Underground economy: Tough times bring more subway music

Street musicians seem to be more visible in New York City these days. Could this be a sign of the economy worsening? The other night I saw a guy playing a piano, yes, a whole piano he had hauled into the West 4th Street subway station.

It's almost become a competition for performers to suss out the best spots with the most reverb and passenger traffic. I discovered one magnificent location deep within the bowels of the subway system near Macy's as I descended three steep levels. What makes it ideal is the supreme echoes. Within a five-minute dash, I heard two bands who had staked out the same station. The music was so good I didn't want to get on the train.

I've sampled many distinctive groups this way, like the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. More than just a local street band, this troupe including seven brass-playing brothers has traveled the world and won international acclaim. Yet I've encountered the New York group holding court at the Times Square station several times. These modern-day, big-band-style performers -- all but one are sons of the trumpeter Phil Cohran of the Sun Ra Arkestra -- were so engaging, it was either stay there all day to listen or buy the CD, the type of thing I never do. I ended up forking out $15 right on the spot. So there's an economic boost right there.

On St. Patrick's Day at a 34th Street station, I found the locally noted street poet Brad Bathgate in jeans and a plaid jacket, marketing his work, including "Corner Stores in the Middle of the Block" and "Don't Beat Your Children Or They'll Turn Out Like Me." His provocative promotional line began with "Girls only check me out when they see me with another woman . . ."

Another day I glimpsed a subterranean tap dancer. And one Friday as I rode the local train, from downtown to uptown, I felt like I was channel surfing. Each time the subway paused at a station, a different music sample wafted through the open doors. One stop it was opera, another electric guitar; at a third, a keyboard emitted a folk accordion sound.

Each spring Music Under New York holds a one-day audition for its program (now in its 22nd year) coordinating musician appearances within the subway system. The artists selected can call in about every two weeks to reserve three-hour slots at 25 well-trafficked spots, where they can play under a customized banner. Once enrolled (at no charge) in Music Under New York, performers may stay on the roster in future years, indefinitely. MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz says the number of new applications rose from 200 in 2008 to 250 in 2009.

Musicians not registered with this program can play in subway stations as long as they're not disruptive or impeding traffic, but jam sessions inside a train are not allowed, Ortiz says. There are no plans to trim Music Under New York this year, despite a financial shortfall that has prompted the MTA to plan fare hikes and service cuts, he says. The music program amounts to about one percent of the MTA's capital expenditures.

It's a small drop in the bucket compared to the enormous outlay for the arts during the Great Depression, when the New Deal sponsored artists in virtually every medium. This year the National Endowment for the Arts received $50 million of the federal economic stimulus package. By early April artists had submitted 2,000 applications.

For the last 15 years, Angel Marin, 41, of Bayonne, N.J., has played the subway circuit with his Andean music band Agua Clara through Music Under New York. The take varies. One April Tuesday during the afternoon rush hour his band of five netted $150, or $25 a piece, in tips and CD sales. A week later, playing the same subway stop at 42th Street and 8th Avenue, the same three hours, yielded $350, or $70 each.

Peter Ford, 50, of Brooklyn, whose Baby Soda Jazz Band also participates in Music Under New York, says his group's proceeds tend to fall in the same range, but then are divided among sometimes as many as seven musicians. He says less than half these earnings are from tips as opposed to CD sales. Such sales are allowed at Grand Central and Penn Station--and at a few other areas at the discretion of police, Ortiz says.

Another option for musicians is to take to the streets, literally, and perform at a busy spot like Times Square. Although performing music on the street doesn't require a permit, says Gabriel Taussig, chief of New York City's administrative law division, other activities a musician can be involved in, such as using a sound amplification device, might. Those who sell their own music, considered "expressive" material protected under the First Amendment, don't need a vendor's permit from the city's Department of Consumer Affairs, but there might be site and street limitations.

Over the last decade Paul Mueller, 42, of Westchester County, New York, has enjoyed providing accompaniment for the subway commute via Music Under New York. His band Mecca Bodega mixes the dulcimer with percussion sounds from around the world. He declines to discuss his earnings, aside from mentioning that such appearances have led to CD sales and other gigs, including work with filmmakers Jonathan Demme and Spike Lee. While his band regularly appears at music festivals, Mueller considers his subway performances priceless: "You're playing in front of thousands of people," where the crowd is diverse in age and gender. When passersby "hear something that makes them stop . . . it's totally spontaneous for them."

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