Busk or Bust: NYC’s Subway Musicians Face Increasing Obstacles

Gabriel Aldort performing in the New York City Subway.

By Jakob Ntellas with additional reporting from Rachel Castillo, Byron Colindres and Alyssa Leli | June 23, 2022

As commuters zig-zagged along the platform during the morning rush, Gabriel Aldort set up shop. Next to a pink banner with his name, he plopped down behind his keyboard and opened his guitar bag for business. 

As his day passed  and commuters dropped coins and singles into his bag, he felt someone watching him. It wasn’t a listener enjoying the New Orleans-style song Gabe was belting; it was a homeless, mentally disturbed woman making her way to his now full guitar bag. She bent over, boldly announcing she was only taking one dollar.

“Police were on her like a wet blanket,” said Aldort. “I got some fans in the force. You know, Billy Joel, those are songs that certain police liked over the years.”

Aldort sticks to blues, played primarily on the piano.

Formally known as buskers, musical performers who play in public places for donations have long been a staple of New York City transit but this way of life is increasingly under threat. Ridership is the lowest it has been in years, while transit crime has increased, making the daily life of these performers more difficult. 

After quitting his job to busk full time, Eugene Xiang, also known as Kazoo the Busker, has seen his profession change a lot over the past five years. “Subway ridership hasn’t been back to where it was since many people are still working remotely,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic left train stations and the streets of New York City desolate during the early days of 2020. According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, “The New York State on PAUSE executive order to close all non-essential business sent both subway and bus ridership to the unprecedented lowest point in April, when the subway was at 8 percent of 2019 ridership and bus at 23 percent.” 

For many, the MTA was the only way to get to work. For others, however, playing music in the subways was their only way to work, and their workplace would become increasingly dangerous. 

According to the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank, subway ridership recovered 19 percent from 2020 to 2021, but violent felonies also rose by 8 percent.

According to NYPD data, in the 28 days from April 12 to May 9, 2022 transit crimes involving robbery, rape, grand larceny, felony assault, murder and burglary were up 53.3 percent when compared with 2021. 

“Nobody wants to take the train anymore. I don’t blame them, but it’s sad for people like me, people trying to make a living,” Xiang said. “I rely on the people on the trains to want to listen to me and hear me play. Without subway riders, I don’t have a job.”

After months of Covid-19 recovery, anti-Asian hate crimes, random acts of violence and a mass shooting in a Brooklyn subway station, Xiang and many other buskers are beginning to consider alternatives to working within  NYC’s transit system. 

“I have to rely on going to parks to busk now, instead of just on the subway,” Xiang said. “You would think I would have more of an audience and make more money on the train,  right? I personally don’t mind [going to parks], but it’s a shame.”

Grace Geist, a former MTA commuter, said she no longer travels on the subway.  “I think as a woman, it’s dangerous to ride the subway, especially ’cause I live in Harlem. Because of the homelessness and crime recently, I do what I can to avoid it. I’m fine with taking my bike, it isn’t an inconvenience for me.”

According to the MTA, more than 350 individual performers and ensembles perform in approximately 40 locations throughout the transit system. However, only 204 busking acts were advertised and registered as being a part of the Music Under New York program, indicating a recent decline in program participants. Due to its rigorous audition process, many performers busk illegally, like Anibal Marquez.

“I used to play in a mariachi group in Mexico, so I thought why not ride the subways with my friend and play mariachi on my days off of work,” Marquez said. “Instead of getting a second job, I do this. It does not bring me a lot of money, but it is better than nothing,” adding, ”The only people who ask about [a permit] are cops. When I say I don’t know what that is, they say I have to go and I leave.”

However, not all of the Music Under New York performers feel the same about the rising safety issues. “I don’t feel less safe,” Gabriel Aldort said. “I worry about my kids because they’re tripping out on this, but it’s also making them into who they are, it’s laying the groundwork for empathy, and compassion.”

It is this empathy and compassion that Aldort tries to keep in mind when dealing with unsavory characters in the stations. 

“I talk to the crowd. A lot of people are homeless, a lot of times it is the lack of acknowledgement that really affects them like they’re invisible,” Aldort said. “What breaks the barrier is acknowledgement. It’s a nod of the head, a smile, a ‘Have a beautiful day.’”