If you thought grumpy New Yorkers commuting home from a 10-hour workday were a tough crowd for a subway performer, try the employees of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
More than 70 soloists and ensembles auditioned in Grand Central Terminal on Tuesday for the chance to join MTA’s revered Music Under New York program. Each year, the group welcomes 20 to 25 musicians into its family, and then facilitates performances for the undiscovered talent in designated areas across New York City’s subway system.
While busking isn’t entirely illegal, admission to the MTA’s program offers peace of mind. Section 1050.6 (c) of the New York City Transit Rules of Conduct states that artists may perform and even collect donations inside transit facilities, but you may only perform in designated areas, you may not obstruct traffic, and even if you follow the MTA’s rules, you could end up like this guy, who was reportedly wrongfully arrested for singing when acting within his rights.
Music Under New York provides a stable source of gigs, authority, a little bit of cash, and, most importantly, exposure. And while it’s not the quickest path to stardom, more than 200 applicants submitted audition tapes to the MTA this year. We spoke with a few artists to find out what busking means to them.
By 12:30 p.m., a dozen performers formed a line around the panel, which included fellow musicians, industry insiders, and MTA station operations managers. Each group received four to five minutes to wow the judges.
Stiletta, an all-female dance and a cappella group, was first up in the afternoon session.
Artistic director Judy Minkoff says she scouted local talent for the group, and was lucky enough to recruit the third best female beat boxer in the world, MC Beats. The group uses no audio equipment in their performances.
Minkoff describes the ability to make people get out of their seats and dance as her source of joy.
Other ensembles, like French raggae and jazz group The Blue Dahlia, seemed to bring all the instruments they could carry.
The band decided to audition for Music Under New York when some successful local groups spoke highly of the program. Drummer Chris Hansen says amplification is the biggest challenge in subway busking; being able to perform in the designated areas, away from the noisy train cars, would be a huge advantage.
Jill Sargeant, a 23-year-old folk singer from Astoria, Queens, got hooked on busking when she noticed how people altered their behaviours around her. “In this city, people try not to make connections with each other. You avoid eye contact and touching,” Sargeant explained. “But when I’m busking, people will smile at me. They will come talk to me. It feels like a community when there is live music.”
She hopes to be accepted into the program so that she can play without interference in the future. “I’ve been testing the waters of street performing and busking,” Sargeant said. “After being escorted off The High Line a few times, this really appealed to me.”
Jazz vocalist Frank Senior owns a newsstand on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, not far from Grand Central Terminal. But he auditioned Tuesday because music is his one true love.
“I know how I feel when I hear a great performance,” Senior said. “[Busking] passes along a real positive vibe through music.” His service dog, a German Shepherd, sits at his feet during all performances and takes some credit for spreading the joy.
Von Middleton, who goes by a stage name, has been writing original songs since he was nine years old. He works as a singer full-time, booking gigs at birthday parties, graduations, and local clubs. In 2014, he nearly set a Guinness World Record for most times performing the national anthem in a year.
But for Middleton, a third-generation Brooklynite, the MTA’s Music Under New York program is the tops.
“I would be so proud, because I’m from New York,” Middleton said, “just to have that stamp of approval. It shows that I have talent and that people appreciate my talent. There’s no greater feeling.”
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