It’s been a hard day’s work. Your legs manage to carry you to the subway station where suddenly live music greets you. Is that “Norwegian Wood”? Your blood pressure drops. Isn’t it good?
“The people need music and music needs the people,” said Matt Doe, the trumpet player from Too Many Zooz, the three-man busker band turned viral hit turned big act playing at Brooklyn Bowl on April 28-29.
Buskers have the right to perform in subway stations without a permit, unlike entertainers who work the city streets and parks. Despite occasional clashes with police unaware of busker rights or the MTA’s code of conduct, performers are as welcome in subway stations as commuters.
When he linked up with David “King of Sludge” Parks and Leo P. in 2013, they didn’t plan to be a band. But after playing every day in public for two years, their distinctive sound emerged — loud and vibrant.
“Our style was created by us playing in the subway for people,” Doe said. “There’s really no other place in the entire world including the largest stage that provides you with the amount of people the subway does. If you play for three hours there’s a good chance you will reach 20 to 30,000 people from all around the world, from all walks of life.”
They had no expectations of stardom, Doe added. Then in 2015 someone posted a video of their rollicking platform act and fans came running. The video went viral, and now has more than 3.5 million hits on YouTube. Since then, they’ve been on six national and international tours and released an album titled “Subway Gawdz.”
As a testament to their support of buskers, the MTA has an official program called Music Under New York (MUNY). The agency conducts auditions and books performers at preferred subway locations. It also provides a nice banner to hang at the performance space. There are currently about 350 participants in the program.
“A big benefit for being in our program is that the groups become recognizable and are often booked for private events like parties and weddings. Sometimes they become so busy with those that they don’t have time to play in the subway system for a while,” an MTA spokesperson told Metro.
Some artists find widespread recognition, such as singer-songwriter Susan Cagle, Alice Ridley of America’s Got Talent fame and Jason Ruan, the boy prodigy frequently spotted at the Times Square subway station playing Beethoven on his keyboard.
The music business is a hard game, and busking doesn’t necessarily make it easier, said Theo Eastwind, a one-man original rock act whose been busking since 1995. He was dubbed “King of the Underground” by American Songwriter magazine in 2006 for his devotion to the venue and his advocacy for busker and police relations.
Eastwind’s credits include the annual NYC Buskers Ball, for which he curates his favorite subway acts and “The Rules of Mass Transit Artistry,” commandments for civilized and successful busking.
He’s also not shy to talk about a series of what he says are unjust arrests for busking. From his experience, a friend created the arts advocacy group Busk NY that provides legal help to subway artists.
Despite his arrests, Eastwind is undeterred and encourages everyone to “Just go out there.”
“We have to take back our public spaces and use our First Amendment rights before private security companies push artists out of the community,” he said.
Theo Eastwind’s “Rules of Mass Transit Artistry” (condensed)
1. Have Respect for the audience, fellow artists and the space.
2. Don’t occupy a spot for more than five hours.
3. Be polite, extra polite to transit cops.
4. Obey the law. Have the rules the MTA rules of conduct with you at all times
5. Don’t appear intoxicated — and “don’t harass women.”
6. Move around. Don’t rely on one spot. If you see an open spot take it or you may lose it.
7. Persevere. Not all days are good days. Enjoy the experience.
8. Inspire. Make your listeners feel something.
9. Have a bottle of water.
10. Use the restroom!