New York is a city brimming with so much culture that every park, street corner and subway often doubles as a stage for an array of eclectic artists. These are the buskers of New York City, and their mission is to bring a smile to the faces of passers-by, all while sharing their art with as wide an audience as possible.
We caught up with Nick Broad, founder of The Busking Project – a website dedicated to promoting and supporting the international busking community – to get new insight into the thriving busker scene. We also spoke with several New York performers themselves to reveal the best busker spots the Big Apple has to offer.
Busking in New York
“In the USA, artists with great smiles head west to LA, while artists with great souls head east to NYC,” says Nick Broad. “The city is full of a wide variety and depth of passionate artists who don’t just perform for fun – this is who they are, and art is how they think. There are thousands of street performers in the city. It’s a beautiful thing to explore.”
From classical and jazz, to rock, roots and any other musical style you can imagine – not to mention theatre, mime, circus acts and a multitude of other genres – New York’s buskers are breath-taking in their diversity and talent. Many visitors to the city are surprised at the sheer range and quality of the performers who share their dazzling skills with the public for the price of a few coins.
“Many people are very naÃ¯ve in the fact that they think busking is only for people that can’t get other gigs,” says guitarist and busker Jason Green. “This is absolutely not true. Many of us, including myself, have travelled the world playing everywhere from major festivals, clubs and concert halls, to Broadway and Carnegie Hall”¦as well as regular club and restaurant dates, theatre gigs, weddings and corporate events. When you play music for a living, you have to be versatile and wear a lot of hats.”
Where to see buskers in New York
The map below rounds up some of the best places in the Big Apple to spot its talented street performers in action:
Why people busk
So why make busking a part of such a jam-packed schedule? “The audience for buskers in NYC is a thousand times larger than any orchestra in the world,” observes Nick Broad. This level of exposure brings countless opportunities for self-promotion and networking, which many performers have been able to spin into new ventures.
“The subway is the best platform to launch your music or performance,” say electronic dance musicians Chango. “You never know who’s watching or what’s going to happen. [“¦] We have gotten all types of invitations to play everywhere – festivals, house parties, galleries, even a swingers’ party. We have encountered celebrities and gotten interviews, TV time and auditions for bigger places. [“¦] We are always down to collaborate and expand.”
Jason Green agrees: “Even if busking is only a part of what I do to make a living, it is an important one because work begets work. Besides the monetary compensation, I get a lot of other gigs, recording sessions, students and exposure out of it, as well as continuing to hone my craft.”
Busking also offers a wonderful opportunity for performers to interact directly with their audiences, and many enjoy the feeling of brightening up a busy urban space. “[Buskers] create a thousand smiles a day,” says Nick Broad, or as rock buskers Heth and Jed put it, “[channel] a little joy and power into the New York City commuting madness.”
Singer, musician and author Heidi Kole sees it as a spiritual experience. “I busk to exchange energy with”¦thousands of people a day and”¦raise vibration. Busking to me is much like being a Reiki master or any other form of healing, in that it is a grand exchange of energy in which not only the client/patient/straphanger feels better, but the practitioner/busker is also uplifted.”
“The energy that the people feed you is insane,” says Chango. “I like how people smile when they see us, I like to think we have the power to make someone’s day a little better.” Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz agrees: “To fill the heart of this great city with my sound, to be the soundtrack to people’s lives – I cannot think of a greater honour than that.”
The challenges of busking
For all the advantages of busking, street performers face certain challenges as well. Although New York street performers are technically covered by the US constitutional right to artistic free speech, in practice the laws governing busking are often vague and inconsistently applied.
Many buskers have been given tickets, asked to move on or even arrested by local law enforcement at various times – a situation not helped by the fact that both performers and local authorities are often unclear on their own rights – a situation which organisations such as BuskNY are attempting to remedy.
The Busking Project is another venture that aims to address some of the issues faced by modern-day buskers through the use of technology. For example, how can street performers who rely on cash donations continue to earn a living in an increasingly cashless society?
As founder Nick Broad explains, the solution involves “launching an app for buskers with a tech team, a massive interactive website and a network of thousands of buskers online. [“¦] Once the app launches, next time you’re in New York you’ll be able to see [which buskers] are performing near you right now, and tip them without having to go to the cashpoint or break a twenty.” Until the app goes live, you can also donate to performers at the project’s website, busk.co.
Meet New York’s buskers
Interested in meeting some of the buskers that liven up the streets and subway platforms of New York on a daily basis? We spoke to a few of the performers involved in The Busking Project:
Description: Hailing originally from Mexico, Chango moved to New York in 2010 and have been transforming the Big Apple’s subway platforms into dance floors ever since.
Music genre: “Chango is an EDM (electronic dance music) band; our sound is charged with heavy bass and fat beats. We like to call it a “Psychedelic Smoothie For Your Ears”.
