OPINION: MTA’s Music Under New York thrives despite digital competition
Despite the fact that so many transit riders nowadays are rushing from place to place plugged into their phones and can’t even hear what’s happening in the background, MTA’s Music Under New York program, which presents musicians in the subway system, Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and Metro North, is still thriving and making life better for both riders and musicians.
In Brooklyn, the program presents musical artists at two heavily trafficked transfer stations, Court Street-Borough Hall and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center; at Grand Army Plaza station, which serves many riders as a gateway to Prospect Park; and at two locations within the LIRR’s Atlantic Terminal, which connects with the aforementioned Atlantic Avenue subway station.
This writer recently spoke to MTA spokeswoman Amanda Kwan and to Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA Arts & Design, which supervises Music Under New York. Together, they cleared up some misconceptions about the program, which has been going strong since 1985.
For one, according to Bloodworth, the program “presents” artists, rather than giving them a license to perform. Anyone has a right to perform music in the subway passageways and stations, although not in the trains per se (some special nostalgia train rides have included musicians, with official approval). The program also gives the performers a particular place to play, and sometimes the locations are requested by the performers themselves.
If a conflict occurs between an artist who is part of the program and one who isn’t, she says, the one who is affiliated with the program can point out that this spot has been reserved for them.
The locations have to meet certain criteria, says Kwan. So that passengers don’t come into conflict with passers-by and transit employees, the musicians can’t set up too close to a set of turnstiles, a staircase, a staff room or a bathroom. Amps can’t be too loud, and musicians can use amplification in a mezzanine but not on the platforms.
Brooklyn locations for Music Under New York include the subway stations at Court Street-Borough Hall, Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center and Grand Army Plaza as well as two sites within the LIRR’s Atlantic Terminal (which, of course, is next to the Atlantic Avenue subway station). The current online list of venues doesn’t include Coney Island — I think that Coney would be a great location, given the fact that four subway lines terminate there and its status as a tourist attraction.
Prospective Music Under New York performers audition before a panel that includes other performers, but also “representatives of various offices within MTA,” says Bloodworth. Musicians and musical groups who are currently performing encompass a wide variety of styles — classical, Dixieland jazz, Afro-Cuban percussion, Chinese opera, bluegrass, Broadway, doo-wop and more. They aren’t paid by MTA — they depend on donations of a few dollars or pocket change from transit riders.
The music, Bloodworth adds, “must be appropriate to the site — a marching band wouldn’t be appropriate [because of its size and loudness].”
So, as far as my original question is concerned, the answer seems to be that no matter how many transit riders are listening to their phones, there are many others who will stop and listen. “If there were too many people on their iPads or phones,” says Bloodworth, “the musicians wouldn’t get any money and they would stop performing.”
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