As long as there’s been music, there’s been musicians busking. It’s a chance for performers to practice their craft, make some extra cash, and maybe even launch a career.
And no place offers a more challenging—and potentially rewarding—stage to woo audience than New York City, where millions of tough-to-impress people are busy headed elsewhere. Performing for donations also called busking, has been legal in the city since 1970, when the constitutionality of a Depression-era ban was challenged by poet Allen Ginsburg.
Busking can be tough, exhausting and extremely rewarding
Today, New York City is known as one of the top busking towns in the world, drawing budding musicians to seasoned performers to take to the streets.
Before you set out to perform in public spaces, here’s some busking basics to know to help you get the most out of the experience.
First things first: busking ain’t easy.
Most are surprised to find out that that jazz quartet or drumming duo you pass in the subway station most likely had to work hard for the right to play there.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Music Under New York program invites musicians to audition to play in the city’s most sought-after transportation hubs. Each year, a panel of judges—mostly music industry professionals—select about two dozen musicians to perform in one of 30 of the most popular spots in New York City subways.
Sean Grisson, a cellist and one of the program’s judges, says he looks for musicians who deliver a performance that makes “you want to pause and makes you reflect as you go about your busy New York existence.”
In all, the MUNY program has sanctioned more than 350 performers and music groups across the city.
Twice a month, MUNY members receive a street performer license for NYC, that gives them priority in the spots where they are scheduled to perform. While MUNY members may get first dibs on those premiere spots, performers do not have to be MUNY members to perform in the subway system.
For performance hot spots not managed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Music & Arts program, there’s busking etiquette that musicians should follow if they want to be welcomed among their peers.
Busking in NYC: fighting for a spot
“The street music scene in New York is pretty cutthroat. Pretty territorial,” says Jaime Kopie, who makes a living busking all over the city with her husband, Thomas. “It’s not as easy as it looks, that’s for sure.”
The duo, Coyote & Crow, often have to get up early to reserve a spot. Or stay out late waiting for other buskers to finish so they can step in and play. Jaime says it’s important for buskers to respect one another and the artistic community as a whole.
Etiquette varies from town to town, but as a rule, performers shouldn’t spend more than an hour in one location. Especially if it’s a high-traffic location.
Paying your dues as NYC buskers
Musicians new to busking may have to pay their dues and wait their turn to get into rotation. But they shouldn’t be intimidated by the veterans. After all, these are public spaces open to all.
Also, you’ll want to make sure you’re following local busking laws. In NYC, permits are required for a few types of performances: those using speakers or a stereo, those in or around a park, or certain public transit terminals. See the full legal guide here.
And now that the city has opened its public spaces to New York city street performers, it has organically ushered in an eclectic array of entertainment in almost every corner of the city.
“It’s a diverse community,” Jaime says. “I think there’s probably something for everyone to enjoy throughout the city.”
Busking is an opportunity to learn
Countless now-famous musicians started their careers busking. Tracy Chapman, Jewel and B.B. King to name a few.
A more recent success story comes from New York-based Too Many Zooz. Members of the dynamic house brass band first started playing together in the city’s subway stations.
Leo Pellegrino, the band’s baritone saxophonist, says the band members’ willingness to step out and play for strangers in 2013 was well worth it. For a long time, the trio performed together without a band name. They just enjoyed getting together to play.
“We started building a fan base without even having a name or anything. People kept bugging us, ‘what’s your name what’s your name?’ So we had to come up with a name.”Leo Pellegrino
Now the band plays sold-out shows all over the nation.
For example, Coyote & Crow got a lot of attention when they played a Grateful Dead cover at the Bedford Avenue station. However, it wasn’t just their performance that stopped travelers that day. It was the dancing of an energetic little girl that prompted people to stop and pull out their phones. The video has more than 8 million views.
“My favorite thing about performing out in public is mostly the connections we make,” Jaime says. “I feel that a lot of people we interact with are people we probably wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise. It’s just a really special thing to be able to intimately interact with people every day.”
From busking to full-time musician
For Coyote & Crow, busking led to enough well-paying gigs that the couple could quit their day jobs.
“A lot of the shows that we book we book through busking and playing on the street,” Thomas says. “If you can book a couple of paying gigs as well it turns out to be a win-win.”
And if your street performance hasn’t yet landed you well-paying gigs or a meeting with a record label exec, stick with it.
Moreover, busking can still teach you everything you need to know about performing live. Give street performing a few months, and you’ll learn what catches people’s attention, what’s too easy to ignore, and what prompts applause and, yes, donations.
Share Joy with Your Audience
While busking by definition is work, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. If you’re enjoying playing music, it will show in your performance and passersby will be more likely to stop and enjoy as well.
Anyone who’s had the fortune of bumping into gospel and R&B singer Alice Tan Ridley knows what we mean. Alice came into this world loving music and it shows in each of her performances. She was born in Georgia into a musically talented family of nine siblings, most of whom have become artists.
You could say she’s been busking since she was 3 years old.
She says, “I won a talent show and someone came up and handed me $5 and said you were great. And that was the beginning of my career.”
What is Busking? Alice Tan Ridley Explains
After moving to New York in 1971, raising a family and teaching children with disabilities, Alice began singing full time in the New York City subway stations in 1992. Subsequently, audiences gathered daily to see Alice perform songs like “I Will Always Love You,” “Billy Jean” and “I Will Survive” in the city’s busiest stations—Union Square, 34th Street and 42nd Street Times Square.
Her years of busking led her to sing the “National Anthem” at Yankee Stadium and a stint on America’s Got Talent, where she made it to the semi-finals.
Now 66, Alice says her years of street performing alone have been a dream come true.
“My dream long ago was to sing and have everyone to love my singing. I didn’t think of it as becoming a big star, it was all about sharing a gift that God had given me. That would make me happy and it would make others happy.”Alice Tan Ridley
Consequently, she chooses to perform for people coming and going to encourage them that “it’s alright to sing,” she says.
“It’s like having a good cry. You know when you have a good cry and after that you’re all solid again and moving on? That’s how a song is to me. Songs help you to remember how you were four or five years ago and how you are today … It makes me happy.”
Busking meaning is an artistic expression
Pellegrino says he’s also found that he simply loves to perform in public spaces. For example, he’s played for audiences all over the world, but his favorite performances are still on the streets and in the subway stations of the Big Apple.
“New York City is a great place to see people of all different ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, people who are poor and homeless and people who are famous and rich,”Lou Pellegrino
In addition, playing venues generally requires traveling, sound checks and long, exhausting days, he adds.
“It kind of stresses me out to be honest. But playing in the streets is just very freeing and low pressure,” Pellegrino says. “You just pick up your instrument and play. It’s very simple. It’s kind of the only place to perform that way in the world.”
Love Busking or Listening to Live Music?
- Street Music Map Radio, a podcast that showcases street performers around the world.
- Street Music Map, a website that tracks the world’s best buskers.
- The Rivington Music Blog offers guidance for busking in New York City.
- City Lore provides a thorough guide for busking in New York City.
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.