The newly opened Second Avenue subway stations, with their high ceilings and spacious mezzanines, would seem to be ideal venues for any musician seeking to earn a few dollars entertaining commuters. According to some buskers, however, overzealous police have made the spotless new subway line an inhospitable performance environment.
Music echoed through 72nd Street station Thursday, Jan. 9 as buskers gathered to protest what they characterized as an NYPD crackdown on subway performers in the Second Avenue subway.
“Unfortunately, actually performing music here has very often resulted in performers being wrongfully ejected from the stations or ticketed,” said Matthew Christian, 25, who helped organize the demonstration. Christian recently posted a video to YouTube of an officer telling him to leave the 86th Street station, where he was playing his violin.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority permits musicians to play in subway stations provided they adhere to certain rules, such as not blocking foot traffic, not performing near station booths, and not using amplification devices on platforms. But buskers say that police often expel them anyway.
“This is an ongoing situation that everyone who plays the subway a lot has encountered,” busker Marc Orleans said.
Orleans said he was playing his mandolin on the platform in the 72nd Street station recently when an NYPD officer asked him to move upstairs to the mezzanine. Though he was not obstructing traffic and was within his rights to play on the platform, Orleans said, he complied with the officer’s “very respectful” request. “The opening of the Second Avenue subway is a heavily publicized event, so they want to keep it squeaky clean,” he said.
Thursday’s demonstration was organized in response to recent encounters with police, but Orleans believes that officers who try to eject buskers from the subway are often simply unaware of the rules. “I think the MTA has to be responsible in educating the police of what their own regulations are,” he said. “I think that’s where the problem lies.”
According to the MTA, the authority will work with the NYPD to remind officers of the rules regarding musical performances in the subway. “The MTA is proud to support and promote the arts and musical performances,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in an emailed statement. “Any musician is welcome to perform in the New York City subway system as long as they follow the Transit Rules of Conduct.”
As the dozen or so buskers at Thursday’s rally performed on the mezzanine, a group of NYPD officers standing nearby did not react or intervene. “What demonstration?” one officer asked, when approached. Police on the scene declined to otherwise comment on the buskers’ complaints.
Chief Joseph Fox, commanding officer of the NYPD’s Transit Bureau, would not address specific incidents along the Second Avenue subway line, but said in an emailed statement that officers “work to protect the rights of everyone who lawfully uses the transit system — artistic performers and commuters alike. This often means a balance between protecting the uniquely New York experience performers provide, while at the same time ensuring safe passage for subway riders.”
The MTA’s Music Under New York initiative officially sanctions certain subway performances, which are marked with official MTA banners, but most of the city’s buskers operate outside of the program. Christian said that MUNY has had a negative impact by creating a misconception among police and the public that only musicians performing under the MUNY imprimatur are legally permitted to play in the subways.
“I think it’s clear that they spend public funds on public art in a way that endangers public artists,” he said. In order to clarify the rules, Christian said, MUNY banners should include a disclaimer noting that membership is not required in order to legally perform. Christian is the co-founder of BuskNY, an advocacy group that he said has helped secure over $110,000 in NYPD settlements for subway musicians in wrongful arrest lawsuits since 2013.
Theo Eastwind, a guitarist and singer who said he has been arrested “numerous times” since he began playing in the subway in 1995, said that buskers represent an essential part of New York’s fabric. “We’re at the forefront of the First Amendment just by expressing ourselves,” he said.
“We help people feel safe and comfortable,” Eastwind continued. “It’s a very good thing for the city. It enriches the culture.”