NYC Subway and Street Performers

New York –the epitome of creativity and artistry. Not surprisingly also the dream destination for many singers, musicians, break dancers, and other creative minds. Canadians, Europeans, Asians, South Americans, even US Americans find themselves on their way of travel towards the metropolis of the Northern continent. Filled with hopes and plans of how to start out with the right teacher, meet the right producer/director/manager and eventually become “famous” when swimming in that pile of gold…. Well, those would be the dreams of many!

But no matter what the initial plan was, everyone will soon enough find out that the Big Apple is certainly not a “piece of cake” and that you have to scramble to get your gigs together.

Also not astounding the fact that to become famous, sometimes you have to start at the very bottom.
Now street performers cannot be necessarily called “the bottom” of the ladder. Indeed some very much enjoy the roughness of the subway station, the authenticity of the performance, the proximity to the crowd.

However, it doesn’t take much to wrap out the music gear in a train station or above ground and start performing. It’s more about the emotional willingness and courage it takes to really do this in front of the faceless crowd.

I used to live with a street performer when I first moved to the City. She was originally from Canada and had moved here 8 years prior. While I am not sure when exactly she started taking out her musical talents on the street and in the subway, I believe at one point in her shattered career path she met someone who knew someone who introduced her to someone who told her to try it out. So she started in her early 30ies with a group of teenagers who were break dancing around her while she sang along to tunes of mixed tracks.
Gradually she became accustomed to performing in front of strangers and for money, and started coming up with her own “shows”: Songs mixed with a funky beat which were played on her own boom box and to which she provided the necessary vocals. Her shows grabbed everyone’s attention alright, as her songs were well-known (classics such as “Stand by Me”) combined with some new creations. I am not sure if it was her voice that peeked out more or the level at which her stereo sounded through the station of Lexington Ave and 53rd Street. Either way, as it is so common in New York, some days were good, some not so. I think the best days brought in a good 200 bucks within the time frame of 4 hours, which relates to $50/hour – not bad at all. The best time to perform, according to her, was from late morning or during the day. She never performed at night, as she thought this to be not only worthless but maybe even dangerous for a lonely woman.

Performing in the subway

I didn’t even realize the problems street performers have to deal with until she told me about a normal day at work. The occasional rivalry between spots and time struck her as annoying. I guess there is no order as to who plays when but it is dealt with according to first-come first-serve rule. When someone had been performing for a time considered too long, they were scorned upon by the other candidates who desperately wanted to get their show on. So a good day could quickly turn into a rushed half hour performance out of the blue.

Other dangers to look out for are the occasional arrests the NYPD likes to handle. My roommate called Tuesday “Undercover Cop Day” and tried to stay away from the subway station during this time. She had her share of hours spent in jail – in her opinion due to “cops who have to make their quota meet and take it out on the people they consider low-class.” Stories from arrests of the famous Mexican trio showed up at the same time all of this went down, which provoked a big wave of protests among the people of New York. I guess the officers try to take away the money the performers had “rightfully” earned before the time of arrest and this made many persons angry. The absurdity about these arrests is not so much the reason but the inconsistency paired with the current mood of the law enforcement, which seems to be an even measure throughout this city.
To clarify, individuals performing on the streets or in the subway legally require a license to do so. However, I haven’t run across one musician or dancer who has had a license, ergo I consider the percentage who is legally allowed to play to be very low or non-existent. Many cops know of this, of course. It is most likely to see performers at the same spot during the same time almost every day. If police officers truly wanted to bring their point across and arrest for the purpose of law enforcement only, they would simply arrest the artists every single day until no one would dare to perform anymore (this is also known as “cleaning up” as seen with jaywalking under Giuliani). However, the fact that there are only a few arrests made every other week or such contradicts the purpose of “fighting illegal street performance” and, therefore, does not make too much sense.

Enough of the political side, though.

There are many motivations why people perform on the streets and in the subway. Another brief roommate of mine had taken out her passion for the guitar at the Union Square station for sole purpose of re-uniting with other performers and entertaining the crowd. I am unsure as to how many street performers really perform to make ends meet but I would assume the percentage to be very high. Sometimes you see how passionate the musicians are, though, and you can see the glimmer in the dancers’ eyes when they move around on their floor, motivated by the enthusiasm of the crowd. Two of my favorite performers are indeed two very different groups: A group of musicians from Eastern Europe who go by the name of Moon Hooch and a group of pantomimes dancing to soul-touching music. Both perform at Union Square: The young guys are down at the L-Train and blast out their trumpets and horns in such a lovely manner that it makes me forget where I am at. They recently had a show in Williamsburg and I hope it went well for them.

