‘What are you doing down here?’
Local 802 member Nicola Vazquez gives an insider's look at busking in the New York City subways
Volume 116, No. 5May, 2016
People always ask me, “What are you doing down here?” I have been a professional busker in the NYC subway with MTA’s Music Under New York program since 2004. I was born on the Lower East Side and grew up in the low-income projects, sharing toys with my baby brother. My father was a mechanic and my mother a nurse. Neither was musically inclined, but both shared their appreciation and love for all types of music with us. Music was always playing in our house. We grew up with the sounds of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and the Beatles. It definitely rubbed off. I ended up with a guitar in hand at age 7, a piano at age 11, and attended the LaGuardia High School of the Arts (the school that “Fame” was based on). I trained classically at the Manhattan School of Music and Queens College while studying dance and acting on the side. I did a stint of regional theater and then landed an acting role on Broadway in “Les Misérables.”
But I felt the burning desire to write and perform my own music, so I left the theater to embark on a music career. I started my own record label in 2000. I played every open mic in NYC before touring the country and spending time living and performing in Europe and South America. Returning to NYC, I was drawn to the whole world of underground and street/subway performing. I loved the instant connection that was made between artists and passers-by. It seemed to me the greatest place to meet people, hone my performance skills, and expose my music to a diverse crowd of unsuspecting listeners.
I have been very fortunate for some of the amazing opportunities busking has provided me with. Through the years I have been able to release five self-produced CDs of original music, simply by busking. Once, an executive from Billboard saw me playing in Times Square, loved my music, and got me featured twice in the magazine and in a live showcase. I was scouted by EMI while I was playing at Union Square and invited to the label’s headquarters to perform. I have been featured on several TV news segments about street performers. The lead singer of the band TOTR heard me performing at Union Square and asked me to sing background vocals on the album they were in the middle of recording at the time. The next night I was in their studio in Brooklyn. It was so crazy and so incredible! Through busking, I have had the wonderful opportunity to perform at Madison Square Garden as well as Yankee Stadium, and I have been able to book jobs – concerts, private parties, recordings, photo and video shoots, and even clubs like Joe’s Pub, simply by people coming across me while performing underground.
When performing in public spaces, the audience is spontaneous and unexpected, and of course there is no raised stage, security or cordoned-off area. That means I occasionally have had to deal with random strangers trying to grab my microphone and start singing, thinking I’m hosting a karaoke session. Or they try to bang on my guitar or try to grab me. I have had money stolen from my guitar case – but this has happened only twice in all the years I have been performing underground. I’ve also had police officers tell me to turn my amp down, complaining it’s too loud, but that has also been a rare occasion, since most of the beat cops know me by now. They like and respect what I do and have even purchased my CDs!
I play Penn Station and Times Square quite a bit, and there are many homeless people who congregate at those locations – “the regulars” I call them. They call me by name, sing my songs, and even put tips in my guitar case, which I always return. They look out for me, watch over me and protect me.
I have had some amazing experiences thanks to busking. Aside from money in my guitar case, I have received all kinds of gifts from people – poems, stories, photos, cards, flowers, buttons, prayers, origami, wrapped sandwiches and cakes, and even the occasional can of beer! An Ethiopian artist once sat for three hours at Union Square watching me perform while painting an oil canvas, which he presented to me at the end of the night. He told me he was moved by my music but had no money, so he wanted to give me his oil painting as a gift for me.
I feel so incredibly lucky to have made many new friends and fans over the years in the subway. They’ve been very supportive and meaningful both in my career and my life. These people come to gigs, they spread the word on social media about my music and upcoming events, and we stay in touch regularly. People have shared with me their personal stories of love, pain, anguish, triumph and adventure, and have told me how much my music made an impact on their lives. Those stories and those instant connections I have made with people in a New York minute are magical and indescribable, and worth more than any money I’ve ever made.
So when people ask me, “What are you doing down here?” I just smile and think to myself “I am grateful to be a working musician, earning a living from my craft in such a special and unique venue.”
Nicola Vazquez has been a member of Local 802 since 2007. She is composer of a new musical called “Lighthouse.” Her web site is www.nicolanicola.com.
How to (legally) perform in the subway
Any musician may perform and accept donations on NYC subway platforms: the MTA’s rules explicitly state that “artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations” are allowed, “provided they do not impede transit activities.” Musicians like Local 802 member Nicola Vazquez in this article have applied and auditioned for MTA’s Music Under New York (MUNY) program, but that is not required to busk. MUNY musicians are unpaid, but they get choice subway locations, a customized banner to perform under, the option to use amplification (which is normally not allowed), and they get their bio listed on the MTA web site. To audition for a MUNY banner, see http://web.mta.info/mta/aft/muny/auditions.html.
Musicians of any kind are not legally allowed inside of subway cars or within 25 feet of a station booth or ticket vending machine, and the use of any amplification is technically forbidden. The full MTA rules of conduct can be found at http://web.mta.info/nyct/rules/rules.htm#use.