For New York City musicians, performing in the subway can provide extra pocket cash, a chance to practice their art, promotion until they stumble on the next opportunity, or even a modestly-paying career.
Performing for donations, also called busking, is legal ever since the constitutionality of a Depression-era ban was challenged in 1970 by poet Allen Ginsburg.
In 2013, we spoke to and photographed some of New York City’s subway musicians.
Anyone can perform in the subways, so long as you don’t use amplification on the platform. Amplification is allowed on mezzanine levels however. Spots are first come, first serve and there is an extensive etiquette to avoid treading on other performers’ toes.
Manhattan-native Jacob G. Cohen is a cellist who has been busking full-time for over two years. He calls it a “real-life Kickstarter.” The exposure he’s gotten from busking helped fund a tour in Asia.
“I’m getting to play music all day, but not music where anyone has told me what to do. I have control over my whole life now, making more money, and meeting amazing people everyday,” says Cohen.
Cohen typically makes $100 for every four hours he plays. He said playing in a duo (like in this picture with violinist Scott Murphy) is more difficult, but can result in more tips.
The Eric Paulin Quartet is part of the Music Under New York program. The MUNY program fields a roster of approximately 350 musicians who get priority access to the best spots in the city.
To become part of the MUNY program, you have to audition. MUNY only accepts about 20 new artists each year, but once you are accepted, you are in for life.
The Eric Paulin Quartet got this prime spot in the Time Square-42nd Street Station on Monday night at 7 p.m. Eric Paulin was one of the first MUNY jazz musicians to be accepted in 1988. He also plays in ’60s tribute band The Meetles.
Musicians say that busking is the best musical education you can get, as convincing a tough New York crowd to donate forces you to elevate your skill.
Prince (left) and Angel have been playing drums together for three months. Angel has been busking for twenty years and used to be a part of the New York Art Ensemble.
The duo uses only raw materials like buckets, pots, and pans to play. On a good day —usually playing on the 1 train platform at Times Square — each makes about $100 for three hours.
16-year-old Jason Cordero has been busking since he was 11. His father Wilson was initially skeptical of him playing in the subway, but relented when Jason insisted.
Cordero is saving the money from busking for college. He hopes to attend Julliard.
He’s become an extremely popular fixture in the subways, always gathering a crowd full of smartphones and cameras.
Union Square is generally considered the most lucrative place to play in the city, because so many subway lines converge there.
Mr. Reed is a singer and drummer from East New York, who recently made it to the quarterfinals of “America’s Got Talent” with the band Wordspit and The Illest. He said he comes out to play because it allows him to meet a huge cross section of people.
He calls the Bedford stop in Williamsburg the “Haight-Ashbury” of our time. He was recently featured on a Guitar Center commercial, which he booked while busking.
Cathy Grier is a career musician who left the stage for the subway platform in 1999. While she says that her donations do not directly pay for her rent, the gigs she books from playing underground do.
She said her true motivation is to bring something to the community. “A lot of the kids [that walk past] have never had an art or a music class before. They’ve never been to a show,” said Grier. “I’m happy to provide that for my city. I’m a New Yorker.”