Subway Busking: Freedom of Musical Expression

How is your commute to work or home? While walking through busy subway stations, sounds of classical, jazz, blues, or folk music can often be heard in the distance. Sometimes there’s a crowd surrounding one or more performers. Sometimes they stand alone. Either way, there is often a chance to hear some tunes that make the hustle and bustle less stressful. Street performers, also known as “buskers,” are people who perform for the public. These are unpaid artists, and money is given by gratuity only. In general, busking can take the form of music, dance, poetry or storytelling, and much more. It is popular in NYC subway stations, especially music, since there are no limits to genre, age, gender, or location.

I recently attended a subway busking tour led by friend and busker, Heidi Kole, who has been performing songs in New York City subway stations for six years. She wrote a book called The Subway Diaries where she shares her experiences and musical journey underground. When I asked what busking means to Heidi she explained, “You get to give the gift of expression…you get to be anything you want. I love that freedom.” I also had a chance to meet a folk singer named Bathabile, and an R&B and blues singer named Danny, who performed their music at the 59th Street (A,B,C,D,1) and 42nd Street (A,C,E) stations. I had the pleasure of singing along to songs that I grew up listening to—even some that were around before I was born.

Busking is legal to perform in subway stations. However, buskers are sometimes arrested or given summons. Why does this happen? According to Heidi, some police officers are not aware of the legality of busking, and some use that as a reason to increase their ticket quota. Buskers become pawns in the system. Performers who want to ensure their ability to play in prime locations can apply with Music Under New York (MUNY), an office of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Arts for Transit which provides and reserves designated places to perform. These performers are protected from random ticketing.

How do buskers maintain their freedom of musical expression? “We have our own rules,” Heidi says. She adds that despite the unlawful treatment of buskers, performers feel free to do what they want because busking provides a sense of community and humanity.