Favourite NYC busking spot: “Union Square is what we like the most. We alternate between three different main spots in that same subway station.”
Name: Coyote and Crow
Description: This singer-musician couple are originally from the North Country area of upstate New York, near the Adirondack Mountains, and have been living in NYC since 2008 and performing together since 2012.Music genre: “We call our genre ‘Old-Time Rock’N’Soul – a blend of Americana roots rock, blues, soul, rock’n’roll, and mountain music.”
Favourite NYC busking spot: “Washington Square Park is most definitely our favourite place to busk in the city – we are trying to keep the folk music tradition alive in Greenwich Village! This park also offers a vibrant energy and an incredible mix of musicians and other street performers – the essence of New York City!”
Name: Heidi Kole
Description: A singer, actress and dancer since her teens, Heidi Kole has lived in New York for the last 12 years. She is the author of The Subway Diaries, a first-hand account of the busking culture in NYC.
Music genre: “My music has changed a lot in the 10 years I’ve been underground”¦Now I sing/play mostly old R&B, Motown and soul/gospel – and of course my own tunes, that just kind of slide right into the mix.”
Favourite NYC busking spot: “Probably where most of my book, The Subway Diaries, takes place – the uptown A C E Times Square / Port Authority. It’s a short commute from where I live, a very active station and definitely my ‘home platform’.”
Name: Heth and Jed
Description: Originally from Los Angeles, this rock duo describe themselves as blood brothers and have been living in New York since 1998. After performing in a number of rock bands, they started busking together in 2006 and have since published a memoir, Buskers: The On-the-Trains, In-the-Streets, Off-the-Grid Memoir of Two New York City Street Musicians.
Music genre: “Post-rock that makes you feel good.”
Favourite NYC busking spot: “Penn Station, below Madison Square Garden. It’s great because the trains for Long Island queue there. And Long Island is home to some of the most loyal rock’n’roll fans in the world – there’s something in the water out there, and it’s led to us cultivating a rather loyal fanbase over the years.”
Name: Jason Green
Description: A native of Cleveland, Ohio, guitarist Jason Green has been playing and touring professionally for 21 years. He has lived in New York since 2004.
Music genre: “I play most styles of music, but specialise in what I call ‘roots music’: blues, jazz, country/bluegrass, latin, rock and funk.”
Favourite NYC busking spot: “My favourite spots to busk are at Penn Station and the Manhattan and Staten Island Ferry terminals.”
Description: A stickless drummer, Shakerleg switched to music after pursuing a career in acting. Along with his solo busking performances, he also tours with the band The Kin.
Music genre: “Being a drummer, I can morph into many styles. But currently I’m in the band The Kin and we’re leaning more toward the alt pop style. My very atypical drumming style doesn’t normally fit pop, but that’s what makes it work, I’m certain.”
Favourite NYC busking spot: “My favourite spot to perform is the L train at Union Square, right near the downtown N/R train staircase. The staircase wall directly behind and the length of the tunnel in front of the performer all affect the sound. That spot has the biggest reverb of any performance place I’ve ever played on any stage throughout the world!”
Name: Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz
Description: A former professional dancer who taught herself to play the musical saw, Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz is also the founder/director of theNYC Musical Saw Festival, which has been running for 12 years.
Music genre: “I perform a mix of styles, from classical music (Bach, Shostakovitch, Mozart, etc) to popular songs, songs from musicals and movie themes. I do a lot of session work for movie soundtracks – Richard Gere’s new movie Time Out of Mind, [“¦] HBO’s new documentary The Jinx, [“¦] and Fox Searchlight’s Another Earth [“¦] are some of the movies I played for. I also play a lot of original music, mostly by Scott Munson (who composed the music for Time Out of Mind and Another Earth).
Favourite NYC busking spot: “I alternate between Times Square, Union Square and Herald Square subway stations. I have to say, playing at Times Square feels special to me, because the subway is like the arteries of the city, and Times Square is the heart of the city.”
Name: Cathy Grier
Description: A native of New York, guitarist and singer Cathy Grier has been performing and touring professionally from the age of 17.
Music genre: “I call my music folked-up blues, because of my influences of the folk era, but also being fortunate enough to be there when artists like Dylan and Joni Mitchell where switching to electric. Bonnie Raitt was a big early influence on my life. And I love the Blues.”
Favourite NYC busking spot: ” I guess Grand Central Station mezzanine and Shuttle locations, Union Square, LIRR Penn Station, Whitehall Station (Staten Island Ferry terminal).”
Check out New York’s street performers for yourself
Feeling inspired to explore New York’s thriving cultural scene for yourself – and perhaps catch a performance by some of the city’s top buskers? Virgin Atlantic offers regular affordable flights to New York, with routes between London and JFK and Newark airports. Start planning your Big Apple adventure today.