It was around noon on July 25th, Matthew Christian, a Bushwick busker was playing violin on the platform of the 68th Street station when a police officer on another platform shined his flashlight and shouted, “Not today!” But Matthew kept playing “Gigue” and replied, “Yes, today!”
The police officer came and continued to ask Christian to leave, insisting that performing music in the subway is illegal. Christian showed the officer the official pamphlet of the MTA Rules of Conduct he takes every time he performs which states in Section 1050.6 a list of “non-transit uses” allowed by the MTA including public speaking, campaigning and “artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations.”
But the officer responded, “I won’t read it!”
Christian knew what would happen next because it had happened twice before: he would be arrested by the police and have to spend a night in jail unless he was lucky to get a Desk Appearance Ticket. Either way, he would have to go to court and after few months get a settlement.
In February 2013, after being arrested for the first time, Christian set up an advocacy group, BuskNY, calling for artists to stand up for their rights. On October 7th, BuskNY held its first community meeting at Armature Art Space in Bushwick in which buskers voiced their concern as they traded stories of being summoned and arrested.
“Buskers have one common goal: to be respected and treated as normal human beings with dignity,” said Ruan, a singer and guitar player who attended the meeting.
Busking in the subway has been legal in New York City since 1985 when “artistic performances” was authorized in the MTA Rules of Conduct. But almost thirty years later, most musicians know the rules while the police still don’t.
Christian said, “Some police officers [who are] not going [in] the subway system often are mostly above the ground so they don’t necessarily have to know the rule.”
In a phone interview with an officer from Community Affairs Office of NYPD, who had no idea of the rules, the officer said, “In my opinion, performers need a license from MTA to play music in the subway.”
The “license” refers to a schedule card issued by Music Under New York (MUNY), a program managed by MTA Arts for Transit in which members can schedule performances at busy stations like Times Square station. They are also invited to perform during selected specific events and allowed to use amplifiers.
But according to Lydia Brashaw, manager of the program, the membership is not a permit for artistic performances because the MTA rules grant any musicians the legal right to perform music.
Cathy Grier, a folk-blues singer-songwriter known as NYC Subway Girl, is a member of MUNY, explained that musicians in MUNY are simply scheduled to perform in MUNY designated locations. “It is… important to show the difference between calling it a license or calling it a schedule,” said Grier, who created a section on her website providing advice for subway buskers to help those outside of the program advocate for their rights.
Even some who work for the MTA are not aware of the rules. A station agent at the 68th Street station on the 6 train insisted that playing music underground was legal only if the performers had a yellow banner from MUNY behind them. After reading the Rules of Conduct, the agent changed her opinion but still believed that if customers complained, she would ask performers to leave.
Christian once spoke to a station agent about the rules, showing his MTA copy. To his surprise, the agent did not read it, saying that she would want to “call the police to come to deal with this situation.”
According to the Rules of Conduct, the condition of performing arts in the subway is that performances do not “impede transit activities.” But in some occasions this vague condition is used as an excuse for arrest. A station supervisor at Union Square station said police officers sometimes accused performers of disturbing the peace. “But why? I don’t know. They are just playing music,” he said.
The last time Christian was asked to leave “voluntarily,” the police officer read the rules for a while and then claimed that “the rules could be overruled in the case of safety problem.”
But according to videos Christian shot and posted on YouTube, the platform was quiet with just a few scattered people. Even the police officer could not explain what safety problem playing classic violin might incur.
Ruan, like many buskers, argued that the police attention to musicians is misplaced. “Police are making an egregious error by cracking down on subway artists when they should be vigilant of thieves or fare evaders,” he said.
Even MUNY performers sometimes get harassed. Grier was also once asked to move away from a station by the police where she had scheduled to perform simply because Mayor Bloomberg was riding in the coming train. She refused, arguing in her defense, “There is nothing more than music in the subway!”
“I feel the city could do a better job informing police of the actual rights of musicians,” Grier said.
But most buskers are reluctant to resist the police. W. Waynes, an African American saxophonist busking in Union Square station, said he always obeyed the police’s order because he did “not want to cause troubles.”
Buskers keeping silent is what concerns Christian most. Christian said some buskers, especially African American and Latino, do not advocate for themselves in court and even feel guilty when being arrested.
To raise buskers’ awareness and help them fight for their rights, the BuskNY website contains contacts of lawyers who expressed interest in handling wrongful arrest cases, blogs about subway performances, performance-related organizations as well as tips of the procedure of fighting back. Christian also encourages buskers to share their stories on an incident database of the group.
In one email to Christian, a performer wrote passionately about her experience standing up to a police officer’s order. “At one time we had no one to stand along with us… I just wanted to let you know…how wonderful it is to know that someone and something has your back… Your courage has given me the courage,” wrote the busker, who received a T-shirt from BuskNY on which it says, “Music Is Legal!”