Busking: A dying artform

Busking: A dying artform

In the south exit tunnel of the West 4th Street subway station, 77-year-old Baba Chico sits on a red milk crate with a pair of bongos cradled between his knees. He rests his head against the tiled wall, smiling congenially. His spectacles and short gray beard give his eyes an avuncular glint. As the crowds rush to and from the train, he almost absentmindedly beats the small drums to a rhythm of his own making. A small black duffel bag lays by his feet, with coins and one dollar bills strewn about inside.

Across the platform, a group led by drummer Uros Markovic, 40, performs an instrumental jazz piece. A cellist, saxophonist and a pianist complete the ensemble. Some commuters turn their attention to the band, most likely waiting for their train. Others turn a blind eye, most likely in a rush to leave the station. Markovic, dressed in a black jacket over a New York Knicks jersey, nods his head to the music while beating a black and red drum set which proclaims in a marker scrawl, ‘Jesus Saves.’

These modern day bards and minstrels, called buskers, are a ubiquitous presence in the city. They set up their acts in public parks, on the sidewalk, even in trains but most commonly on the platforms of the subway. Buskers are not merely street performers who lay themselves at the judgment of the public for nothing more than hat tips. They are a New York cultural institution. And they are dying.

With change in technology and online portals like YouTube providing avenues for musicians to spread their work, busking in the city has become a tough act to follow. Buskers, it seems, are an endangered species ever threatened by the city’s increasingly limited public space and the spread of corporate interests.

“Busking is a dying art form,” says Jed Weinstein, one busking half of the sibling Indie-rock duo Heth and Jed. Weinstein says that buskers invigorate people, “but it’s a hard fight to keep (busking) alive.” The two guitarist-singers have been performing since 2005 and together authored ‘Buskers: The On-the-Streets, In-the-Trains, Off-the-Grid-Memoir Of Two New York City Street Musicians.’ Weinstein says the city, in the past, was more hospitable to performance on the street. But the selling of public space to corporations, such as Washington Square Park to New York University, has adversely affected busking. “In the long run, it even affects people’s enjoyment of New York.”

A cultural institution

Busking, a term for street performing that can be traced to the mid 19th century, is an integral part of the patchwork quilt that is New York. “The diversity of musicians and cultures are shown through busking,” says Eric Abbey, a professor at Oakland Community College and a musician in Detroit. Abbey has played and researched music for over 20 years and has written two books on music, the latest of which will be released in February next year. He says, “Busking is one of the simplest and purest forms of expressing self through music.”

The city’s busking heritage has long been recognized, even by the state. In 1985, the Metropolitan Transit Authority launched the Music Under New York (MUNY) program under the Arts For Transit banner to support street musicians in the city. The program, with a roster of around 350 individuals and groups, adds around 25 new performers every year through an open process that starts in January. The MTA’s chosen are assigned to 30 prime locations across the entire subway system such as Union Square, Times Square, Columbus Circle and Penn Station.

However, MUNY has not necessarily had the intended effect. The program legitimizes only a fraction of the hundreds of street musicians who liven up the daily drudgery of subway commuters – an average weekday sees more than 5 million people on the subway. “It is both a good and bad thing,” says Abbey.  “The regulation of busking defeats the attitude and effect.  While it allows tourists and others to feel ‘safer,’ it detracts from the artistry and freedom of the busker.”

It’s not about the money

Baba Chico (he uses only his stage name) has been a busker for more than three decades and in that time has seen a sea change, and not for the better. “Now you gotta work longer hours for less money,” he says. But like most buskers, he doesn’t care about financial gain.  It’s the public’s emotional response, and not their generosity, that keep him going. “My rhythm appeals to people going out or coming back from the club. And that’s what I like, when I see them responding to it,” he says.

Jovan Johnson, a 21-year-old student at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and a relative rookie to the busking business, realized on his “underground tour” of New York that money was of secondary importance. He and his college roommate started playing on the subway a year ago to help pay their rent. When his roommate moved away, Johnson went solo. Now, he can usually be spotted on the 14th Street subway stop, playing the trombone accompanied by an electronic multi-effect processor. An hour’s performance brings a mere $20. But busking has helped him evolve his technique. He molds and improvises his tune to the ebb and flow of commuters, playing to people’s moods. Although he performs outside of the subway as well, being a jazz musician in New York can be tough, he says, “So if you can’t get a gig, make a gig.”

Burst of the busking bubble

Busking reflects the culture of a city says Dr. Jacqueline Edmondson, professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of ‘Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories That Shaped Our Culture.’ It is a critical part of New York, she says, which has the potential to “break down social class, race, ethnic and other barriers as well. Street music is one place where a shared music event can reach diverse audiences.”

However, Abbey says, “It is thriving but on the verge of collapse as the danger, risk, and individualism of busking become limited by the Internet and corporate interests.” He cites the Academy Award success of the documentary film ‘Searching For Sugar Man’ about an unknown American busker as rendering the underground notion of busking “mute.” And he says that technology, while advantageous in making buskers proficient in their music, has caused others to shy away from attempting to busk.

Although busking is not technically illegal, it is tough terrain. Buskers are allowed, by virtue of the First Amendment, to perform on subway platforms since it is public property, but not on trains. They cannot use amplification without a permit, which Weinstein says are hard to come by.  Soliciting payment for entertainment is forbidden, as is handling out promotional materials without authorization. This leaves freelance buskers with little wiggle room in which to ply their trade. Many performers, say MTA officials, break the law inadvertently and therefore need to be aware of both the rights and rules of busking.

Staying upbeat

MTA officials are unconcerned about the future of busking. They say the MUNY program is mutually beneficial to buskers and the city. Lydia Bradshaw, manager of the Arts for Transit and Music Under New York, says it helps musicians get experience, and even corporate gigs. Companies often reach out to the MTA for information on artists on the roster. Aaron Donovan, another official, says that buskers help to improve the transit system’s environment and make it welcoming. He believes that busking is in no way threatened. “I know that technology has made it more competitive,” he says, “but I don’t think an iPhone can replace the  experience of watching a live street performance.”

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