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Musicians Underground

By Nathan J. Heller, Crimson Staff Writer

The December sky darkens as a stream of commuters in the Square tramples snow into slush and crowds the slippery steps of an escalator descending into the T station. They reassemble on the outbound platform, glancing at the tracks as an Alewife-bound train rumbles above. For a moment, the station falls silent. Then at once there is music, echoing off the crimson tiles and turning heads toward the rear of the platform.

Jerry McNamara sits on a ledge set into the platform wall, an accordion resting on his lap and a gray tweed hat hiding his downward-cast eyes from the pedestrian traffic. His fingers fly over the keys of his instrument as he embellishes a medley of holiday carols, tapping his foot beside a case scattered with coins and bills.

A 10-year veteran of public performance, McNamara has come to know well the trials and demands facing a subway musician in greater Boston. But this season, he and hundreds of others who play under the city for a living came close to facing strong limitations to their professions.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) announced a set of new regulations for subway musicians last month—including a ban on amplification and certain acoustic instruments—that would have constrained many performers and forced others to leave their underground stages entirely.

But late last week, after a wave of protest and activism from musicians, students and political leaders, the MBTA severely scaled back the regulations, reneging all but a few of the original provisions.

“It’s a big step in the right direction,” says John Bigelow, a classical guitarist who discussed the musicians’ concerns with the MBTA directly. “It was very gratifying that the MBTA was willing to open up to the input and negotiations in a way that should have been endemic to the process from the beginning.”

For musicians such as McNamara, the modified regulations allay their worst fears, making it possible for them to pursue an art—and a living—hard won under any circumstances.

“It’s not rewarding,” McNamara explains in his rich brogue during a pause in his performance. “You earn every penny you get here, and sometimes you don’t get very many.”

Battle for the Subway Stage

The community of Boston-area street and subway performers is a tight one, as many musicians come into contact with each other on a regular basis in both professional and social capacities.

But until last month, they had little incentive to convene in a single locale. A Nov. 19 meeting that filled the Middle East café in central Cambridge was the first group assembly for many of the subway performers, and the first major step in a response to the MBTA announcement that caught many performers entirely off guard.

A week earlier, the MBTA representative Transit Realty Associates had sent more than 600 Boston-based performers a letter announcing 27 new regulations. Musicians were to follow the provisions beginning Dec. 1.

The regulations addressed facets of street performance ranging from sound volume to dress code. Electronic amplification—vital for musicians accustomed to performing on electronic instruments or providing several continuous hours of vocal performance—was banned entirely, as were “trumpets and trumpet-like instruments.”

The MBTA said there was concern over passengers’ ability to hear announcements over the subway public address systems, and to function in the case of an emergency, with performers nearby.

For some, such as Jonathan Fixler, who regularly performs at Alewife station with electric guitar and tape loops, the precautions seemed unreasonable given the poor sound quality of most P.A. systems found in the subway stations.

MBTA spokesperson Lydia Rivera said examination of the speaker systems would be necessary before the new regulations could be taken to their final stages.

“We would have to ensure that our announcement system is well up to par,” she said early last week.

Fixler said that in principle, he could have taken up an acoustic repertoire. But to do so would have required a compromise of his artistic sensibilities.

“That’s not what I do,” he said. “It wouldn’t be me.”

Come Together

The Middle East meeting drew more than musicians themselves to Cambridge. Concerned activists and subway riders joined the assembled crowd—anticipating an activism effort bubbling up from several sectors of the local community.

And according to executive director of the Community Arts Advocates Stephen H. Baird, who organized the meeting and related activism, the musicians could use all the help they could get.

“It’s not just a musical issue,” he told the crowd. “Some people will become homeless because of this issue. Others will just be silenced.”

Andrew J. Conrad ’05, who recently finished a documentary film about the street musicians’ struggle titled Notes From the Underground, also suggested that the new regulations may have countenanced motives beyond those cited in the MBTA’s explanation.

“It just seemed very interesting that when push came to shove, things were as much dress code-oriented as they were volume-oriented,” Conrad says. “It seemed there was a difference between what the MBTA was saying and the motives behind it.”

Administrators presented the regulations as one component of several recent MBTA responses to safety concerns ensuing from the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Conrad said he did not understand why such regulations should go into effect 793 days after the crisis.

“What do these regulations really mean?” he asks in his film. “Do they mean a woman can’t wear a tie or a man can’t wear a dress? Do they mean you can’t wear white after Labor Day?”

Baird and his subway-musician colleagues didn’t want to find out. During their preliminary organizational meeting at the Middle East, they scrambled to stall the regulations before the Dec. 1 deadline fell. They designated six subcommittees to manage everything from legal action to fundraising.

Next, they worked to bring their grievances to the public forum. Seeking the media attention that could catapult their concerns to the dockets of local leaders, they secured a total of more than 15,000 endorsements for a petition demanding redress and organized public rallies. They left letters and phone calls for MBTA officials and local leaders, and began taking decibel readings in the subway in an effort to disprove the MBTA’s supposition that subway performance was dangerously loud.

