Is busking on the NYC subway more lucrative than streaming on Spotify?
Hopes&Fears ventures into New York City's underground to find out how subway buskers are faring in the age of playlists, piracy, and in-transit selfies.
Cover image: Dee Dee King (Derrick) Union Square.
King's been performing in the subways for approximately four months—three days a week, six hours a day. On a bad day he makes about $30 and up to $80 on a good day, he tells Hopes&Fears.
For all but a few, New York City’s subway system is not a final destination. Commuters navigate its subterranean corridors so that they can be somewhere, really anywhere, else. However, buskers are an indelible fixture of the New York City soundscape and have been since 1985 when a fifty-year ban on subway performances was lifted. Now, artists spring up at seemingly every station and countless people are able to make their living plucking away underground.
Hopes&Fears asked me to travel this lightless space to learn how buskers are faring, both economically and creatively, in this era of earbuds, podcasts, and Spotify.
James Joseph, a composer and guitarist who performs under the name gHSTS & gUITARS, has been a professional busker for over ten years. Currently based in Berlin, he intimately understands and appreciates the realities of playing in his hometown of New York City. “In New York, if you want to run your busking like a job and pay your bills, you can do it,” he told me over Skype. “But you have to hustle.”
What he means by “hustling” has no hint of the pejorative. It’s more related to perseverance. Nearly everyone I interviewed—all of whom I discovered by chance, either in person and also online at The Busking Project (a virtual community for buskers and fans)—approached their performances with a similar degree of seriousness and dedication.
William Ruiz, an NYC-based drummer who plays the djembe for twenty-five hours each week, understands how the pressures of this unconventional and unpredictable environment can impact a musician. At the same time, “it's a gig like any other,” he told me over e-mail, frustrated that many of his peers believe that busking will “make them look bad or desperate.” He realizes that not everyone has the capacity for it, though. “You have to have the strength to build a business from scratch and be creative enough to pay attention to all the details. The more attractive you look and the better your character, the greater your success.”
Eganam Segbefia, a trumpeter, shares Ruiz’s sentiments. He carefully selects both his repertoire and “uniform” for the occasion. “I know they say never judge a book by its cover, but appearance is everything,” he told me during a phone interview. “I always want to look really nice when I present myself, and when I started, I was wearing nice shoes and buttoned down shirts. It gave me good feedback, but it wasn’t good feedback financially.” Soon after noticing this paradox, he made the shift towards minimalism. “As a busker, you have to be as simple as possible in the way you dress, but clean, so that people subconsciously think that this person isn’t just trying to make some money. Now I wear a white t-shirt and jeans. It’s as simple as it gets and it doesn’t take away from my playing.” Segbefia performs five days a week, every week, in three hours shifts and only at the Grand Central/Times Square Shuttle platform. “Work ethic is respected more than individuals themselves,” he tells Hopes&Fears. “People notice that I’m there consistently.”
According to our survey, an average busker makes around
in three hours
12,738 to 17,833
streams on Spotify
Working 12.23 hours at a minimum wage job
5% of earnings from a sold out $10 show at Brooklyn venue Baby's All Right
Jeffery Masin 42nd Street
Busking as a career
Treating busking as a profession, or at least as a serious component of one’s career can actually make for a sustainable life. The majority of people I encountered are full-time musicians, and of those, all of them earn the bulk of their income as itinerant players.
Members of BornFree Music Group, a group of young artists who perform on the Grand Central/Times Square Shuttle itself, explained this to me in unambiguous terms. “We busk because that’s how we make our money to survive,” they wrote over e-mail. Their entire income is dependent on the fifteen to twenty hours a week they spend on that train and the gigs they occasionally book as a result. “It depends on the day,” they said, “but we could make somewhere between $50 to $200.”
Segbefia sees similar numbers when playing between 7:00 am and 10:00 am and then again from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. The same is true for Ruiz, who estimates he earns between $100 and $200 on average when playing at Union Square, Herald Square, or near the A train at Port Authority.
