2014 MUNY Auditions

Yesterday, Music Under New York held its 27th annual auditions in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. About 20 acts out of the 60 contestants will be chosen by a panel of 35 judges to be added to the MUNY roster. The auditions lasted five minutes each over the course of about six hours, and winners will be announced within the next few weeks.

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We asked MUNY manager Lydia Bradshaw to make sure the legality of freelance busking was mentioned during this year’s auditions. Kalan and I attended the first few hours of the auditions to find out if our requests had been honored as well as to see some of the performances, and MUNY turned out to be quite supportive of our cause. We were unexpectedly invited into the press area where we found that MUNY had included a highlighted copy of MTA rule 1050.6 in the press packets for the event.

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Every reporter covering the auditions has one of these.

We stuck around to see the first 20 performers, and I managed to get close enough to get clear shots of most of them:


Based on some of the articles we’ve seen so far, not every member of the press has actually read everything in the packet, since some still conflate MUNY membership with a general busking license. BuskNY has been largely successful, however, when asking the authors of such articles to make corrections. If only informing the NYPD and general public that busking is legal were that easy!

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Megan Gillis rolling her xylophone out after a really excellent performance.

But back to the auditions themselves: we’ll be looking forward to finding out who wins, and hope to run into all sixty of the contestants performing in the subway soon.

6th Busker Ball


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Last Thursday was the 6th Busker Ball at Spike Hill, and BuskNY was there to give another report on the state of buskers’ rights in NYC.

Shiloh Levy gave a speech about the recent and planned further increases in enforcement of “quality of life crimes” (which results in increased enforcement of fictional laws as well.) Matthew asked me to check out Union Square a couple weeks ago and I went up and down every line; it was totally silent underground except for a single MUNY performer and a religious pamphlet table. Since then buskers have begun to return, but in smaller numbers, and I haven’t seen a churro vendor anywhere since.

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Meanwhile Kalan, whose recent arrest has prompted some pretty bizarre political commentary as well as the more straightforward news coverage, arranged his equipment and assorted beasts, and ended the presentation with puppetry and balloon music.

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In other news, last night I managed to make it down to open mic night at Goodbye Blue Monday for the first time since the place was saved from shutting down. In addition to coming out to the Busker Ball next time, I encourage everybody to check out GMB on a Tuesday night or whenever you can, and make sure the place doesn’t suddenly evaporate like Pearl Paint.

Is 2014 the end of subway dancing?

Update 4/30: this story has gone around the media in the last 24 hours, and meaningfulpositive coverage is streaming in. Maybe New York loves Showtime — is that why the dancers are still there? Join the debate on Twitter under #WarOnShowtime. BuskNYers, let’s give a voice to performers who are popular, who are iconic, and who most of all do not deserve to be saddled with misdemeanor records.

Since the beginning of the ‘subway crackdown‘ this year, arrests of performers on trains have skyrocketed. Some of these arrests have occurred to musicians, and in one case, even to clowns charged with offering nuts to riders. But the brunt of the arrests have targeted one of the most vulnerable groups in the subway: train dancers.

Official numbers have recently come in, and they are bleak. According to a New York Post report, 46 performers have been arrested. Worse, those performers — all 46 — have been charged not with a violation of the MTA Rules, but with reckless endangerment.

Are these dancers in fact reckless hooligans? Far from it. It’s clear that train performers view their work as positive: they highlight that dancing has given them opportunities for success, and that they engage subway riders with optimism and enthusiasm. What’s more, dancers’ broad support among riders is reflected — even if the MTA pays no heed to this statistic — in the outpouring of contributions they receive. 

Nonetheless, under Bratton’s explicit directions against dancers, the NYPD has taken the shortest route to criminalization. Ignoring MTA guidelines entirely, police have charged all 46 with misdemeanor reckless endangerment rather than an MTA violation, citing the narrow distance between their performance and subway riders.

In light of the NYPD’s close focus on this art form, two questions should be raised. First, why have the police targeted, among all other subway entertainment, the tradition most practiced by young minority men? Is it possible that the crackdown is coming from the “new system where the MTA shares riders’ complaints with the police,” as reported by the Post? The implication is that Bratton’s subway policy is driven, not by a rational understanding of public safety, but by a witchhunt against those performers perceived to be ‘most annoying.’ If those subway riders most likely to file official MTA complaints also happen to be opposed to manifestations of popular culture, it seems that the police won’t hesitate to assuage their worries, even if it means creating 46 criminal records.

Second, what can explain the decision to charge these performers with misdemeanor reckless endangerment? Was it not appropriate to charge them, far more cogently, with a violation of MTA rules? In the stark absence of actual evidence of dancers causing accidents, the highly theoretical choice of reckless endangerment means the NYPD believes this tradition to be so strong that it requires special means. And for once, they’re right. Summonses alone cannot stop one of the longest-running and most emblematic forms of artistic expression in the MTA.

