Weak Economy Drives New York Musicians Underground

May 23, 10:05 AM (ET)

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Brother, can you spare a dime?

With jobs hard to find in the city's weak economy, a number of New Yorkers are opting to play music and pass the hat underground in hopes of making ends meet.

"That's my story. I was a corporate guy before 9/11 and I got downsized," said Scott Samuels, one of about 60 performers who auditioned on Thursday for a "Music Under New York" permit that allows musicians to play on subways and train platforms without getting shooed away or ticketed by police.

About 20 of them will be selected to join more than 100 performers who now hold the coveted permits, issued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Samuels played Queen's rock-operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody" on acoustic guitar, Jim Pegg hammered his xylophone and bongos, a quartet of carolers sang "Jingle Bells" and a "fem-folk" trio said they hope to break out of the coffeehouse, church and library circuit.

Laid off 18 months ago and unable to find enough freelance work of late, copy editor Jonathan Gregg hauled his pedal steel guitar to Grand Central Terminal to audition.

"I need to make money. I'm broke these days," he said.

Former custodian Terry Witter of Brooklyn tapped out rhythms on a West African drum. Unable to work full-time due to disability, he said money from passing a hat in the subways would come in handy.

"Things are a little tough. If I could get $20, $25, it would make a difference," the father of three said.

Jazz musician Ken Best, playing trumpet and synthesizer, said he moved to New York thinking he could get plenty of work playing in restaurants but found opportunities few and far between. Best has already been playing in the subway system but, without a permit, he got two tickets from police and was ordered off a train platform the day before the audition.

Natalia Paruz, who has played a musical saw in the subways for a decade, was on hand to offer advice to those who want to perform underground amid rushing crowds and roaring trains.

"You need guts. You have to put up with weird people, drunks and crazy people," she said. "And you have to be good so people rushing on their way will stop and listen."