Home View from Underground The musical sounds of the subway platform

The musical sounds of the subway platform

by Benjamin Kabak

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.”

Haddon reports:

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.

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OurMta November 9, 2009 - 5:56 am

As long as you are considerate and not obstructing anyone, performing underground is a right, a right we need to protect. We’d be interested in hearing any incidents of ticketing or harassment on performance artists at OurMTA.org


AK November 9, 2009 - 9:26 am

There is the rub, “As long as you are considerate and not obstructing anyone.” When a group (3 or more) enters a crowded subway with chairs/drums, the balancing of civil liberties with security begins to tilt toward security, since the instruments brought on board prove to be significant obstructions to the 3-4 exit doors on each car.

I must say that as a constitutional lawyer, my favorite part of the musical serenade (or loud religious proselytizing) is hearing people debate whether the First Amendment protects the speech (it does) and whether it is appropriate to “shout down” the person speaking (also a protected First Amendment right provided there is no threat of physical violence).

As Kramer (playing Merv Griffin) might say, “ONLY IN NEW YORK!”

Benjamin Kabak November 9, 2009 - 9:29 am

I certainly wasn’t as clear in the post about this point, but I think there’s a firm distinction between musicians on subway cars and those on platform. I’m far more supportive of those on platforms than I am of those who are on the subway cars. I should have made that distinction clearer here.

daily / links for 2009-11-09 November 9, 2009 - 6:02 am

[…] The musical sounds of the subway platform :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog 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.” (tags: subway noise music muny mta) […]

Kid Twist November 9, 2009 - 9:53 am

After a hard day’s work, the last thing I want is to be forced to listen to someone else’s idea of music on the subway. I especially resent it when I’m in a car with locked end doors and there’s no way I can escape. I don’t care how talented the performer is. It’s obnoxious to impose yourself, loudly, on other people in a place where they have no way to tune you out.

Most of the performers on the platform are no better. If you think that banging on paint buckets in the subway makes you a musician, you really ought to take long hard look at your life.

I will concede, however, that I feel a spot of pity for the stooped-over old man with the violin who I usually see at Grand Central. He is, hands-down, the worst musician in the entire subway system, but he doesn’t give up.

AK November 9, 2009 - 10:05 am

Obnoxious, perhaps, but constitutional, certainly. I think you (and others who share your opinion) should shout down performers, roll your eyes, etc. in an effort to show your disdain. Your annoyance certainly isn’t a fringe reaction to musicians in cars (I would estimate that a majority of New Yorkers are annoyed-ambivalent, while a majority of tourists are blissfully enamored).

Kid Twist November 9, 2009 - 10:35 am

I never said it was unconstitional. I said it’s just plain rude.

AK November 9, 2009 - 11:45 am

I know, just adding my two cents. Is it my imagination, or are people unusually defensive on this blog…

Kid Twist November 9, 2009 - 12:01 pm

Who are you calling defensive? 😉

AK November 9, 2009 - 1:30 pm


Alon Levy November 9, 2009 - 10:40 pm

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s entire existence is rude. If we ban subway performers, can we ban them, too?

AK November 10, 2009 - 9:24 am

I don’t see why not, Alon!

Michelle November 9, 2009 - 10:17 am

I think having musicians in the subway is great. Of course not everybody likes all of them – which is why it’s great to have such a variety of styles and instruments. Did you ever see the ‘Saw Lady’ at Union Square? She always brightens my day. I enjoy the Xylopholks, too (though contrary to what you said, they ARE permitted musicians – I’ve seen them with the banner – a small version of the banner, come to think of it. More like a big card.) I don’t think the musicians are doing anything wrong. Why would they want to get rid of them?
Like you said – if someone doesn’t like them they should just move on.

Shelly November 9, 2009 - 10:18 am

I usually enjoy the musicians on the platforms. It can get annoying when two different performers or groups are too close to each other, but in general, I like the music, even if it isn’t what I normally listen to. It’s a pleasant diversion.

I do not like it in subway cars. It’s too loud, the musicians block easy passage through the cars, and it’s annoying while I’m trying to read. I end up wadding up tissues in my ears until they’re done.

Manhattan Mini Storage November 9, 2009 - 10:32 am

While maybe some artists are better than others, the sunway and street musicians of New York are one of the reasons why NY is so amazing and unique! Whether approved of by the MTA or not, Music under NY is one of the best new York City Attractions and for any visitor, a needed slice on NY life!

Unless someone is really agressively harassing someone, one would think that their are biggier issues for the authorities to deal with in the city.

Kid Twist November 9, 2009 - 10:40 am

Substitute “boom box” for “busker” and I guarantee that a lot of you would be up in arms and commenting about how selfish and inconsiderate it is for someone to behave that way in a subway car full of people. I don’t really see any difference between the buskers of today and the boom boxes of yore — except that the nuisances of today actually expect me to PAY them for assualting my ears.

Benjamin Kabak November 9, 2009 - 10:42 am

But the difference between a busker in a subway car and a boom box is that one moves on generally after a stop while the other does not. The better equivalent to a boom box are headphones that bleed sound.

