Performers compete for chance to entertain N.Y. passengers

Posted on June 15, 2012 by Brittni Rubin, Assistant Editor

Each year, hundreds of musicians apply for a chance to participate in Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Music Under New York (MUNY) program.

Launched 25 years ago, MUNY is run through MTA’s Arts for Transit division, whose mission is to enhance the experience of passengers by including visual and performing arts as they travel through the transit system, said Amy Hausmann, assistant director of MTA’s Arts for Transit and Urban Design.

MUNY presents more than 7,500 annual performances at 25 different locations, making subway entertainment something to count on. Participating stations include Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal and Atlantic terminal.

Musicians are asked to submit their CDs in the beginning of the year.

“There’s a wide range of music styles, which is very similar to the kind of diversity you find in New York City itself,” said Hausmann.

From the submissions, MTA chooses 70 performers to present a five-minute audition in front of a panel of 30 judges, consisting of musicians, music and performing arts professionals, MTA representatives and others. This year, the auditions, which are open to the public, took place in Grand Central Terminal.

From the 70 candidates, MTA then selects 20 to 25 winners to join its ongoing roster of MUNY performers, which is currently 350 musical acts long.

“Since the program has been around for a while, it has a certain cache,” Hausmann explained. “People who see these performers under the MUNY banner in the subways know they’ve been hand-selected.”

The program allows performers to showcase their musical talents and collect donations from their audience.
The program allows performers to showcase their musical talents and collect donations from their audience.
When choosing winners, the judges evaluate three aspects of each act: the quality of musicianship, the variety of music, and whether or not their act is appropriate for the subway environment.

“For example, a marching band wouldn’t be a good fit for this type of venue,” said Hausmann. “There are many regulations for subway performers — like decibel level, no blocking traffic, no amplification — that we must abide by.”

Once brought into the program, musicians are responsible for calling in to be scheduled. “We schedule 150 performances a week,” said Hausmann.

“A lot of them are professionals, so they might not be in town on a regular basis. When they are available, they let us know.”

Musicians in the MUNY program don’t get paid but are allowed to collect donations from their audiences.  

Among the Mississippi blues groups, musical saw players, opera singers, harpists, mariachi bands and other unique applicants, there is Chris Conly, a 30-year-old guitarist from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. A recent graduate of Berklee College of Music, Conly, and his band Chicken Barn Heroes, were chosen to audition this year.

Although Conly isn’t new to subway busking, it was his first time applying to the MUNY program. “The great part about performing for MUNY is that your space and time slot will be reserved for you, just like any other legitimate venue,” Conly said. “You’re supplied with the proper official MUNY signage showing that you’re a trusted musician, and you can sell CDs, promote performances, as well as accepting tips, of course.”

If added to the roster, Conly told METRO that he will look forward to performing for thousands of New Yorkers every year in addition to connecting with potential clients seeking live music for private events.
Richie Kaye, a guitarist/comedian along with his bandmate, a sax and clarinet player, auditioned this past May as well.

“Much of the music we play was written in New York City by New Yorkers and now it’s mostly vanished from everyday life,” Kaye said. “We’d love to help bring it back to New York, even just in our small way.”

In addition to playing at jazz festivals and other venues throughout the year, Kaye, hailing from New Haven, Conn., is also an audiobook narrator.

“If I can participate in the MUNY program, I hope to get a couple more people walking away in the bustle of Manhattan whistling a happy tune,” he said.

The 2012 MUNY winners were announced on May 31. Both Chicken Barn Heroes and Richie Kay Music — in addition to 23 other artists, including an African drumming group, a vibraphone player, a gospel singer and a harpist — were opportunely added to the roster. For more information, visit: www.mta.info/mta/aft/muny/.

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