A crappy picture of the one and only Moon Hooch

The dancers perform on the upper level, the most common site. They grab the crowd’s attention by putting on black clothes and white masks, thus disguising their origin and unifying for the sole purpose of the show. They then climb on and swarm around each other in ghost-like manner, capturing everyone’s looks when passing by. I believe it must be tough to divide those hard-earned dollars between 4 performers, but I am sure they make much because of their ability to fascinate the people.

Union Square pantomimes

Another common spot for artistic performances is Washington Square Park, with their oh-so-common jumpers: A trio of black men who lure six women into a row and then jump over them, but only after an endless-seeming amount of time. Sometimes they don’t even jump, because they consider the “donations” given in advance not high enough (too bad for whoever gave more tha $5). Tricky group, indeed!

A great dance floor is the top level of Union Square, of course, and Herald Square close to Macy’s. Breakdancers, native Mexicans, and other musicians like to play beneath Macy’s. I even once saw a harmonica in the stations of the “posh” Park Slope, but I suppose the performance didn’t make enough money to come back.

Native South Americans performing at Herald Square
Union Square artist

An artist who I consider very talented and also sad at the same time is the probably ten-year-old child who is masterly hitting the keys of his transportable key board. He captures everyone’s attention, of course, but I am not willing to put a dollar in his bucket as his father is standing right behind him and most likely the driving force to all of this. Child labor or not, the boy loves to play, as can be seen in his face, but I don’t think it ethical of his parents to drag him down to the subway station and make money off his talent.

Child labor, yes or no?

And one last thing to mention, a thing which always aggravated my former roommate: People who stand by, take pictures, shoot a video but never pay. It is common courtesy in New York to give the artists a symbolic dollar whenever the music or dance is appreciated. I myself didn’t know of this until being here for well over three months. Many Europeans do not follow this rule, either, as in Europe street performers rarely go on the streets to pay their bills (and thus don’t necessarily perform for money). Over here they do. A difference in mindset. So if you ever find yourself entertained by street music, please step forward and hand over that green bill. It will be well appreciated.

Oh, and those huge bands who tend to play around every big holiday in the underground station of Times Square? Highly commercialized groups of people and not entertaining in comparison to others. Walk away fast and go make your way to another station!

Street performers in New York: They can turn a gray commute into a colorful ride. They can feed your hopes on many artists who have not yet been discovered and who exist in the underground of this city. They are indeed an entire group of artists by themselves.

Breakdance beneath Macy's shopping paradise

5 thoughts on “NYC Subway and Street Performers

  1. There are a few down here in Savannah, but mostly we steer clear of them as they tend to be more annoying than talented, so I’m glad for NYC if they are entertaining.

    That’s interesting about the permit. If few people have them perhaps it’s because the cost won’t outweigh the benefit of having it if they don’t get enough donations? It does seem that it should be consistent. Either consistently arrest everyone who doesn’t have a permit, or stop requiring a permit. Silly to have it and then only sporadically enforce it (although I imagine the cops in NYC generally have more serious things to worry about).

    As far as the kid and whether it’s child labor, I didn’t automatically think he’s being forced to do it. Some parents do try to live vicariously through their kids and profit off their talents, but others see their kid has a talent and acquiesce to their desires to do something with it.If the kid wanted to do it, it’s better his father accompanies him than him striking out on his own. You won’t know which is the case for this child unless you stop by and ask the child 😉

  2. It is not true that “individuals performing on the streets or in the subway legally require a license to do so.” The MTA permits “artistic performance, including the acceptance of donations,” as you can read in the MTA Rules of Conduct. There are numerous sources documenting this, so it’s unfortunate that you didn’t do the research when you were ostensibly promoting the work that subway performers do.

    • Thanks for commenting, Matthew! Please be kindly advised that this is my personal blog and that this post is based on stories from my former, street-performing roommate. While I understand you are upset, I also believe that the issue of being arrested even though street-perfoming is technically legal has been around in the past few years. Therefore, there still exists a lot of confusion whether or not it is really illegal or legal. As I can tell, your own blog points this out very well and I am glad that you out of the two of us have that point right! Kudos for leaving a comment and letting me know!

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