Busking in the subways is a time-honored tradition, with KRS-One, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed getting their start in New York’s (literal) underground music scene. Today tenacious college students in need of quick cash, publicity, and practice space carry on in their footsteps.
Kelly Buchanan, a 24-year-old Hunter College student, says she regularly makes between $50 and $80 an hour playing songs on her guitar and hawking her CDs. She even keeps a computer spreadsheet of where she plays, what time, and how much money she earns.
“It’s exhausting because you really have to be on your guard with all the weirdos and drunks,” said Buchanan. “But, you can pick your own hours and meet people.”
Making connections is what motivates D-XIFR (Decipher), an Upper Manhattan hip-hop group with members enrolled at CUNY and SUNY who take their rap to the rails. “It’s self-promotion, you know?” says 19-year-old Sergio Guerrero, a criminal justice major at CUNY. “And it’s fun.”
“Forty-deuce,” is the best station, according to 20-year-old Ravi Lambert, a music major at SUNY. Once the group spent the whole day freestyling and selling homemade T-shirts and took home $500—more than enough to cover the $65 ticket Lambert received from an undercover cop for playing his boombox on a subway car.
Lisa Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said there is “no law that says you can’t play” in subway stations. Musicians can get tickets, Schwartz said, for playing on the stairs and in cars, blocking pedestrian traffic or playing non-acoustic music.
Trombonist Max Seigel, a 24-year-old jazz student at the Manhattan School of Music, practices in subway stations for the sake of his neighbors. “It’s not really feasible to play in your apartment,” he said. “So I’d go play in the subway because there nobody cares how loud you are at three in the morning.”
Seigel says the acoustics at his usual practice platform, the 81st Street stop on the A, C, D, E lines, are “second only to Notre Dame Cathedral.” Except when a subway goes clanging by.
Each spring the MTA holds auditions for “Music Under New York,” a program sponsoring subway musicians. For information call 362-3830.