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Subway Musicians Must Audition for Choice-Spot Permits in N.Y.

Entertainment: A panel of judges doles out two-week gigs to performers, who can earn as much as $60 an hour. The program aims to improve the quality of rides.


NEW YORK — Is it any wonder it's so hard to get to Carnegie Hall? In New York City, you have to audition just to play in the subway.

Under a program started in 1985, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority issues two-week permits to performers for choice spots underground where they can entertain commuters.

Musicians who play everything from accordion to zither are more than willing to jump through the bureaucratic hoop. After all, they can get as much as $60 an hour in loose change and the occasional bill from passersby.

"When you're at 34th Street and the A train comes by and you're playing 'Take the A Train,' the bucks come rolling in," said Stu Chernoff, a 46-year-old virtuoso on the washtub bass.

The annual program was started to improve the quality of a subway ride.

In truth, there are a lot of musicians performing in the subways without a permit. And generally the police do not bother them unless they are jeopardizing safety or otherwise creating a nuisance.

But the MTA-issued permits allow performers to use amplifiers so they can be heard above the roar of the trains. The permits also give the entertainers the best spots, where they can safely and comfortably play to big crowds. Also, they get to hang a "Music Under New York" banner.

"It's a quality symbol," said one of the talent judges, Erica Shupp, an agent for classical musicians. The judges include transit agency managers and professionals in the entertainment industry.

On any given day, about 100 performers or ensembles with MTA permits are performing in the subways. Auditions are held once a year, in May, but once an artist wins approval, he or she can keep getting permits just by asking.

This year's auditions were held at Grand Central Terminal, with artists playing such instruments as tuba, guitar, sitar and accordion. A 10-member polka band waited its turn. The 90 invited to perform had been pared from about 500 who mailed in tapes and videos.

"Playing in the subway is like fishing," Chernoff said. "You know they're swimming by, but you have to get them out of the stream. So it's like, how do you get the bucks out of the pockets?"

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