Auditioning Not for Broadway, but the Subway

On Monday, in the culmination of a four-month long process, MTA MUSIC announced the newest members of the MTA Music Under New York program that gives official sanction to New York City subway musicians.

It may come as a surprise that some, but not all subway performers in NYC subway stations, have passed a rigorous audition process.

By a March deadline this year, MTA MUSIC received 309 applications with audio samples and selected 82 finalists to audition. On May 15, the 31st annual auditions opened in Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall, a passageway from the station to 42nd Street. On that morning, the hall, with its 48-foot ceilings and five chandeliers, was filled with a myriad of musical scales: Behind a black felt curtain, cellos, French horns, a Kurdish hammered dulcimer guitar, and vocalists, were warming up. One of the finalists, the all-female a cappella group Mezzo, took to the stage.

The women of Mezzo launched into “Dreams” by The Cranberries. They had just five minutes to prove to the judges that they deserved the right to serenade people in the subways.

Since 1985, the MTA Arts and Design program, of which MTA MUSIC is a part, vets musicians to find the best subway-appropriate performance groups to enhance New Yorkers’ commutes. MTA MUSIC Senior Manager Lydia Bradshaw says the judges look for quality, musical variety, cultural diversity, representation of the culture and people of New York, and appropriateness for the transit environment.

Mezzo and the judges at the 31st annual auditions for MTA MUSIC. (Claire Bryan)

Each group had five minutes to perform in front of about 30 judges, which included music industry professionals, current MTA MUSIC members, and MTA staff. From those, 28 were selected to join the approximately 350 other musicians and groups who have the right to book a place at one of 30 of the most popular spots in New York City subways.  

“The thing about it in the subway is you have no stage, you have no backline, you have no stagehands, you must just create the space right here,” said Sean Grisson, a Cajun cellist who has been in the program since 1987 and a judge since 2013. For Grisson, whether or not performers are chosen comes down to if the performance is something that “you would want to pause and make you reflect as you go about your busy New York existence.”

Once admitted to the program, musicians must call in and book slots. They request the locations and the hours of performance, and those requests are granted for a two-week period, on a first-call, first-serve basis. Among the most popular are, in Manhattan, Grand Central Station at 42nd Street, Times Square at 42nd Street, 14th St-Union Square, and the Fulton St. Station. In Brooklyn, musicians often vie for the Atlantic Avenue-Barclay Center Station. Performers receive a personalized banner with their name and the MTA MUSIC bright magenta logo. Musician’s names and contact information also gets added to MTA MUSIC’s website—a feature that can help groups land events.

But anyone can play in the subway as long as they follow MTA’s Transit Rules of Conduct. These include not performing on platforms that block traffic or within a certain distance of Transit Authority offices or station booths. All performers are also forbidden from using amplification devices or creating noise that exceeds 85 dBA. MTA MUSIC’s 30 locations are not specified as exclusive in the Rules of Conduct, so, technically, the police can’t enforce it as such.

Kenneth Brown is a clarinet performer without MTA MUSIC status who has being performing at the 34th Street station and in subway cars all over the city since 1993. “It is so strict,” Brown said. “I did two auditions and they didn’t even let me in, so I’m like you know what, forget y’all. It is a good program for someone who wants to be controlled. But as a musician I want to be able to do what I want to do.” According to Brown, there is little difference between him and the MTA MUSIC members. “I’m not begging, I don’t ask anyone for any money, I ask for help, I say I’m trying to get to the next level with my music.”

Brown said he has been arrested many times for performing in subway stations. “Because they call it panhandling, whatever they want to make up a law and do it and fine us and put us behind bars, they’ll do that,” Brown said. “As times changed and time went by, the authorities don’t arrest me like they used to. It has changed for the better.

Kenneth Brown and his clarinet at 34th Street station. (Claire Bryan)

But MTA employees and music performance groups believe that registered groups deserve their spot. “One of the benefits of being in the program is sort of having that permission to book and be at more visible spots,” Grisson said.

Which doesn’t mean that non-sanctioned performers can’t play— they just aren’t afforded the security and institutional support MTA MUSIC performers receive.

According to Bradshaw, musicians who are not in MTA MUSIC are generally familiar with the program and know that the organization’s performers have priority to the reserved locations. MTA Press Officer Amanda Kwan said that if an MTA MUSIC group calls in, signs up, shows up, and there’s a non-MTA MUSIC group there, the issue is often resolved between the musicians.

At the Atlantic Barclays Center station, Rich sings with Nu-Millennium—a four-man a cappella group that sings Street Corner Harmony or Doo-wop genre old favorites. “We always carry our paperwork with us, this is not a thug business. We contact the transit police and identify the fact that we are authorized to be there,” Rich said. “The freelancers want to do their thing, but they have to step back when we show up with paperwork. We are respectful of other artists and we don’t crash other people’s programs. This is kind of an unwritten rule of some level of respect but sometimes people are a little bit crude and a little bit thirsty.”

Once a group is admitted to the program, they can stay in, barring unusual circumstances: Nu-Millennium was selected about 10 years ago but then went several years without performing before picking back up.

Do the commuters notice the hard-won official status? Jeannie Joshi has been commuting in New York for 25 years and never once noticed an MTA MUSIC sign or logo. At the Fulton Street Subway she stopped to listen to Oliver Dagum, a guitarist and singer who joined the program in 2015, play “Stand By Me.”

“Normally I don’t stop. I noticed it here, one because this is a cleaner station. It’s not as crazy, and I thought well that is kind of nice that he gets to put a sign up for his own name,” Joshi said.

However, in Grand Central Station, Serrice Holman has been commuting her entire life and is a big fan of the MTA MUSC program. She said she is compelled to stop and listen more when she notices the MTA MUSIC sign. “I guess in the back of your mind you are thinking that they are not getting paid like a regular salary to do this and they have to be dependent on tips,” Homan said. “What they earn is what we are giving them, so yeah, it makes you want to stop and support.”

In the Union Square station, at 14th Street in Manhattan, Robin, who has also been commuting her entire life, had never heard of the MTA MUSIC program, but stops to donate to an MTA MUSIC group. “I did not notice the pink banner,” Robin said, “but I could just tell that [the performer] was exceptionally good, and whenever I see something that is obvious how much work has gone into it, I like to give a little something.”

“This is sort of a genre [a capella] that doesn’t always reach everyone,” Mezzo member Liz Chapman said. “Being able to sing in this context we would be able to reach tons of people who normally wouldn’t ever get to hear this music.” And Mezzo members say the physical space of a subway enhances a group’s sound. “The acoustics are really great for vocals and for harmony to be able to hear that blend,” said Reynetta Sampson of Mezzo. “We have a lot of harmonies that go on as well as the percussive sounds and some other sounds, so I think it’d be pretty great for us to be able to display all of that with that kind of echo and reverb that would be happening all around us.”

This was Mezzo’s first year auditioning and MTA MUSIC affiliation is important to them. “I’ve seen a lot of people raise their own profile as artists and actually find more work or more opportunities as a result of it,” a Mezzo member said.

When the list of winners was released on Monday, Mezzo’s name was on it.

Grissom, the judge who has also been performing in the subways since 1983, said the competition to enter the program is challenging and he has come to appreciate the MTA MUSIC program much more.

But he adds: “I’ve never had issues [with the authorities] believe it or not. I always feel that street performing or subway performing is kind of Darwinism at its best.” Grissom said. “You are either going to figure out how to make this work for you or you’re not.”

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