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NYC may diss its train performers often, but it loves them too. That’s why they’re there: they’re popular. That the NYPD has chosen to escalate the fight against artistic performance into a sustained campaign of misdemeanor charges speaks to an attitude that has given up on community policing long ago. And that means the fight isn’t lost yet.

Subway sweeps: Bratton announces clampdown

Update March 7th: The New York Times has just run a story reporting that arrests for peddling and panhandling in January and February 2014 have tripled from the same period 2013. As subway performers are often charged for these offenses, that means members of our community have likely already been affected. Please be careful out there: be extra certain to photograph the location you are performing, the level of traffic, the absence of CDs for sale. 

From Capital New York, via A.R.T.I.S.T.:

Bill Bratton, who famously did his first stint as NYPD commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, wants to make sure beggars and “squeegee pests” don’t return. 

To that end, Bratton said this morning, he is planning to go on a series of late-night subway rides next week. The rides will be “in the early morning hours just to get a first hand look of what the city looks like from midnight to four in the morning.”

It’s hard to see this as good news. Bratton is coming out strong for the kind of ‘quality of life’ policing that specializes in wrongful or senseless arrests. And there’s a special focus on the subways, Bratton says:

“We will be focusing on ensuring that aggressive begging and squeegee pests, all of those actives that create fear and destroy neighborhoods, graffiti, all of those seemingly minor things that was so much in evidence in the 80s and early 90s here don’t have the chance to come back.”

To ensure that, Bratton said [Broken Windows theory creator and newly hired NYPD consultant George Kelling] “is going to be focusing on look at parks, public spaces, and the subways.”

What does this mean? Almost certainly that there will be more police underground, and that they will be under pressure to make arrests.

But it doesn’t mean that these officers have received training for quality of life policing. Existing evidence shows that many NYPD officers believe subway performance to be illegal, and that mistaken belief leads to some serious mistakes.

Certainly, no one imagines that one of Bratton’s first moves has been to finally train officers on the laws regarding music, and that means he’s creating a hazard. As Robert Lederman of A.R.T.I.S.T. puts it, “This is exactly how the artist arrests began in 1994 when Bill Bratton became NYPD Commissioner for the first time.”

We’ll soon find out if ‘quality of life’ policing means illegally arresting performers. Stay tuned out there, and stay safe.

Fifth Busker Ball

Theo Eastwind suggested we sell the leftover “Music is Legal!” t-shirts at the 5th Busker Ball last Thursday at Spike Hill so I went to set up a merchandise table and took a lot of blurry shots of the show. We even got one of our shirts pinned up to the curtain with Blueberry Season pins.

photo taken by Shiloh Levy

photo by Shiloh Levy


It was a great show! I encourage anybody who missed it to come to the next Busker Ball on April 24th– and ask Theo about getting involved if you want to perform.


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BUSKERBALL 038Shiloh and Heth talking about BuskNY

Shiloh Levy gave a presentation about buskers’ rights explaining what BuskNY is all about, followed by Heth of Heth and Jed who discussed his recent legal victory. I gave the last ten or so shirts to Arthur and Shiloh to distribute, so now I have room for the 2014 shirts. We learned a lot about what people want in a shirt from the first run, so I’m planning on doing something a little more complicated, and with a more inclusive message. There may be another Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for materials and equipment. I’ll keep you updated!

The New Museum looks for buskers

Update: the New Museum says performers concerned about the cold will have some flexibility, including the possibility to play inside. That might be more encouraging for some of us!

We recently received this invitation from a representative of the New Museum:

In connection with an upcoming exhibition, the Polish artist Pawel Althamer will invite street musicians (or musicians who are also playing on the street) to come and play in front of the museum in the museum’s opening hours during the period 12 February – 20 April, 2014.

It is the hope that we can gather a really large and amazing group of musicians representing the diversity of street performance in New York and in this time create a platform and tribute to these musicians. For this engagement we are offering a fee of $15 per hour. (We wish we could pay more, but being a non-profit organization we unfortunately always have a limited budget).

Some information about the exhibition is available here. As I understand, part of the concept is to channel live audio from the performers onto the third floor of the museum. It sounds promising, and I hope a few of us will risk the cold weather to be there. The New Museum representative has invited us to contact her directly.

Fourth Busker Ball at Spike Hill

This Wednesday I attended the fourth Busker Ball at Williamsburg bar Spike Hill, an event organized by Theo Eastwind that features performances by New York City buskers. Arthur Medrano and Shiloh Levy performed wearing their BuskNY “Music is Legal!” t-shirts.

Shiloh and Arthur at the 4th Busker Ball

Shiloh and Arthur

Ken Ruan went on second, and has also given me permission to use his photo here. Since I don’t have any training as a photographer, I considered myself pretty lucky to get some shots of everybody that weren’t totally blurry.

Ken Ruan

Ken Ruan

Great performances by everyone involved. Jess Goular at BreakThru Radio has written a more detailed article about the event,

We hope to see you at the next Busker Ball on January 23, 2014.