Waiting for the Q train on a dingy platform in the New York City subway a few years ago, I saw a crowd gathered around an elderly Chinese man. Head bent, eyes down, he was expertly plucking a stringed instrument I now know to be a guzheng. Back then, all I knew was that the sounds he made were heart-rending, gorgeous, and wistful—some of the most supernatural noises I’d ever heard coming out of an analog machine. The platform was otherwise nearly silent as we all watched in awe; I swear I saw a tear fall from one woman’s eye.
Dear readers, the single public-transit experience I would ever deem transcendent: brought to you by the power of busking.
Busking—playing music in a public space for tips—currently occupies a gray zone in D.C. Metro law. Since a local guitarist sued Metro last summer for the right to busk in and around stations (it was formerly lumped under panhandling and prohibited as such), D.C.’s U.S. District Court has ordered Metro officials to leave performers alone until the case is settled, which could be years from now.
WMATA gave controlled pseudo-busking a shot last summer, when it commissioned 14 musicians to play one to three concerts each at Metro entrances through the MetroPerforms! program. It was a rough, much-criticized concession to would-be buskers: The musicians were chosen through live auditions held on short notice; the roster consisted almost entirely of vocalists and guitar players; and they were required to perform as volunteers, without even accepting tips, which is an insane stipulation for any city that claims to support artists to make.
It’s time for WMATA to do away with the half-measures and make busking a welcomed, well-supported part of our Metro environment.
I know, I know, no one wants to hear a squeaky karaoke rendition of “Seasons of Love” on their way home from a 525,600-minute day at a dead-end job, and busking does raise legitimate safety and logistics concerns. A smart Metro busking plan for D.C. would sit somewhere between New York’s free-for-all and Boston’s nanny state, where licensed MBTA performers must be “neat in appearance” and leave trumpets and drums at home.
To head off complaints about quality and limit potential turf wars, D.C. should designate a couple of first-come-first-served busking zones at each Metro station and hand out a large but limited number of permits to local musicians. Busking areas would be out of the way of the heaviest foot traffic, far enough apart to prevent noise pollution, and never inside Metro cars. (Anyone who’s been thisclose to a kick in the face by an amateur in-car b-boy would agree.) Musicians could be chosen via audio or video submission by a panel of D.C.-area music-makers and -lovers (I humbly volunteer as tribute) with a commitment to diversity of styles and performers, allowing for a slight preference toward homegrown genres like go-go and bluegrass. With no shortage of live music venues in the city, D.C. could even give the Howard Theatre, Bohemian Caverns, or the Pinch a residency of sorts at their nearest Metro stations, creating new spaces for curated performance series and opportunities to get the word out about upcoming shows.
Developing a consistent system for buskers to play in and around Metro stations wouldn’t deliver a universal commute experience on the level of my moment of glory on the Q train platform, but it would make the tensest part of some riders’ days slightly more bearable. “Pearls Before Breakfast” be damned: Even if crowds don’t gather (and real talk—during rush hour, they won’t), the ambient sounds of instruments played by real human beings would create a warmer, more relaxed atmosphere. And for some people, it’d be a serendipitous shot at hearing music they’d never encounter if left to their own free-streaming devices. “The only time I ever hear go-go is coming out of car windows or outside the Gallery Place stop,” a longtime D.C. resident once told me. More music in highly trafficked transit areas could inspire a new generation of fans of go-go, violin concertos, or the guzheng.
Live music in the Metro would give local artists more opportunities to share their skills and make ends meet, and get transit users out of their smartphone seclusion to appreciate the talent in our music scene. We demand that Metro fulfill our utilitarian expectations, but in public space, there’s potential for communal joy and uplift, too. Form and function aren’t mutually exclusive; a Metro that fosters beauty and local culture is a better Metro, period.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery