Monday, July 6, 2009

'Keep it on ice while you're lining up your long shot..'

"It's real hard to keep up with the guys who do this all the time."

So says a trumpet player that I bumped into today on the 59th Street platform. We spoke briefly as he was getting on a train and I didn't get his name, but he told me he was on his way to his regular job as a 3-11 security guard. He just uses the platform to practice. I'll run into him again and talk more, since I know when and where he'll be.

"I play seven days a week," he said, "but it's just when I'm on my way to my real job".

And it struck me, there are so many crossovers and parallels between this subterranean life and the real world; between busking and blogging; as well as between busking and the news media.

It's almost as if we're an alter ego, a different persona when we're below ground. Like we have something 'on hold' that has no place in the surface world, but that we can explore to our heart's content down here.

Buskers and bloggers both do what they do in the hope that they'll touch someone, anyone, in the passing crowd, who might like what they hear and reward them as a result.

Buskers and bloggers both depend on feedback one way or another, whether that's financial, through a PayPal click or a quarter in the case, or whether it's just an email of encouragement, or a smile and a "yeah" from a passer-by.

Buskers and bloggers both hope they can resonate with enough people to form a "community" of fans which, regardless of its size, helps sustain the content producer by its support.

Both groups have to learn to deal with abuse in various forms and usually they feel they're at odds with the establishment, one way or another.

And of course, there are different audiences and attitudes between buskers who "freelance" on the platforms or trains and those who have the official "imprimatur" of a permit.

One group gets to display itself at the prime spots, gets to play directly to a more lucrative audience, gets to sell their product with an "official endorsement". The other group depends entirely on the kindness and generosity of the passing crowd (or in the case of those who play on the trains themselves, a captive audience).

When I talked to Simon Owens of Bloggasm recently about this blog, he asked me about the parallels between buskers and the news media.

It's a clever, er, track to pursue.

He said that both were basically giving content away for free, and depending on that to attract an audience, out of which they could generate other revenue streams - like selling CDs or a newspaper archive.

I said that in both worlds, quality eventually rises to the top, and if people think something is worth paying for, or they need it enough, they'll pay for it.

Both groups employ marketing strategies by using the 'free' content/appearances as a way of generating further work, or buiding their reputation.

Where established news organizations might sell access based on little more than a name, buskers would sell, say, music lessons based on skills they show off in performance. It's all about leveraging whatever unique features you have and making the most of them.

I'm pretty sure though, that buskers have to apologize for their lessons less frequently.

And, so far at least, I think people aren't buying newspapers out of pity.

Since I've been writing the Beat Below, I've had a lot of emails from people who moved away from New York years ago, saying that one of the things they really miss is the music on the subway and they're happy to have been reconnected to it through the blog. So for them, I'm a nice, quirky little addition to the totality of their cultural consumption.

I'd also point them in the direction of the Saw Lady's excellent blog on subway musicians. She's been both busking and blogging a lot longer than I have.

I also attract readers who're coming from a journalistic perspective, given my background and interests. While there's quite a crossover between the various worlds of music, New York and journalism, there isn't really a big enough audience for whom it's the most important thing to ever make my humble little blog anything more than just a sauce around the edges of my readers' information diet.

That's actually fine by me. I'm having fun doing it, and I hope you're enjoying reading it. And that's all that really matters.


It was another beautiful day in the city today, so I went to play at the 5th Avenue R/W line stop; which has an exit at 59th Street, a stopping off point for people on their way to enjoy an afternoon in Central Park.

It's a noisy station, to be fair, but I positioned myself by the steps leading out of the platform and got a few 'slots' where there weren't trains in either direction. Even so, I played for nearly an hour and people just walked right past. I was smiling and everything.

And no songs about fascists today... well, just the one.

I usually don't mind at stations where I don't make any money; but here, the people have long enough to hear you as they're coming along the platform to decide whether they like you or not, and easily long enough to get out their wallet or fumble for some change. So it's like they're making a specific choice to just walk on by.

Maybe I suck. Or maybe they're just pre-occupied and a bit tight. I prefer to think it's not the former.

After that sort of rejection, I decided I'd go back to Canal Street. The folks there have never let me down and here's actually the more important thing - and maybe it's a musician thing, I don't know: I really don't have a problem if someone doesn't put money in the case if they groove a bit, or smile, or just say "keep it goin' man"; that sort of thing means a lot, and I always get some of that sort of love at Canal Street.

Today was no exception. I felt better after leaving there. I gave more directions than usual (it still amazes me how people will just walk up to you in the middle of a song and say: "Does the M train run on this platform?" when I'm standing under a sign that says it doesn't) and I helped a woman up the stairs with a baby carriage. I ended up with only $1.50 in the case, but a lot of people were nodding along and subtly rockin' out; and after the earlier station, that was all the reward I needed.

Fifth Avenue set:

Waiting On The World To Change - John Mayer
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
I Want You Back - Jackson Five
Never Tire Of The Road/All You Fascists Bound To Lose - Andy Irvine/Woody Guthrie
Refugee - Tom Petty
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
Bad Karma - Warren Zevon
Lawyers Guns And Money - Warren Zevon

Canal Street set:

Here Comes The Sun - Beatles
Lawyers Guns And Money - Warren Zevon
Secret Garden - Bruce Springsteen
Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
I Want You Back - Jackson Five
Long Walk Home - Bruce Springsteen
You're The World To Me - David Gray
The Promised Land - Bruce Springsteen
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
The Boys Of Summer - Don Henley
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen


The always excellent blog 'Play A Little Guitar' which I heartily recommend, has again shuffled its iPod and come up with some great tunes. What's on yours? Let me know in the sidebar.

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