Busk in the NY Subway

[Editor’s note: I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life at the operas in New York and London. I just fear for you, and want the world to be a more classical music-filled place]

If you’ve done a degree at, say, Mannes College of Music, or Julliard or any one of New York’s fine musical institutions, you may have the dream of one day owning a $45 million Stradivarius and performing at the Met. That’s a good dream, but it has its problems:

1. Your insurance won’t cover you if you get drunk after a concert, fall asleep on the 6 train home, and wake up to find the Strad has gone missing.

2. An expensive old violin won’t make you sound any better than playing a new, cheaper one

3. The classical music industry is on shaky ground, by any metric you look at.

So, if you’re serious about any kind of viable career with your violin (classical music or otherwise), it may be time to put away the tux, get out your best leathers and buy the [ohmygodawesome] Batmobile of the violin world, as demonstrated by Michael Shulman below:

(okay fine, I know that’s not classical music)

If you’re still not sure, take a look at The Busking Project’s highly-scientific breakdown of the pros and cons of performing in the New York Metropolitan Opera (the richest opera in the world) VS going to busk in the NY subway.

Fun fact #1: Quickly forget the Joshua Bell experiment.

Pearls Before Breakfast took a famous violinist with an expensive violin to the Washington D.C. subway. This “experiment”, though, was little more than a hoax:

  • It took place at 7:51 a.m. on the cold morning of Friday January 12th (around 4ºC outside)
  • Bell stood between an exit and an escalator, without much space for people to stop and listen
  • And he expertly played a difficult, exhaustingly long piece

You don’t need to be a busker to see why Bell didn’t do well.

Indeed, this test failed to investigate “whether beauty would be appreciated out of context”. Instead, it asked “whether tired, miserable people trudging back to work in the morning would care about ‘dauntingly complex music’ played by a talented but beginner busker” [Answer: no]

Don’t be fooled. People DO appreciate classical music on the underground! This entire website/project – the one you’re looking at now – was inspired by a classical musician. You’ve just gotta learn the trade.

Fun fact #2: Old, white, wealthy people aren’t that fun.

The above video – a classical music flash mob – was put on by the Vallès Symphony Orchestra, the Lieder, Amics de l’Òpera and Coral Belles Arts choirs in Sabadell, Spain. It has been seen 60 million times – by people of all ages, races, socioeconomic statuses and tastes.

In comparison, NY’s Metropolitan Opera sells roughly 3 million tickets per year (including 2.5 million cinema tickets) to old, white, wealthy people.

What do these two paragraphs tell us about fun fact #2? Well, nothing, but I didn’t think it needed explaining. Some old, white and wealthy people are fun, but being in a room full of nothing but them is definitely boring. I’ve done it.

Fun fact #3: on paper, it’s an easy choice.

You could get phenomenally lucky by getting a place with the NY Metropolitan Opera. Then, you could

  • sit in the pit,
  • get embroiled in union battles over declining wages,
  • get boo’d due to terrible production decisions,
  • have a conductor telling you what to play and how,
  • be surrounded by other elite musicians and their egos,
  • depend on the 1% to donate half your wages,
  • have nobody know who you are,
  • and never meet your audience (which may not be a bad thing, considering fun fact #2).

OR, you could go busk in the NY subway. You may not make the same amount as a Met musician, and you may have to deal with the NYPD, but,

  • you can play where you like, when you like, how you like,
  • you’ll never need to fight for a salary,
  • you’ll be loved and rewarded by many of the people who see you (“amazing classical musician in the street!”),
  • you’ll have the warm sense of giving your art away for free, despite making a healthy income,
  • and you’ll also reach a diverse audience that the Met’s scholarship program could only ever dream of.

You’ll just have to explain it to your parents, first.

So why wouldn’t you busk in the NY subway?

Because it’s not the traditional success story. How does this sound: “She had decades of practice, a great education, did really well, but now she spends her time playing in the subway with a backing track.”

So what if you could make an ample living on your own terms? So what if your audience size is comparable, and you get to engage with them? As long as there are misconceptions about buskers that everyone buys into, busking will be looked down upon, especially by artists in more elite fields.

I understand that busking is not for everyone. But it’s certainly an option. And, if you do decide to take the plunge, you may regularly have experiences like these…

[And then please come back here to tell us about them!]