NEW YORK – Luke Folger has been performing electro-pop songs without a permit in the New York subway system for seven years. But on Tuesday, he played and sang at an audition for one of 20 coveted spots that would allow him to perform amplified music in high-exposure parts of stations.
And with talent agents among the judges, the Music Under New York (MUNY) program auditions, administered annually to more than 60 performers by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), mean more than an official green light to pump up the volume. It’s a shot at exposure.
One agent and judge at Tuesday’s event, Dvir Assouline – who represents world-renowned performers including R&B singer Alice Tan Ridley – told Al Jazeera he was “keeping my eyes and ears open” for talent.
But for many performers the issue is more basic than a shot at fame and fortune. Amid a recent rise in arrests of subway performers – also called buskers – Folger, a 29-year-old originally from Montana, said being chosen for a MUNY spot also means an opportunity to simply avoid tickets and arrests while he is working.
“Sometimes I run into trouble with tickets and getting spots,” he said. But he added: “If I don’t get in, it’s OK. I’ll still do it.”
Street performer advocacy group BuskNY told Al Jazeera that the recent spike in arrests is partly due to some police officers erroneously thinking that having won a spot with the MUNY program is required for any subway busking performance – when in fact it is only required for using amplified sound in certain high-profile areas. The New York Police Department had not responded to a request for comment on the issue at the time of publication.
Over the course of the day, Tuesday’s event to sanction amplified sound at certain places in the subway turned into a dialogue on how to maintain performers’ rights.
Since New York’s City’s new Police Commissioner William Bratton took office on Jan. 1, 46 subway dancers and acrobats have been charged with reckless endangerment, according to reports by local media. Street performer advocates say this is part of a larger attempt to crack down on what they say the Bratton administration treats as panhandling.
With or without a spot, performers like Folger say they will keep on playing to the underground. And busker advocates say such performances are part of what makes New York a U.S. cultural hub.
Sandra Bloodworth, director of the MTA unit that oversees MUNY – Arts for Transit & Urban Design – said in her opening comments at Tuesday’s auditions that anyone can perform without a permit in New York’s underground as long as they abide by MTA’s Rules of Conduct, which prohibit things like performing on subway cars and obstructing pedestrian walkways.
“To have a violinist not amplified on a platform and get a ticket – that’s abhorrent, that’s not the city I love,” said Cathy Grier, a singer-songwriter who won a MUNY spot in a previous competition.
Bloodworth echoed those sentiments.
“The performers provide an experience that is uniquely New York – beloved by tourists and New Yorkers alike,” she said.
There was a brief confrontation between MUNY staff and BuskNY at Tuesday’s event.
When two BuskNY members arrived at the auditions to draw attention to the crackdown on subway performers, MUNY staff welcomed them into a cordoned-off press area.
But when an Al Jazeera reporter approached the activists for an interview, Bloodworth asked that they leave the press section.
BuskNY member Kalan Sherrard said MUNY had earlier asked his organization not to “hijack” the audition event with attempts to push BuskNY’s specific cause. He said he did not do media interviews during the event, but “of course, we can connect with reporters later.” Bloodworth declined to comment to Al Jazeera on BuskNY.
Grier, the performer who also blogs on street performer issues, approached Sherrard after he was booted from the press section to tell him that he should consider another course of action in his organizations’ fight for what he considers to be free expression.
“It might have been better to hand out fliers,” Grier said. “I don’t think they were intending to be disruptive. I don’t think they were disruptive. I just think their message was unclear.”
Sherrard said he was not opposed to what he called MUNY’s “great” work, but rather the actions of the police.
“It’s something between police ignorance and police abuse. You don’t need a permit to be a street performer in NYC,” he said.
Both Sherrard and Grier expressed that they hoped the police would not reprimand people who abide by MTA rules.