The Real New York City Underground

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By Jules Muir

When I was first pitched this idea for a piece on subway musicians, it was slated to be a less in-depth portrait series than the one you will find here. I would ask a few intriguing questions, snap a picture, and be done. It wasn't until after I spoke with the first musician that I realized this wasn’t going to be the case. I had stumbled upon something much bigger, an environment that I couldn’t just cover with a picture and a few pop quiz questions. There were stories to tell here, the individuals and instruments are part of a scene, a complex musical culture dwelling in the underground of New York City.

If you live here you see it every day on your way to work or to school, hopping from place to place on the subway. But you’re a New Yorker, you’re in a hurry, and chances are you walk by, half appreciating the performance, half nonplussed by the all-too-common scene. It’s easy to think of the subway musician as just another cog in the system, but the subway stop is not just concrete, tile, and plaster—it's a stage.

The subway serves as a refuge for those who haven’t made it big, those on the decline, and for those who are still chasing big dreams. It is home to artists in New York who are completely dedicated to their passion but at the same time struggling to get that glimmer of the spotlight. The system is the only place they have to turn to, to stay true to their art, while also receiving some sustenance, both emotional and physical.

It’s not easy, it’s a struggle, and the money is nowhere near consistent. The competition, although friendly, is very real, and the best spots are hard to come by. There’s an unwritten book of rules and a code of ethics. It can be difficult not to step on the toes of other musicians while grinding out a living. It also can be rough, as certain aspects of it are illegal, and moody cops pick and choose when to get in the way. The culture is definitely not for everyone, but everyone has the chance to be a part of it. At any time, on any day, the system offers a simple stage and an audience.

It’s the real New York underground, the unofficial home of New York’s pigeons, musicians struggling to fly in what can be a very harsh music world. I ventured out to take portraits and came back with personal anecdotes of struggles and success.

Here are some musicians that are part of the real New York underground, and these are their stories.

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  • wedges

    awesome piece. newfound appreciation for musicians i’d previously ignored. might actually stop, take out the earbuds and check out what i’ve been missing this whole time

  • http://8tracks.com/byeproxy Jetsfoo

    Very thoughtful piece! It kind of reminds me of the Humans of New York project. Great write-up from a great website!

  • geoduc

    really good stuff this. well done. Makes me want to hear them all. Makes you realize this is part of the treasure of New York. Cops should back the hell off and honor this profession and peeps gots to slow down, listen and reward!

  • yezerman

    Ive seen Moonhooch a few times in parks around NYC, they are so much fun to listen to as a group.

  • Apop

    These guys are great! I heard them play in Chapel Hill. Never knew a sax could make sounds like that