What’s a musician worth?

What’s an artist worth? In the case of the Washington area’s regional transit system, apparently not much – if anything at all! The following piece appeared in the June 5 edition of the Washington Post, in the Metro section, page 1, accompanied by a photo of a young man in full-throated (and appropriately fedora-clad) presentation of his take on Michael Jackson. He was described as one of apparently a long line of hopefuls vying for an opportunity at a sanctioned busking gig – entertaining Metro (subway) commuters at busy Metro stations.

Having heard the street corner busking accounts of a number of musicians who’ve gone on to prominence, busking has been a means to attracting a larger audience pretty much since the beginning of time, as well as for some a means of scoring a gig – whether that be some pot-of-gold at the end of their rainbow opportunity, or they were fortunate enough to have been spotted by some socialite or corporate entity in need of good music for a social event (as you’ll see in the piece below was the case for at least one of the interviewed bands). Busking has also been a convenient means of practicing and further developing one’s craft for those with the stones to perform out in the open for a varied public. So busking has long been a useful guerilla performance mode. I get that. I also get that the selected buskers will certainly enhance the Metro riding experience of those with an appreciation for striving artists and their artistry, which just might – dare we say it – increase ridership and attendant transit system largesse!

However there are layers of disturbing elements in this particular Metro system programming effort. First and foremost is the revelation that these artists will not be paid for their services! Yet they’re being auditioned as a means of ensuring quality control? But the real kicker is that, unlike typical buskers, they will also not be allowed to ground their hats, have a nearby bucket or other receptacle, employ an associate to solicit their audience or open their instrument cases for appreciative listeners to express their approval by leaving tips! And I suppose that also includes a ban on onsite CD sales by the buskers as well!?!

Now let’s contrast that with a news item I heard just yesterday; namely that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is reporting a end-of-fiscal-year (June 30) budget SURPLUS of $25M, reportedly the second straight year of budget surplus! And you’re still telling us that you will not pay these musicians you are auditioning and sanctioning for busking gigs at Metro stations, nor will you allow them to solicit tips from appreciative listeners. What a commentary on the value of artistry! Read on, and please leave your take on this in the Comments section.
Performers vie for chance to entertain Metro commuters

Video: On Tuesday, dozens of musicians, dancers, and storytellers competed to perform at DC Metro entrances. A panel of five judges reviewed the talent and will pick 15 winners to entertain crowds at select stations or on the National Mall from June through November. The artists will not be paid and cannot ask for tips, but are still eager to perform.

By Mark Berman and Nicole Chavez
(Published: June 5 in the Washington Post Metro section)

Metro, about to launch a new rail line, has a lot of openings for jobs that pay. And then it has some spots that don’t offer a dime.

Undaunted by the prospect of working for free, dozens of aspiring entertainers turned out for auditions this week at the transit agency’s headquarters, hoping for a chance to sing, dance or otherwise showcase themselves outside Metro stations.
Not only will they see no money from Metro, the chosen performers can’t accept tips, however much they might impress passing commuters.

And before they play a single note, they have to pass a background check and confirm their legal immigration status. Oh, and they will be performing outside, in the heat and humidity that mark summer in Washington.

But a hip-hop dance crew, a 10-year-old guitarist, three preteen sisters and the 60 other aspiring acts knew there was one thing a Metro gig could deliver: an audience from among the hundreds of thousands of daily rail riders.

The singers, dancers, musicians and spoken-word artists auditioned Tuesday night for “MetroPerforms!” The program chooses entertainers to perform at select station entrances.
Metro will notify those who made the cut next week.

The venues aren’t perfect. Commuters tend to be in a hurry, and riders not wearing ear buds end up listening to announcements about delays, elevator outages or weekend track work.

But any audience can be better than no audience.

“There are a lot of people who enter and exit the system,” said Michael McBride, who runs Art in Transit, Metro’s public arts program. “It’s a captive audience almost — they’re moving, but captive.”

MetroPerforms! launched in 2007 and was revived last year after a hiatus. Artists used to receive a stipend that came from local arts councils, but that money dried up. Still, musicians encouraged Metro to bring back the program, McBride said.

John Campbell, a trombone player, practiced “Every Breath You Take” with the other members of his trio while they waited their turn. Campbell said he didn’t know beforehand that the Metro program didn’t pay. “It’s kind of frustrating,” said Campbell, 25, of Northwest Washington. “But I’m still going to try out. Because what I’ve learned over the years is it’s not about the money, it’s about the music.”

Many of those who showed up said they already performed on streets around the District. Campbell said his group was hired to perform at a party after being spotted playing on a street in Adams Morgan.

Even artists with other gigs want to play at Metro stations “just to be seen, be heard,” said cellist Elise Cuffy of Northwest. Cuffy was auditioning with her classical-jazz-funk fusion sextet SynchroniCity, which has performed at Blues Alley and other venues in the area.

“It seemed like they loved us!” she said after the audition.

Performances will occur during lunchtime and the evening commute from June through September. The exact station locations will be determined once the artists are picked next week. Some want to be close to home, while others want high-profile spots, such as Gallery Place and Metro Center.

And after all that, there’s no guarantee that riders will pause outside a station to listen.

“Honestly, I’m not sure if I would stop, because I need to catch my train,” Maggie Sowards of Alexandria said Wednesday outside the McPherson Square station. “I wish them good luck. It takes courage to stand in the heat for that long.”

The hopefuls came with drum kits and guitars, keyboards and a tuba.

Each act was given three minutes to wow a panel of five judges that included McBride and representatives of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and the Kennedy Center. Many performances in the windowless meeting room were interrupted by the same set of questions from the judges: Do you have another song? Will you use a microphone? Can you fill up a full hour?

Robin Smallwood of Southeast, carrying a dictionary and a banana, told the judges she was there “to sing and to inspire.”

Smallwood sang, started a spoken-word selection about the wonders of reading and balanced a dictionary on her head as part of her audition. She said she heard about the event only a few hours earlier, so she didn’t have a chance to pick up her unicycle.

After Nora Kelsall, a 16-year-old from Northwest, played a soothing piece on her harp, the room was still with admiration.

“Can you imagine what your gift will do for someone in the middle of a rough day?” McBride asked her after she finished playing.

Commuters might “appreciate the music,” Kelsall said after her audition. “If they don’t like it, they would keep walking.”

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