The Sound of the Underground: The Real Lives of NYC Subway Performers
It’s 7:30 on a Tuesday morning. A guitarist strums amid the early morning rush hour, calm in the center of the hectic daily commute. Loose change is tossed into his case every so often, but most people don’t have time to stop. Until one person does, and then another, and another.
This is just another day for Gabriel Mayers. He’s no stranger to the streets of New York City — he began busking in 2009. Since then, he has released a full album. One of Mayers’s songs, “Sixty Charisma Scented Blackbirds” has more than 400,000 streams and is well on its way to meeting his goal of hitting 1 million by the end of 2018. So why is he still performing in the subway stations of New York City?
It makes financial sense. Contrary to popular belief, many of the NYC subway performers are not down-on-their-luck musicians. The majority of them have actually chosen this career.
I scoured the subway stations for musical acts and found out how much New York performers really make and why they still do it.
Further Reading: “Nick Lang, Team StarKid, and Accidental Entrepreneurship (Oh, My!)”
The station: Stations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and occasionally Queens
The act: Acoustic vocal-and-piano pop music
Find her at: @maritzalord, MaritzaLord.com
What do you earn on average per day? I earn enough to cover my basic needs and to support myself. Rent, food, and so on. I play four or five days a week for three hours a day. The author Steven Pressfield mentions in one of his books that you make two salaries on your job: the financial kind and the psychological kind. I’m happy to say that my psychological salary from busking far exceeds my monetary salary.
Why do you perform? It’s worth it for me, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. And I’m not talking about the money. But it’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. I don’t think you should do anything primarily for the money.
Busking’s a pretty rough sport, and I love everything about it. It strengthens me as a performer, and it dissolved any egotistic ideas I once had around artistic endeavors — perfectionism, etc. I love the artistic ethos that it has instilled in me thus far. It turned me pro.
I started doing it not expecting to make a cent. I didn’t even bring a tip jar with me the first time I went out busking. I’m fortunate that I can make a living doing this, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to start busking in the hopes of just making money.
Further Reading: Learn how to calculate your real hourly rate.
The station: Penn Station
The act: Saxophonist
Find him at: CD Baby
Tell us, what’s the money really like? On average, I make $70 to $90 a day. It depends on the day. The best week I had was just before Christmas. I made $400 the Wednesday before Christmas.
Why do you perform? I’m hopefully going to go to school in September to study music and accounting. I’m hoping to do school in the day and start music at 5 o’clock. I live by myself, too, so this is good for me, to get me outside. I feel like part of a community, and at the same time, people give a donation.
The station: 7th Avenue, Brooklyn
The act: Electric guitar
Find him at: GabrielMayers.com
What’s the most money you’ve ever made? I earn an average of $125 playing for a few hours in the morning, and the most I’ve ever made is around $300.
Why do you perform? If you’re a decent musician, busking pays more than most jobs. Most people think of it as something people do when they’re down on their luck, but it actually just makes fiscal sense as something to do with your spare time if you’re a musician in New York.
Further Reading: “60 Great Side Hustle Ideas That Will Make You Money”
David Hincapie and Wuilly Arteaga
The station: Fulton Street, Manhattan
The act: Cello and electric violin
How much do you make in a day? It all depends, honestly. We don’t play every day, but this is currently the only source of income we have.
Why do you perform? [People don’t realize] how much fun we actually have doing what we do.
I feel like people sometimes think we do it because we have to, but that’s not the case. It’s more of a passion thing. We like to share our music with everyone, and seeing their reactions to it, negative or positive, is always the best.
The Payoff for NYC Subway Performers
Not every musician playing in the subway is there because he or she has to be. Many NYC subway performers choose to busk because it makes fiscal sense. Most of them are just trying to make their way through school or college or to book another gig. For many, the subway stations of New York City are some of the best-paying venues in the country, not to mention a source of exposure and fulfillment.
All of the performers interviewed here are masters of their particular style, and of the instruments they choose to busk with. But getting started out can be costly, as even performing acoustically means buying instruments that range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
If you don’t already have an instrument of your own, or want an upgrade, the discount outlet at Guitar Center offers some savings!