Classical Underground
July 12, 2008 6:17 PM   Subscribe

How is it to be a subway performer? I play classical guitar and have at times considered taking it down into the Chicago underground.

I'm not struggling by any means, but in idle fancy at times I wonder what it might be like to go practice in the subway. Are there specific stations where performers are allowed? Is there some sort of schedule that performers go by? Would it be bad form for me to take my art down there if I'm not having trouble making ends meet? Can anybody here relate some of their personal experience playing at train stations?
posted by mockdeep to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I always gave a buck or two to the subway performers when I got on at the Daley Center stop. I know they need permits, and it seems like a difficult way to find an audience.
posted by Ponderance at 6:39 PM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Usually, need to get a license from the City hall
posted by progressor at 7:04 PM on July 12, 2008

Oh my goodness, if you're going to be a street performer, be one of those guys who paints himself in silver paint and stands like a statue on Michigan Ave. I'm always astounded by how many dozens of people just gather and gawk at them. "I have silver paint!" "U R SO COOL." I mean, really, what's the attraction with those guys? I don't get it.

The only thing I can weigh in on is whether it's in bad form for you, ostensibly well-employed person, to go do this. I was in a station once with a girl playing clarinet, and overheard her having a conversation with some random guy about how she's a middle school teacher but went down there on the weekends sometimes because it was a fun way to pick up a couple extra bucks. So, you won't be the only one.
posted by phunniemee at 7:08 PM on July 12, 2008

Again, only a bad form or not response.

I don't think it would be. If you were just begging, then that would be bad form. But since you have a skill and you're displaying it I have no problem with it. To me, it's like you're performing anywhere else. And some people might say better than anywhere else because if they don't like it they can leave, and they'd get to hear you for free if they wish.

But no, not bad form.
posted by theichibun at 7:20 PM on July 12, 2008

You might be interested in seeing how Joshua Bell made out in his subway performance in this Washington Post story,
posted by maloon at 7:20 PM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's nothing quite like the tuba guy who sits outside CSO after concerts blasting three random notes and yelling, "They don't pay me to be here!" Or the guy who plays the chorus of "Happy Together" over and over for hours outside the CBOT. Or the silver statue guys who will chase down and threaten to beat tourists who take their picture if they don't give them money.

Ah, yes, Chicago has a fine tradition of insane and belligerently awful street performers. However, if you must mess that up by actually playing some decent music, I for one would appreciate it.
posted by elvedon at 7:50 PM on July 12, 2008

According to this article, it's only legal at four stations-- they mention Jackson, and State and Lake. According to the article, it sounds like spots are first come first serve, and the musicians in the article say there's not enough spots for everyone, which might be something to keep in mind regarding the ethical aspects of this.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 7:59 PM on July 12, 2008

Response by poster: maloon that was a brilliant article. I wonder how it would turn out if he played somewhere people actually had to wait for a while, e.g., an El station. I would like to think he would receive a little more appreciation, if just slightly. Not that I would get my own hopes up; he has more talent in his little pinky and so on...
posted by mockdeep at 8:25 PM on July 12, 2008

I spent a summer playing guitar in Boston subway stations when I was a teenager. The MBTA has changed since those days and I've been told the laws are different today; but back then, the city would issue a permit to anyone for a small fee. The MBTA didn't care where anybody played, but obviously some stations were better spots than others—so yes, the performers self-policed and arranged schedules. Everybody met downstairs in the Harvard Square station at about 6 am and held a lottery for the best spots (Harvard, Park Street, Copley, South Station, etc.). If I recall, each shift was 5 hours; and if you didn't get lucky or you wanted to work double, you had to set up at one of the less busy stations.

No, it wouldn't have been considered bad form for somebody in your circumstance to play. Some performers were less well-off than others and the regulars tended to be poorer, but nobody cared why anybody else was playing. Occasionally somebody would show up with an expensive keyboard and he'd get a spot in the lottery just like anyone else. Frankly, it didn't matter much because apart from a few exceptions, nobody made much money anyway. Most days, I made about $20.

Bring a comfortable chair or stool. My back hurt after the first week because I hadn't thought of that. Playing for 5 hours in a subway station is harder than you'd think, even if you think it'd be hard. The neat part is that your audience turns over every few minutes, so unlike actual gigs, you actually can "practice" by shedding a couple tunes repeatedly until you've got them right.

It was one of those experiences that in hindsight evokes Calvin's dad saying, "It builds character." Like most music-related jobs I've held, I could have made more working at McDonald's. But it was something I wanted to do and I'm glad I did it. If you decide to give it a try, good luck and have fun.
posted by cribcage at 8:39 PM on July 12, 2008 [5 favorites]

I recommend reading Suzie Tanenbaum's Underground Harmonies, an ethnography of subway musicians in NYC from the late 80s and early 90s.
posted by billtron at 9:47 PM on July 12, 2008

I have a friend who used to play her cello at street festivals and always made a good chunk of change.
posted by lunasol at 11:59 PM on July 12, 2008

I busked regularly for years, but outdoors, in happy sunny places. Different cities have different rules, many arguably in violation of the First Amendment (for an idea of the legal issues that can be involved, see Street Arts and Buskers Advocates).

When I played in well-chosen spots, I would average about $22 an hour, which was more than I was making at the time in my university job. I wouldn't make that much consistently--I had to choose the right spot and time, such as lunch time at the university, or during the farmers' market, or on the fringes of another event. Happily, there were a lot of events.

When I busked as part of a trio, we would get about $100 for about two hours of playing in our usual spot at the farmers' market. (This was all 10-15 years ago.)

In addition to whatever money ends up in your case, you can also get good-paying gigs, meet other musicians, and otherwise make connections. Have a stack of business cards or brochures in your case.

Don't follow Joshua Bell's example. Play short pieces, interact with your audience, make eye contact, and thank people when they put money in the case. Put your case where you can see it, but not so close to you that shy people will avoid it. Seed the case with a couple of dollar bills and some quarters.

Be very willing to chat with kids. Set up where people wait, not where they rush by. In my experience, upbeat pieces get more attention and money than slow, dark, or quiet ones.

You're probably not planning to do this, but just in case: Don't use amplification. It's probably illegal, and it's rude to other buskers.

Before setting up in a spot, case it out for a few days to see if anyone regularly plays there. You don't want to take someone else's spot.

Street festivals and farmers' markets are more appealing than subway stations and may get people who are in a happier, more generous mood. Areas full of tourists may actually net you less than more local-oriented venues (for example, I made less in the French Quarter of New Orleans than I made at my local farmers' market). So you might consider setting up on the fringes of one of the many summer festivals in Chicago that attract locals.
posted by PatoPata at 6:32 AM on July 13, 2008

Busking Tips.

Busking is such a great word.
posted by mecran01 at 6:34 AM on July 13, 2008

I don't have any stories to relate, or thoughts on the legalities, but I can tell you that as a commuter, non-standard musicians (i.e., singing or saxophone(and I play the sax!)) on the subways is very refreshing. When I lived in Chicago I'd use the Monroe Blue Line station. Everybody always walked past the standard acts, but the guy playing classical violin and the lady playing traditional Chinese instruments got way more attention. And, they were a pleasure to listen to.
posted by hwyengr at 9:03 PM on July 13, 2008

« Older I can has propertee?   |   Houston social scene? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.