a sponsored musician,

if you weren't a Music Under New York Musician,

you go through that process.

Then yeah it was tough.

(upbeat violin music)

♪ I'm trying so hard ♪

♪ To get by ♪

♪ I'm trying so hard ♪

- [Nahre] In 1985 the MTA created

a program called Music Under New York,

that gives artists a special

permit to perform in the subways.

For some, this permit is great,

because it allows you to get priority

at popular locations, and protection from law enforcement.

- [Nahre] Can you tell us a little bit about MUNY?

- Yes.

So Music Under New York is a program

that was created for people like myself and other

talented performers through out the city,

to be able to legally perform in the subway.

And not, you know, get in trouble with the police.

And so there are regulations, like you know,

spaces, and places you can do it and things like that.

The audition it takes, once a year,

about they audition about maybe 300 people this year.

And out of 300 they chose me as one of the people for this,

to get into the front round.

- [Nahre] Admittance into the program

is through one audition held every year.

And from the over 300 musical acts that applied in 2018,

only 28 were admitted.

This had led many musicians to criticize the MTA for

virtually controlling who can and who can't

perform in the subway systems.

♪ Say it yeah ♪

♪ I'm trying so hard ♪

- MUNY is, is uh, maybe necessary in some ways

I suppose if you really want to not break the law

technically playing with amplification.

I kind of enjoy breaking the law in small ways.

(laughs)

Maybe you could cut that out.

- [Nahre] No, I mean I think that's awesome.

♪ It starts with today ♪

♪ No more holdin' me ♪

♪ I'm livin' my life ♪

♪ No one checks over me ♪

♪ It starts with today ♪

♪ No more holdin' me ♪

- [Nahre] The good news is that in recent years,

the police have begun to loosen up on arresting buskers.

This has hopefully created a more fair space,

where both MUNY artists and independent

artists can share their talents with the public.

♪ I've been a liar ♪

♪ I've been a thief ♪

♪ I've done stuff you wouldn't believe ♪

- Any noticeable differences between when

you first started performing on the streets versus now?

- Yes, absolutely.

We've had mayoral changes.

So ever since that leadership changed,

I've noticed the law enforcement

really loosen up on busting buskers' chops.

So to speak

(upbeat piano music)

- What motivates you to come out here

even on cold days like this?

- It's soul food for me.

It's necessary, for my health and well-being, yeah.

♪ We all grow up ♪

♪ Oh ♪

- [Nahre] I like the comparison of busking to soul food,

because it's the passion for music that keeps these

artists coming back to perform.

Busking isn't easy and even though there are many rewards,

there are just as many challenges.

(singing in foreign language)

- [Nahre] What are some challenging things about busking?

- Every now and then

I get a kind of a grinch like person.

(laughs)

- How do you deal with that?

- I don't.

- You don't.

- I just (laughs).

- I like that.

- People don't seem to care anymore,

everybody has headphones on,

or they're looking at their iPhone.

- You know you're just talking at walls.

And a lot of people do talk at walls in this city.

A lot of people totally talk at walls.

A lot of people are walls to be talked at.

(singing in foreign language)

- The most challenging thing about busking,

is getting things here.

- [Nahre] Lugging--

- Lugging my stuff, yeah lugging my stuff.

- Sound, no electricity.

- Playing with gloves on underneath a grate you know,

and the cold air is just like blasting down on you.

Getting those sympathy tips.

- At one point I was singing and people

were gathering and you know,

applauding me, and really getting into it,

and singing along and putting money in my little basket.

And this one person was like why are you singing?

- [Nahre] Oh no!

- Why do you have it blah blah blah blah,

you know you sound terrible blah blah blah.

And I was like, kay.

I just, I didn't really react but she kept going.

And the more she kept saying crazy stuff,

the more people would just put money in my basket.

So I was hoping she would keep going.

(slow acoustic guitar music)

- [Nahre] I also think that busking

provides a unique space to experiment.

What I mean by that is when you perform at a concert,

the audience is there to see you,

and most likely came to hear music.

However when you're busking,

you're performing for people in their space,

and they can choose to ignore you or stop and listen.

- You are imposing on people by being,

it's a public space, and I mean,

you fart on the train you're imposing on people.

You know, sorry I farted on your world.

But (laughing) it's my idea of a nice smell.

