Jeffrey Masin, busker in Times Square

Subway performers have become the thing of New York City folklore. But as a result of many recent crackdowns and arrests around NYC, a lot of musicians are opting to audition for an affiliation with Music Under New York (MUNY), a visual and performing arts program administered by the MTA (an official audition form can be found here). This audition is held every Spring (the last of which was held on May 13), and although it may seem surprising that a whole tradition of buskers would now have to undergo an evaluation, this is not exactly the case. In fact, the entire situation surrounding NYC’s busking scene in 2014 is quite hazy.

According to Luke Folger, an NYC street performer who recently spoke to Aljazeera prior to this year’s MUNY auditions, he is primarily concerned with avoiding tickets and arrests while he works the platforms. He is not too concerned though, stating that: “If I don’t get in, it’s OK. I’ll still do it.” This is because although there has been a recent surge in arrests related to street busking, it is not indicative of any laws that legally forbid buskers from performing in the subways. Busking in NYC had only been banned from 1935 to 1970, and allegedly, many of the arrests that are being made by police officers are based on such ambiguous offenses as “causing a disturbance”.

MUNY, on the other hand, only helps keep buskers in business by boosting their visibility and protecting them from possibly dubious charges. The auditions offer a total of 20 spots that would allow performers who play at higher volumes to occupy areas of the subway that have high foot traffic. But while buskers are still protected by the First Amendment, break dancers have undergone a lot of scrutiny by the NYPD throughout the past year. A total of 46  break dancers have been charged with “reckless endangerment”  this year alone.

Although many performers will not be able to secure one of MUNY’s 20 lucrative spots and may still face animosity from law enforcement, the street performer advocacy group Busk NY is making efforts to help protect the rights of buskers who have been wrongly ticketed, arrested, and ejected from stations. If you would like to learn more about the rights of buskers and what can be done if you are a busker who has been harassed, visit Busk NY’s My Rights page.

See a video of a talented busker in Morningside Heights and read more from our Cities 101 column.