Beyond the sounds of the wheels clanking over tracks, the wind rushing past speedy subway cars and the endless cacophony of feedback loops and unnecessary public address announcements, our subway system is filled with the music of buskers and musicians. For decades, musicians have roamed subway cars and camped out on subway platforms and station mezzanines to serenade harried passengers on their ways to, well, wherever.
On my rides, I sometimes wait for the train to the tunes of a folk guitarist or a violinist. At W. 4th St., I’ll often catch a glimpse of the Xylopholks, pictured above, as they play their odd mix of bass+vibes while bedecked in alien or muppet costumes. The older man playing Nino Rota’s score from The Godfather on his accordion is always a welcome addition to a subway wait while the couple banging out rhythms on their plastic jugs are entertaining if deafening. We all have been subjected to more mariachi bands than we can count, and Asian strummers abound.
These, though, are the buskers. They are not a part of the MTA’s officially sanctioned Music Under New York program. Those are the folks with special banners who are approved to perform in designated areas. Despite this sanction, as City Lore, a subway musicians advocacy group, points out, although Transit can limit musical performances underground, it cannot ban them. Buskers are allowed to compete for ears — and donations — with the MUNY musicians.
In amNew York today, Heather Haddon reports on a conflict between cops and independent musicians. According to City Lore officials, cops have taken to harassing and ticketed musicians who are allowed to be performing. Some artists believe that the cops are, in the words of Haddon, “targeting musicians who have not been officially sanctioned by the MTA under its Music Under New York program.”
Veteran transit musicians say police harassment has grown to disturbing levels in recent months, leading some to fear that independent performers could be driven out of the subways. “It’s a game to drive you crazy,” said Mark “Shakerleg” Nicosia, 34, a subway drummer who has been ticketed repeatedly this year…
A NYPD spokesman said they are not “going after” musicians, and tickets are issued only when individuals are causing excessive noise, upsetting crowds and obstructing pedestrians.
According to several musicians, the NYPD issued a memo last year that instructed officers to ticket any artist not affiliated with Music Under New York, which provides designated subways spots for 100 participating artists. “It’s become very obvious they are trying to kick us out. And there’s no arguing,” said Theo Eastwind, 34, a subway musician for 15 years, who said he was shown the memo.
Per Haddon, the police say no memo exists, and she could not reach the MTA for comment on the story. Still, musicians say that performers in Times Square and Union Square are particularly vulnerable to the tickets, and a City Lore survey found “widespread harassment.” Generally, judges dismiss tickets for “insufficient evidence,” reports Haddon.
As City Lore and musicians lament the decline of charm, character and personality, I am inclined to agree. We all have moments when subway musicians are annoying. No one wants to hear that tone-deaf beggar butcher “I Can’t Help Myself” again, and the mariachi bands are, well, mariachi bands. But the musicians do indeed lend some personality to the drab underground trips that mark our days. I’m happy to listen to a tune while I wait for a train, and if I don’t like it, the other end of the platform beckons. For those who aren’t breaking laws or violating rules, it should just be that simple.
Photo of the Xylopholks by flickr user rachelkramerbusseldotcom.