New York Buskers Hold 'Idol'-Style Battle

Each year New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority holds auditions for prime subway performing locations. Fifty performers will vie for 20 spots Thursday, according to director Sandra Bloodworth.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So, if you've been in a New York subway recently, you know, there's a whole lot of sounds going on down there. Trains and people and oftentimes some version of this.

(Soundbite of drums)

MARTIN: That's a busker, or a street musician. They dot the subterranean landscape of the New York subway system, and you know, you might think, oh, they just set up shop wherever they - suits their fancy, put out their hat, take whatever money passersby throw in there. Not so. Like so many things in life, busking is all about location, location, location.

Who gets the top spots in the New York subway system? Well, there's a process. It's not random. These people have to perform, audition, if you will, in front of a panel of judges and an audience. It's kind of like "American Idol" in the subway. It happens every year as part of a program run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or the MTA.

They dole out to the winners these prime spots. This year, 50 performers will vie for 20 spots. It's all happening today, just a couple of blocks from the BPP World Headquarters at Grand Central Terminal. Joining us here in the studio now is Sandra Bloodworth. She's the director of the MTA Arts for Transit Program. Sandra, thanks for coming in.

Ms. SANDRA BLOODWORTH (Director, Arts for Transit Program, New York Metropolitan Transit Authority): Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Good morning. So the program is called Music under New York. When did it start and why? Why did you decide we need to put some regulations on this?

Ms. BLOODWORTH: It started in 1985, and it's really not so much about regulations because, you know, anyone can play in the subway, but about presenting a roster of musicians. Arts for Transit is really, and Music under New York, are presenting arts organization that, if you will, with our Music under New York Program. So, really to give a programming sense to it.

MARTIN: So, that people could - because the people who win these spots, explain what they win.

Ms. BLOODWORTH: You win the opportunity to participate in the program. We have approximately 100 performers at any given time that are in Music under New York. We schedule daily performances at 25 locations throughout the MTA system, the subway, and some of the major rail terminals. And, so you win that opportunity to be scheduled in these particular 25 locations.

MARTIN: And what are some of these prime spots? What are the hot spots in New York?

Ms. BLOODWORTH: Well, of course, we're talking Times Square, we're talking Grand Central, of course, are two of the most popular of the sites.

MARTIN: And, let's talk a little bit about the day's auditions. Like we mentioned, 50 performers today are going to vie for 20 different spots around the subway system. What kind of performers are you expecting to turn out? I mean, do they play everything?

Ms. BLOODWORTH: It's a very interesting day. Today is going to be, in itself, a really remarkable display of talent. Some of the very unique ones we are expecting is a rock harp, sort of heavy metal harp.

MARTIN: Wow.

Ms. BLOODWORTH: A sister act, new-age jazz, cello, blues, and actually a theremin.

MARTIN: I don't even know what that is.

(Soundbite of noise)

MARTIN: Is that what that is? That sounds frightening to me.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Yeah.

Ms. BLOODWORTH: It's that first electronic instrument that's not actually touched by hands.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. BLOODWORTH: And the gentlemen that's auditioning today had actually been - had the opportunity to audition three years in a row, but he never could, because you have to provide your own electrical hook-up, and he's figured that out, and he is auditioning today.

MARTIN: And what are the criteria? What are you looking for?

Ms. BLOODWORTH: We're looking for really three things. We're looking for quality, first and foremost, the best music out there. Variety, a mix of music, and as well as what's appropriate in the subway environment.

MARTIN: I want to continue our conversation if you can stick around with us through the break, Sandra. We're talking with Sandra Bloodworth. She's the director of the MTA Arts for Transit Program.

It's a program designed to profile select artists who are performing, busking, in New York's subway system. We're going to continue our conversation with Sandra after the break. You are listening to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. Don't go away.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Hey there, welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We're online all the time at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm finishing up my conversation with Sandra Bloodworth. She's the director of the MTA Arts for Transit Program here in New York.

It's a program designed to profile and highlight some of the work, the music that is performed in New York subway system. Today, there is an audition. Fifty performers will vie for 20 key spots around the subway system, and we were just talking about the criteria for this audition. Who are the judges, Sandra?

Ms. BLOODWORTH: We have approximately 25 judges that will be there today, and they are a mix of music professionals, as well as inside transit employees that really understand the environment.

MARTIN: And you mention one of the criteria, music that's appropriate for subways. What is inappropriate for the subway system?

Ms. BLOODWORTH: A marching band, for example, might be. You know, we're talking volume and the amount of space they're taking up.

MARTIN: And real quickly, what do you most enjoy about this day?

Ms. BLOODWORTH: You know, it really captures that drive that brings artists and musicians to New York. It's sort of a microcosm of it. You see the hopes and the aspiration and it's a wonderful day of talent and music, and it's just a great time to see this energy.

MARTIN: It's one of my favorite things about living in the city, I've got to say. It's the spontaneous moment when you find an act right there on the subway. You never, it just brightens your day.

Ms. BLOODWORTH: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, thank you for coming in. Sandra Bloodworth is the director of the MTA Arts for Transit Program. We appreciate you coming in today. Thank you. Before we move on, we're going to get the news headlines from the BPP's Mark Garrison.

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