Please wear headphones
This audio-ethnography employs field-recordings that are best
engaged in the immersive context of isolated personal listening.

Performances like those found on this recording of Times Square/42nd Street are exceedingly common, but their permissibility with regard to the MTA’s Rules of Conduct is subject to numerous possible interpretations (1/21/2015 Times Square PM 005). Examining some of the specifics of these rules, as well as recorded behaviors that have taken place within the rules’ context will further develop an understanding of the MTA’s sonic biases, and the role that authority figures play within the soundscape of the MTA. While these particular performances are not categorically forbidden, the musicians can each be heard to violate numerous rules, including Section 1050.6 (c-6) which states:

Where an activity permitted by the authorization contained in this section includes the use of a sound production device, no person shall begin or continue the use of such sound production device during any announcement made over the public address system or by a New York City police officer or by an Authority employee. (MTA [6] 2015)

While the MTA officially prioritizes the clarity of of official announcements over personal expression, this earwitness can provide numerous examples of performers disregarding this directive, and no examples of any person in a position of authority intervening. For example, in this recording an enterprising singer/songwriter persists, continuing to promote his repertoire through the duration of station announcements, and even as arriving and departing trains completely obscure his performance (1/21/2015 Columbus Circle PM 004). During peak operating hours, stations with heavy ridership can be found to be subject to increased police presence, as seen in Figure 4. Even as numerous police occupy and patrol these spaces, musicians and other performers typically operate as if with impunity.

Figure 4. January 14th, 2015. Increased police presence is common in high traffic stations during peak operating hours. These three officers patrol 34th Street/Herald Square during the evening commute.

While no recordings sampled for this analysis reveal conflict between public performers and police or Authority staff within the MTA, it should be noted that documented examples of police confronting musicians can easily be found. One such example, a video entitled “Musician arrested for singing in subway,” posted to YouTube in October of 2014 by user Xac Brach, depicts just such an incident (Branch 2014). The video begins well into an exchange between a lone guitar player and an NYPD officer in the sparsely populated Lorimer Street/Metropolitan Avenue G Station in Brooklyn. The busker defends his right to play in the station, and persuades the officer to read aloud from the Rules of Conduct Section 1050.6 (c), which the busker claims grants him the legal standing to continue his performance. The conflict escalates as the busker performs, and adamant that he was correct in assessing the busker’s wrongdoing, the officer calls for backup and forcibly removes the busker from the station amidst calls of derision from a gathering crowd of by-standers.

At play in this YouTube video is the interpretive ambiguity of the MTA’s Rules of Conduct. Seemingly to disavow any responsibility regarding disparate interpretations of the Rules of Conduct by authority figures mired in any given conflict, Paragraph 8 of Section 1050.6 (c) states that “any person using the transit system for nontransit activities permitted pursuant to this rule does so at his or her own risk, and the Authority assumes no liability by the grant of this authorization” (MTA [6] 2015). Police may therefore interpret the letter of the Rules of Conduct to their own satisfaction, and nontransit MTA users assume the risk of that interpretation conflicting with their own. Nonetheless, The general assessment of the risk associated with engagement in nontransit uses of the MTA is apparently extremely low since religious, political, and especially musical performances are constant features of the recordings referenced herein, both within stations (where performances are typically permitted), and aboard train cars (where they are universally prohibited).

It is important to note that the MTA has long supported musical and artistic performances within the subway at an institutional level through Music Under New York (referenced within the MTA by the shorthand MUSIC), a public arts initiative which dates back to 1985. The program schedules musical performances in 30 stations across the system, and provides special permissions to participating artists, such as use of amplification devices and access to electrical outlets (MTA [7] 2015). These MTA authorized performers are chosen via a competitive audition process, and can be identified by banners bearing an official MUSIC insignia. Figure 5 identifies the vocal duo from Times Square as MUSIC participants known as Opera Collective. Although Opera Collective is still subject to much of the same Rules of Conduct as the nearby accordion player, they can lay institutional claim to the space, and they are permitted to assert that claim via the use of an amplified keyboard; a right which unaffiliated performers lack according to Rules of Conduct Section 1050.6 (c-4) which states “the use on subway platforms of amplification devices of any kind, electronic or otherwise is prohibited” (MTA [6] 2015).

Figure 5. January 21st, 2015. (Left) A vocal duo performs at the Times Square/42nd Street Station. (Right) This banner identifies them as official Music Under New York participants.

Understood in this way, performers in the subway can be categorized as institutionally enfranchised or disenfranchised, and the MTA’s sonic phobias not only include restrictions on specific devices and behaviors, but also a diaspora of failed applicants who were unable to progress through the audition process for the MTA’s MUSIC program. In the crowded and sonically competitive acoustic arena of Times Square Station, the accordion player is at an institutional disadvantage to Opera Collective, whose ability to assert acoustic dominance over the space has been privileged as a result of a decision handed down by “a panel of professionals, consisting of representatives from the music industry, cultural institutions, MTA station operations, fellow musicians, and others” (MTA [7] 2015).

The MUSIC program and its audition process can be described as a system of institutionalized sonic favoritism, in which certain artists are able to curry favor with the MTA, and others are not. It is important to note, however, that MUSIC is demonstrably diverse in the musical styles of the performers that it embraces. Far from the perceptibly high-culture aspirations of Times Square’s Opera Collective, Union Square’s MTA station is frequently home to the art-metal outfit known as You Bred Raptors (1/6/2015 Union SQ PM 001), and Grand Central Station can be found to host performances from a prolific local beat-boxer known as Verbal Ase (1/7/2015 Grand Central PM 011), both of whom boast MUSIC banners and official standing with the MTA. It is also important to recall that performers not chosen for inclusion in MUSIC are not barred from performing in the MTA, although they run the risk of confronting diverse interpretations of the Rules of Conduct. Throughout the MTA, sonic actors can be described as participating in power negotiations over acoustic territories, and the MTA is far from neutral, preferring to promote specific performers and behaviors and discourage others, but the affordances given MTA patrons to promote arts and free speech in the subway are substantial. These affordances will fall into sharper relief when the MTA is compared to another busy transit system, and its markedly different soundscape.


  Subterranean Soundcapes © 2015 Jesse Mitchell Lindsey, all rights reserved.
MTA Train Emblems, Image courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority.