Musicians in the MBTA: Singing and Playing For Love and Money

The mission of subway musicians might seem simple: attract attention, entertain, and make sure to leave a receptacle for donations.

But despite what seems a large emphasis on money, most subterranean virtuosos say the meager cash rewards are not enough to keep them keepin on.

Rick Quincy, 27, a guitarist who frequents the State Street station, says his audiences have shown their appreciation with everything from popcorn to peanuts to cigarette butts.

Another guitarist, who would only identify himself as Bob, says the work is not lucrative. What draws him underground, he says, is the simple pleasure of making a difference to his listeners.

"I used to love playing love songs if a couple was having a fight....They'd walk out kissing and holding hands," he says.


Bob says some of his listeners have even been moved to make to make romantic moves on him.

"In the 70s, women used to ask me out a lot," he says. "That doesn't happen anymore in the day of AIDS."

"The negative thing about it is when I sing a beautiful song and people turn their back to it....The opposite of a standing ovation is a backside," says Bob, who is 42 and lives in a "low-income Boston neighborhood."

Many musicians echoed Bob's remarks that they are performers first, and businesspeople second. They say that tips are often few and far between, especially during the months of January and February when the "giving spirit" freezes.

As Bob says, "In January and February, it's horrible down here. It's a nightmare."

Still, the musicians, many of whom are otherwise unemployed, take advantage of their talent as best they can. This involves laying our their cases for tips, and also organizing to ensure fair treatment from subway officials.

"I started out with all sorts of wonderful ideals. Now I do it because it's enough money to put me over the edge," says Nathan Phillips, who plays at Park Street with banjoist Cliff Wagner.

According to Stephen H. Baird, founder of the Subway Artists Guild, the MBTA used to arbitrarily eject musicians from stations. Baird says he began the Guild to stop this sort of harassment.

"It's always been our contention that the T is a public forum," says Baird, who organized the Guild under the umbrella of the Folk Arts Network. "It got to where almost no one could play."

Baird says the MBTA would distribute permits, but would often fail to honor them. "There was no official T policy; there were conflicting ways that they dealt with it," he says.