You know?

(laughing)

- Wait what?

Okay.

(laughing)

♪ To let my light shine yeah ♪

♪ Yeah ♪

- Do you feel like it's easier to connect

with people while you're busking versus,

performing on a different stage or a different venue?

- I think because the subway allows you

to interact with anyone and everyone,

and anyone and everyone can listen.

It gives you a wider platform to

engage with a wider audience,

as opposed to someone that can't afford to pay,

or who's able to pay to go to a show,

or whatever it is you know.

♪ They say pray pray pray pray ♪

♪ Oh how you worship ♪

♪ I wish I could love what you see ♪

- I started busking because,

I've known since I was little that I wanted to be a singer.

But as I got older and I was auditioning

and performing more,

I was suffering from really bad performance anxiety.

- Okay.

- So much so that it actually was getting in my way,

and I was losing like the joy that I had found in singing.

So that's when I decided to do something bold

and like kind of like,

push my comfort zone as best as I could.

And the thing I thought of was singing in the subway.

- I deal with a lot of stage fright.

- [Emma] Yeah.

- And I have all my life.

- [Emma] Yeah.

- But anytime I remember that it's about

something that's not within but--

- [Emma] Right.

- Outside with the audience.

- Right.

- It usually gets better.

♪ I will learn ♪

♪ To let my light shine ♪

- I have a question personally about busking,

and playing outside publicly on the keyboard.

I'm going to try later on today, with my friend.

Do you have any tips for someone who

is completely new to busking?

- Absolutely.

- And someone who's rather shy,

in terms of doing stuff in public.

- I do, because I was there.

- Okay.

- And actually I've come a long way,

from when I started busking.

It took me at least five years to figure out

that you have to interact with the audience.

Hey if you guys have any requests,

please write them on a fifty dollar bill.

You know, stuff that gets people laughing.

I mean you don't have to.

You can all be in your instrument.

But...

It's a, it's a huge difference.

I see it in the tips.

- [Nahre] And I have a question about

your Venmo sign.

- [Emma] Yes.

- A lot of people don't carry cash anymore.

- Right.

One day in the middle of a set, you know,

a girl came up to me and she was like,

oh do you have Venmo?

And I was like no.

And she was like, oh well I really like what you're doing,

and I wanna give you a tip but I don't have any cash,

so you should like get a Venmo.

And I was like that is a fabulous idea.

I should get a Venmo.

- [Nahre] I met up with my friend

Dotan at his workspace in SOHO.

He's performed all over the world with his upright piano,

in unexpected places like a subway car and the Eiffel Tower.

- Hi my name is Dotan and today we're gonna be,

we're playing music in the subway and it's fun.

- But you've done this before right?

- Oh yeah.

- This is my first time.

- So I used to, I used to walk around and,

I'm doing such a bad job at this.

I'm sorry!

(laughing)

- We just set up and we're going

to busk for about 20 to 30 minutes and see what happens.

The goal is to make five bucks.

(laughing)

- Five.

- Five.

- That's a, that's a good goal.

Oh there you go, that's the one.

(slow electronic music)

- I'll do this.

And then you solo over it.

(slow electronic music)

- Nice.

(slow piano music)

(laughing)

- Give us money, we need money.

- I think we need to up the energy.

- I mean part of it's eye contact maybe.

I mean that looks good to me,

in terms of engagement.

We gotta be louder.

(upbeat electronic music)

- Yeah, keep the energy out here.

(upbeat electronic music)

- And a Merry Christmas.

How you doing?

Thank you.

- [Nahre] The buskers that we

met this week made it look easy.

But in the end we made just two dollars.

Here in New York,

street performers went from being called beggars,

to an important part of the subway experience,

and vital to the city's music culture.

- [Yut] busking used to be looked down upon,

they're like oh those homeless.

But now in this time I think people

see busking as oh wow he's doing an art form.

And because buskers in New York are amazing.

- I think it's important to understand that

what you are doing as a busker is,

you are giving positive energy to everyone that hears you.

And sometimes you may uplift someone from

a very dark or negative place.

- Nobody might tip you.

It can get discouraging for sure.

But that's an indication that you're

not doing it for the right reasons.

- If one day I was to look back at these years

as the best years of my life,

I'm okay with that, I'd be okay with that.

(slow electronic music)

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