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Subway Performers Reveal the Secrets to Entertaining Underground

By Nicole Levy | May 18, 2016 11:55am | Updated on May 19, 2016 8:14am
 Clockwise from the upper left corner: Opera Collective; Natalie Gelman; Lucky Chops; You Bred Raptors?
Clockwise from the upper left corner: Opera Collective; Natalie Gelman; Lucky Chops; You Bred Raptors?
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Facebook/Opera Collective; Natalie Gelman; Instagram/@theluckychops; You Bred Raptors? by Jenny Schweitzer

From swing to '80s rock to Balkan party music, you can find almost any kind of live music underground in the city's subways.

The soundtrack for your travels is largely orchestrated by MTA's Music Under New York (MUNY) program which, in its 29th year, boasts a roster of more than 350 soloist and groups. 

This year, 20 more will join the ranks after auditioning for the MTA in Grand Central's Vanderbilt Hall Wednesday morning. Admission gives them the opportunity to book three-hour sets at more than 30 spots in the transit system.

But what exactly would compel a musician to perform for the thankless commuting masses, amid the shrill sounds of halting trains and public announcements?

We asked singer-songwriter Natalie Gelman, Peat Rains of the experimental trio You Bred Raptors?, Josh Holcomb of the brass band Lucky Chops and George Kasarjian of the Opera Collective to explain it to us. 

Why'd you decide to audition for the program?

Lucky Chops' band members, who met each other at LaGuardia High School and are currently on tour in Europe, grew up listening to musicians on their subway rides to and from school, said Holcomb, a trombonist. They performed in Central Park before graduating to venues such as The Bowery Electric, but later realized they missed playing in public spaces.

"It’s great," he said, "because at a venue people come for you specifically — if no one comes, then no one comes — but on the subway, there's always thousands of people."

Opera Collective: The small group of friends envisioned their group as a master class in which opera singers would critique each other's performances, said George Kasarjian, the group's administrator and a founding member.

That objective soon faded away because, he said, "it’s not easy to take criticism, even in a safe place," and the organization now has two missions: to bring opera to the masses and give young singers a big venue in which hone their full voices.

What's the pay like?

Gelman considers it a good day when she earns $180 in tips and CD sales over the course of a three-hour set.

You Bred Raptors? makes a couple hundred dollars on a "good night" and, "on a really good day," up to $1,000, Rains said.

Opera Collective: The 40 singers on the collective's roster are making "utilities-paying money," Kasarjian said.

An artist sharing a three-hour gig with two or three others typically takes home $50 in paper money. Change collected goes into an account the group taps to mount above-ground performances with catered receptions.

What are your greatest challenges as a subway performer?

Gelman said her revolving-door audience has posed the biggest obstacle: ”You’re always losing your audience, so you’re always trying to still keep your energy up and be as present as you can the whole time through." It's exhausting, she confessed. 

You Bred Raptors?: Technology makes it difficult to capture straphangers' attention, Rains said. All three members of his band wear masks in part because they hope the theatrical effect will tempt passers-by to stop. 

”You got about two seconds to catch someone’s attention, and that’s going to be visually," he said, "because they’re either watching porn on their phone or listening to a podcast."

Tell us how you handle the extreme temperatures underground.

Gelman dresses in layers.

You Bred Raptors? won't play in temperatures under 30°F or over 95°F. 

"We have a cello in the band and cellos start to crack in extreme temperatures," Rains said. "So there’s no way we’re going to make $6,000 in the subway that night to pay for a new cello."

Where's your favorite place to perform?

Lucky Chops is fond of the big hubs in central Manhattan, Grand Central and Herald Square, Holcomb told us.

Gelman loves the Staten Island Ferry Whitehall Terminal, which is heat-regulated and offers a captive audience awaiting a ferry. 

"I once sold 100 CDs there, and that’s totally abnormal," she said. "It’s a great spot to make fans and make money," and you can take breaks.

Opera Collective members used to sing in the Grey Bar passage of Grand Central Terminal — until vendor kiosks complained about how loud they were, forcing them to leave.

"That was the best spot because it was really indoors and it was a real beautiful acoustic, and we didn’t have much train noise to compete with," Kasarjian said.

What's the best part of busking in the subway?

All four acts agreed that it's the connection made with straphangers who stop, listen and respond.   

Gelman remembers a homeless man who came up to her late one night on the platform for the 2/3 train and dropped all the contents of his torn-up coffee cup in her guitar case. 

"He said, 'I’ve been listening to you for hours and I really want to help you. You’ve really helped me,' she recalled. "That was a really special moment I’ll never forget. …  It was so humbling and really powerful." 

Opera Collective: "People stop and stand there for hours. And sometimes they cry and sometimes they come up to us and they hug us," said Kasarjian, who remembers a Hell's Angel once sobbing during a performance.

Lucky Chops: "At least one person will come up to us and tell us we made their day," Holcomb said. "It happens every single day, which is the best reward you get."