I’m generally with you though on in-car performances. I much prefer platform musicians.

jon November 9, 2009 - 10:49 am

I believe the preachers, musicians, dancers, and every other group should be banned from the trains themselves. I have no choice but to sit or stand in that car. Even when the end doors are unlocked, I should not have to break the law to get away from someone banging on drums, strumming their mariachi guitar, or performing a dance routine.

On the platforms, even if I can’t stand you music or what you do, I can at least go to the other end of the platform. In the train, you are much louder, block the car, and one cannot get away.

I would be very happy if the police just arrested, no tickets, no summonses, just straight up put the handcuffs on the person and took them off the train at the next stop. I wouldn’t even mind if I had to wait a few more minutes at the stop.

Scott E November 9, 2009 - 11:24 am

I have to agree with Ben and some of the others — I enjoy it on the platforms, and even more than that, enjoy watching the tourists reactions to the subway musicians. They may have an open guitar case for donations, but they don’t walk right up to you shaking a hat or a paper cup. They don’t belong on the trains — and anything or anyone that tries take more then their alloted 0.9 square foot (or whatever MTA thinks is right) or overpowers the screeching subway noise is just being rude.

That said, I was on the train on Thursday, and a man in front of me just happened to be singing to himself. He wasn’t wearing headphones, wasn’t asking for money, and was quieter than most conversations; but he found tranquility singing about Jesus in this noisy, crowded subway car. And his voice was phenomenal. If I owned a record label, I’d have handed him a business card. Nothing wrong with that.

Grrrumpy Miner November 9, 2009 - 11:29 am

I have no problem with the music played…at least they are singing for their supper and working hard to entertain whether people want to hear them or not.Some people like to make you laugh for example the spanish guy who rode the J train wearing a horse costume and the guy at Shea Stadium (I still call it that) “Why lie,I need a beer” poster.Now thats a guy with creativity so he gets a dollar after the game from me.One set that I don’t trust is the Preacher (If I want to hear a sermon,I’ll go to the nearest church),the down and out guy and believe it other else the “Deaf Mute guy”.I was on a train he left “The pen” on my lap…he was clear on the other side of the car and I slammed a book LOUDLY on the floor,he looked back and cursed.Sorry,I never donate because I can’t believe if you are REALLY homeless,sick or just plain a scammer.

Christopher November 9, 2009 - 12:51 pm

I’m pretty sure that any attempt to prohibit performing inside the subway cars would be constitutional. The Supreme Court upheld regulations prohibiting panhandling in subway cars using the same logic most of the posters here used, essentially that on the platform you can move away, but you’re trapped in the subway car. Certainly the inevitable passing of the hat at the end of the performances is illegal already.

AK November 9, 2009 - 1:44 pm

Well, I’d look at that ruling another way. First, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (the Supreme Court chose not to review the case), stated that a majority of riders perceive begging as “intimidating, threatening, and harassing.” While the hat goes out with musical groups, I think the level of “intimidation” is lower. Second, the vote was 2-1. It is not at all clear that a different set of judges would find similarly in a “music” case, although, as I noted above, in a post-9/11 environment, the judges would almost certainly be concerned about means of egress in the event of an underground terror attack. Third, and most importantly, music has far more “communicative character” than begging, and thus generally would be more carefully protected under the 1st Amendment (though surely not as protected as, say, political speech on a subway). The dissenting judge noted that the Supreme Court, in a case called Schaumburg, had held that charitable solicitation is protected because it “is characteristically intertwined with . . . speech seeking support for particular causes or for particular views on economic, political, or social issues.” For those interested in reading the opinion cited by Christopher, the case is Young v. New York City Transit Authority, 903 F.2d 146 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1990). Good stuff!

Eric November 9, 2009 - 2:07 pm

The only buskers I mind are the dancers who set up camp near the foot of the escalators at the Times Square station, in between the shuttle and the 1/2/3. They usually have a large group of people watching and it’s annoying to try and fight your way around it to get to the street.

Mike HC November 9, 2009 - 3:17 pm

Three thoughts:

1) I usually have head phones in so it blocks out most of the sound anyway.

2) I have no problem with musicians trying to make some money on the subway platforms. They are just trying to make a living and are at least trying to entertain you.

3) It can get annoying when the subway is crowded and a five piece band is taking up a third of the walking space while I’m trying to switch trains. It really is not that big a deal though.

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Jim from NY November 10, 2009 - 11:29 pm

The musicians on the subway, especially the platforms, are extremely annoying. I cannot hear myself think let alone be able to hear any official announcements. The whole program should be disbanded and all musicians banned. I cannot even have a decent conversation with the person or persons that may be with me due to those noisemakers.

I can live with the noise the trains make because it is intermittent and there is a quiet period in between. The musicians make for a more nerve shattering commute than it otherwise would be without them.

Michael Barrows November 19, 2009 - 10:45 am

Today my friend Keni Lee Burgess went into NYC to his favorite busking spot in the subway. 57 + Lexington.
He played for a bit then was approached by a police officer who told him to leave.
There has been a huge increase in police harrassment of buskers in NYC. I understand the problem when a crowd grows on a sidewalk, but when you’re on a subway platform where your audience changes every three minutes the harrassment is not only ridiculous it’s unconstitutional. First Ammendment the right to free speech covers this. The harrassment of buskers needs to stop.
It’s either legal or illegal black or white it’s that simple.


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