Jason Cordero, an eighteen year old pianist who regularly plays an electric keyboard at Times Square and the same high-traffic stations frequented by Ruiz, makes about $180 during the three hour time slots in which he performs three times a week. “I’d rather play for three hours and make that much than work in a different place and make $10 an hour,” he says.
Left: G-Wyll 34th Street
Right: The Musical Prophets 42nd Street
While these numbers represent average intake, the variables that influence the generosity of New Yorkers and tourists are infinite. Ruiz observes that his monetary success is often related to the general state of the economy; the city’s terror threat level can influence behavior too. Tara Hack, a singer and songwriter, notes that what she earns in any given session is contingent on “luck, the volume of people, and the mindset of the performer.” As far as she can tell, “there’s really no rhyme or reason to cash flow.”
Song choice or style of music may matter (the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 can often be heard from violins and cellos alike—sometimes even at the same station), but neither seems to have a definitive influence on how many dollars are dropped into an instrument case. Segbefia knows that, for him, donations often increase when he plays Schubert’s Ave Maria, but the same is true for “What a Wonderful World.” But classic hits aren’t the only answer; after all, Joseph pays his rent with his own ambient compositions.
Less than twenty years ago, a pocket wasn’t a storage unit for an entire music collection and cell phones didn’t need to be surgically removed from many of our hands. And yet somehow even now our intensified solipsism doesn’t distract us from paying attention to other humans paying attention to something.
“When that first person gives, it validates the performance as something that someone thought was good,” Joseph says. Segbefia also notices and benefits from the domino effect. “People are nosey,” he says, with a hint of amusement. “When one person tips, others do too.”
The brass band Lucky Chops make themselves known to everyone at a station with their wall of sound and boisterous stage presence, both of which feel better suited at Terminal 5 than a dark and dingy corner below Grand Central Station. Each time over the last few years that I have seen them playing, a crowd of at least thirty gathers around them and remains for the length of an entire song. This popularity has earned them more than a few dollar bills, however, as they just began a new gig as the house band for MTV’s Girl Code Live.
↓ Zack Huru 14th Street
Making a connection
Life for a busker is not, however, dependent on crowds or a chain of giving, and in many respects, this isn’t even what they hope to gain.
“The first key about busking is forgetting about making money and just connecting with people,” Joseph believes. “I don’t think the regular person will support bullshit. You have to be positive.”
Whether it is conceived as spiritual fulfillment or making an offering, positivity, in one iteration or another, is the driving force behind the work of those I met. Hack, a self-identified hippie, firmly believes that “if you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.” It’s quite simple, she says: “If you’re connecting to what you are playing, people will connect with you.”
Dennis Ho, a bass guitar player, shares her belief. About ten years ago, Ho, a photojournalist and waiter, used to be “the Q train guy”—a route that would make him about $10 to $12 an hour. Now with a young daughter and a more strenuous day job, he no longer has time to busk professionally, but each night when he leaves work, he either goes to the basketball courts or the subway.
“A huge element of busking is giving,” he told me over the phone. “If you really make a connection with somebody, and they’re giving you the energy back, it will spark like fire.” Though he appreciates the dollar he earns from a person who, as a rule, gives money to every performer, he puts a higher value on the more ephemeral payoff. “I love to play for people who appreciate and are listening—homeless people or whomever—because it’s a form of love.” This explains why you can often find him at Grand Central in the narrow corridor leading down to the 7 train. The space restrictions do not allow virtually anyone, let alone a large group, to stop and listen, but the acoustics are vastly superior to the platform at the end of the path.
Alyson Clare, a violinist, cherishes similar moments. “I’m likely the first exposure to classical music for many babies,” she says with amusement. “I love the oddness of creating a little piece of heaven in an ugly, crowded underground space.”
The J train that crosses over the Williamsburg Bridge attracts Joseph because “on a good night, it could be a perfect storm of the right conditions and the atmosphere becomes very cinematic.” To him, there is little difference between playing in this mobile steel capsule and a concert stage, which explains his use of the word “show” to describe busking. “I become part of the environment itself. Just because it doesn’t have lights doesn’t it make it different from any other show.”
↓ Dee Dee King’s case Union Square