Anyone who has ridden a New York subway has seen them, buskers playing in twos and threes or simply solo on any of the world’s repertoire of instruments, case open or hat on the ground to catch tossed coins and the rare bills. They cater their selections to the mood of the crowd, they chat and flirt, but mostly, they play, because those tips are their whole salary for the service they provide.
But the spots along the subway lines aren’t first-come first serve. Just anyone can’t turn up with a drum or a viola and sing for their supper. These buskers are members of the Music Under New York program, part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and each one of them has won their position in a month’s long annual contest. There are about two dozen winners per year. Not a winner? Tough luck. It is illegal for anyone else to perform in the subway system, or even within a certain distance of the street entrances.
Final auditions for this year’s lot took place on May 19th, with 70 performers out of an original 300 vying for the few spots. Each was given approximately five minutes to impress a jury of musicians and transit authorities. Contestants were from around the world and from all walks of life, from the recently discharged U.S. Air Force sergeant singing Maroon 5 songs to a an Italian Unitarian Minister with a law degree in an accordion band.
Many call New York the center of the world, the “new Rome.” For this handful of artists, victory in these auditions will place them squarely on the pulse of the city, with the kind of exposure that can never be bought, only won.