But activism was not confined to the world outside Harvard’s gates. Last week, with cooperation from several Harvard undergraduates, Conrad and his classmate Edward A. Couch ’05 organized a “call-in,” enabling about 100 undergraduates to phone the MBTA and the governor’s office from portable phones near their dining halls.

“We took cordless phones from people’s rooms, we put the antennas pointed out the window, and then we handed out the phones in the courtyard,” he explains.

Conrad, who describes himself as empathetic to the challenges facing administrators of a system as large as the MBTA, says he especially wanted an explanation for the sudden imposition of new regulations on the musicians—an explanation, he says, that was not forthcoming.

Ultimately, efforts from the student community, the musicians and local political leaders—most notably Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, D.-Mass.—proved effective. The Dec. 1 deadline was deferred a week, and Baird and his colleagues secured a meeting with Barrios and MBTA General Manager Michael Mulhern to work toward a resolution.

Mutual Benefit

That resolution came late last week in the form of a compromise with the MBTA that assuaged almost all of the musicians’ initial grievances, leaving only a few contentious points.

In a press conference on Dec. 3, the MBTA presented a modified version of the initial regulations that had emerged from negotiations.

Subway performers now have until the end of the month to acquire a $25 performance permit valid for one year. They cannot perform at a volume of more than 80 decibels, measured at 25 feet, and must stop performing before 11 p.m. The instrument ban has also been scaled back to include drums and trumpets alone.

The MBTA established a review board to which both musicians and MBTA staff members can report future complaints.

Both Baird and Bigelow, who participated in the final negotiations, say they are generally pleased with the compromise’s provisions.

“The MBTA was quite amenable to what we had to say,” Bigelow says.

Still, musicians say the provisions are far from perfect.

The subway musicians continue to lobby against the ban on trumpets and drums, the performance curfew, and the exclusion of key venues from a list of designated performance spots: benches, pillars and station walls which are now marked with official stickers.

“In some of the stations, [the designated areas are] in out-of-the-way performing places,” McNamara explains. Attracting the attention of an audience in such locations can be virtually impossible, he says.

Despite such lingering concerns, Baird says he thinks the compromise will ultimately benefit all parties.

“I’m pleased for the T, I’m pleased for the artists, and I’m grateful to the public’s support for the issue,” he says.

‘A Repeating Cycle’

Disagreement between the MBTA and local musicians did not begin this November. Rather, the performers’ relations with local authorities have fluctuated broadly over the past quarter-century.

“There has been a repeating cycle of antagonism and appreciation between the subway musicians and the city,” Conrad says.

University of Massachusetts music and ethnomusicology student Lauren Ingram is finishing her thesis on local street and subway musicians. The project, which combines a photoethinography, a CD of subway performance and stories from individual performers, centers on the dynamics of musician-audience interaction.

During her research, Ingram has become well versed in the history of Boston’s subway music.

A police regulation established in the 1970s allowed street performance but made collection of tips illegal, producing a hostile environment for performers such as Baird, who was arrested in the late 1970s—in the company of his audience—for performing on Boston Common.

But the tides were already turning. Michael S. Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, created the Music Under Boston program to fund live performances in the subway and, in some cases, hire musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to perform.

But in 1982 the program no longer funded musicians, and by 1985 it had collapsed entirely.

Two years later, musicians formed the Subway Arts Guild, which set in place provisions for performance. Musicians would receive a free permit every 90 days and would claim venues on a first-come-first-serve basis (excluding the Harvard Square station, for which they vied by coin toss), according to Ingram.

Since then, the musicians’ rapport with the city has been tenuous at best.

The MBTA briefly experimented with playing festive Muzak over the P.A. system in 1989, and by 1993 the organization was looking into placing cable televisions in the subway—a prospect that would have made musical performance virtually impossible.

Today, the MBTA’s apparent perception of subway musicians stands in stark contrast to that of New York City, which, following Sept. 11, sponsored subway musicians to re-enter the subways because of the confidence their presence inspired in commuters, Baird says.

Ingram says that while the compromise between the musicians and the MBTA reached last week represents a positive step in the relationship between performers and local leadership, the musicians still face several difficult standards.

“I think there’s a lot of positive points, but I think there’s some things that need to be changed,” she says.

The new system, which requires all permit applicants to submit a residential address, makes subway performance impossible for roaming or homeless performers. The program also carries no provisions for musicians visiting from other cities, Ingram says—many of whom bring vibrancy to Boston’s underground music scene.

According to Conrad, it’s that vibrancy that continues to pique interest in the musicians’ work among commuters and students alike.

“The subway really is a part of the soul of the city, and it offers something that you cannot get in other venues for playing,” he says. “When you get down to it, the subways are breeding grounds for good music.”

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at

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