London Underground Calling: Buskers Audition To Play On The Tube Some famous British musicians — George Michael, Rod Stewart, Ed Sheeran — started as buskers. So it's no wonder hundreds of hopefuls are auditioning for a coveted license to play on London's tube.
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London Underground Calling: Buskers Audition To Play On The Tube

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London Underground Calling: Buskers Audition To Play On The Tube

London Underground Calling: Buskers Audition To Play On The Tube

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(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "TOM RYDER - AIN'T NOBODY (CHAKHA KHAN COVER)")

TOM RYDER: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh. Ain't nobody loves me better, makes me...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And it is showtime on London's Tube. More than 300 musicians are auditioning for coveted licenses to play the world's oldest subway system, to practice their craft, make some cash and entertain a potential audience that numbers in the millions. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

TONY MOORE: (Singing) Till touch down brings me round again to find. I'm not the man they think I am at home - oh, no, no, no.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The competition begins around 10 a.m. at the Westminster Tube station, just across from Big Ben. First up, Tony Moore, who played keyboards in an English rock band in 1980s.

MOORE: (Singing) Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone.

MILES SUTTON: (Playing electric guitar).

LANGFITT: He's going up against Miles Sutton, a university student who stares at his shoes as his fingers dance across the neck of his electric guitar; and Vicki Sayers, a 17-year-old high school student from the suburbs.

VICKI SAYERS: (Singing) Country roads, take me home to the place I belong. West Virginia...

LANGFITT: They're all trying to land one of up to a hundred licenses in this sort of Tube's Got Talent. It's a way for London to ensure quality and control the number of buskers. And in this round of auditions, it comes down to three judges who are watching from a table just inside the subway station gates. Vicki Sayers arrives with her amp on a dolly.

SAYERS: I live about an hour away from London. I live in Berkshire, near Windsor Castle. But I'm really trying to get more into London music scene, really. Busking is a really great way to do that.

LANGFITT: She's already played London's Waterloo station, the country's busiest, with their big crowds and hardly any other musicians. Sayers, whose other great passion is economics, explains.

SAYERS: There's a theory could scarcity. And when you play in London Waterloo, you normally have a license and you have to book. And I find that a lot more people stop and listen and enjoy what I'm playing because there's not really anyone else around playing.

LANGFITT: So in Waterloo, you're playing old covers. How much could you make in a couple of hours?

SAYERS: Excess of 60 pounds.

LANGFITT: Or more than $77.

London's Tube has been holding auditions since 2003. Each year, musicians provide more than 100,000 hours of live music in stations according to Tube officials. Judge Tim Frasier, a songwriter, says landing a license takes grit, grace and presence.

TIM FRASIER: We're looking for people to almost be having a little bit of a suit of armor when they're playing. This is not an open mic night. This is not playing for their friends. This is playing against a lot of background noise, so they have to be quite tough and friendly.

LANGFITT: Fellow judge Rita Campbell, a singer-songwriter, points out that some big stars got their start in places like this.

RITA CAMPBELL: Absolutely. I mean, Ed Sheeran started out as a busker - Jessie J., busking; George Michael, busking; Rod Stewart, busking.

LANGFITT: London has suffered three terrorist attacks in the past five months. So music can be a soothing distraction, particularly for riders like Kay from Tottenham, who's watching today's auditions.

KAY: The other week, we was up here, and there was a man playing steel pans. And if you're nervous about traveling and stuff, sometimes it makes you feel, like, distracted and relaxed. So it's handy to have them around.

MARCO FELICI: (Singing) With somebody who loves me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

FELICI: Thank you very much.

LANGFITT: Marco Felici's from Rome. He's been trying to get a Tube busking license for eight years.

FELICI: It is extremely competitive, you know. You have some really, really young kids who deliver some great stuff. So at 36 years old, I have to compete with that, you know - not getting any younger.

LANGFITT: Felici busks on sidewalks, where tourists routinely make requests.

FELICI: It will happen almost every day. They will go like, "Wonderwall." Play "Wonderwall." And so you do it 'cause, you know, you can't be too picky about things when your income depends on that.

LANGFITT: After this morning's auditions, the judges see one clear winner.

CAMPBELL: I've got to say, young Vicki, 17-year-old Vicki was absolutely amazing - loved her. She connected.

LANGFITT: So you think she gets a license?

FRASIER: If I were the big kahuna, I'd give her the license.

SAYERS: (Singing) Country roads, take me home.

LANGFITT: But there are many more auditions to come. The hopefuls won't learn their fate until late September. Vicki isn't wasting any time. Her next performance venue is just outside on the sidewalk, in the shadow of Big Ben.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, the Westminster Tube station in London.

SAYERS: (Singing) Mountain mama, take me...

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