The Non-Expert

The Unwritten Code of Subway Performers, Written

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we reveal the unspoken rules that govern the work, relationships, and processes that take place every day amongst the city’s many subway musicians, ventriloquists, acrobats, and the like.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: So when you see all these subway musicians making money from tips, do they actually have to pay taxes on the money they make? Is any of what they do under the government’s jurisdiction? —Keith

Answer: While there certainly are laws that describe what a subway performer can and cannot do, the vast majority of the rules are part of a code of ethics passed from generation to generation of subway performers, unknown by any outside their tight-knit group. That is, until now.

Municipal Subsection D: Subway Performances

Chapter 1: Types of Performers Covered

This document covers: all those who perform anywhere within city subway stations, including but not limited to: musicians, comedians, caricaturists, jugglers, pantomimes, dancers, those pretending to be statues, contortionists, cowboy rope-twirlers, magicians, fire-eaters, and tumblers, as well as groups assembled thereof.

This document does not cover: Falun Gong activists and live sex performers (Yonkers only).

Chapter 2: Performance Spaces

Performance spaces are defined as any and all subway areas in which performers may conduct their acts for appreciation by an audience of passersby.

Section 2.01: Allowable Venues

Areas zoned for performances are limited to: subway stations and platforms

Areas not zoned for performances include: subway trains; station elevators, stairs, and banisters; police stations; and control rooms and switch closets.

Areas where performances are strictly prohibited include: abandoned/haunted subway lines. (Note: Busker insurance rarely covers excorcism.)

Section 2.02: Securing a Venue

A performer may choose any area zoned for performance and claim it for the duration of his/her act. Should another performer already occupy said performance space, the new performer must either seek out another acceptably zoned space in which to perform, or wait until the current performance is announced as complete to take over the space.

Should a performer attempt to evict another performer from the space via jeering, bribery, extortion, threats, performing at or within earshot of or view of the space anyway in order to drown out or upstage the other performer, or any other kind of assault, physical, verbal, or artistic, that performer shall face a municipal fine of $5,000 or one day’s donations, whichever is larger.

Section 2.03: Demonstration of Precedence

In the case that two or more performers claim entitlement to an area, “This is always my spot” qualifies as acceptable demonstration of precedence with confirmation of, “Yeah, I always see him/her here,” from one (1) passerby.

Section 2.04: Arbitration

Should precedence (and thus entitlement) be disputed, and further arbitration be required for the performers to agree on whether entitlement exists, performers may agree to request that passersby in an uneven number greater than one participate as arbiters in their dispute. Each performer will have the option to review the qualifications of the passersby, according to the following criteria:

—Music/art appreciation
—General attractiveness
—Amount of time to kill
—Annual household income

This approved jury will confer upon the matter until one of their number notes, “This is my train,” or excuses himself/herself to “get to a meeting,” at which point the passerby-selection process will renew so they may again assemble an uneven number of jurors, and thus ensure a decisive verdict in the dispute.

Performers in dispute and arbiters should be advised the station/platform arbitration process may take multiple days to complete. In such cases, dispute participants must secure their own room and board, and should know that such participation in no way affects their jury-duty status.

Section 2.05: Sharing a Venue

Should the occasion arise, solo performers who arrive at the same performance space may agree to combine their acts and share the performance area.

All performance combinations are allowed, except for the following, which is strictly prohibited: groupthink.

Chapter 3: The Performance

Section 3.01: Attire

Performer attire should be in accordance with the type of act being performed. That is, clowns must wear clown outfits and clown makeup, magicians, male or female, must wear tuxedos (rented or owned, but not a “tuxedo shirt”), mariachis must wear sombreros and ponchos, and mandolin players must have on some sort of ruffled shirt.

Section 3.02: Questionable Repertoires

Should a performer’s repertoire be deemed “questionable” by at least five (5) audience members, he or she may be subject to immediate eviction by any other performer (or an audience member who at least “knows a few chords/how to look like he or she is levitating/’Ave Maria’”).

Signs that a repertoire may be questionable include, but are not limited to, the following:

1) An inability or refusal to play any song not in a minor key. (An ever-repeating set list of “Wild Horses,” “Space Oddity,” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” is an example.)

2) Foot-stomping (a.k.a. clog-dancing)

3) Stopping a song when a train arrives, then starting it from the beginning when the train leaves, then stopping when another train arrives, etc., lending belief that the performer knows only one song—but not how it ends.

4) Singing along, but loudly, with the popularly recorded version of a song

5) Scientologists

Important Note: This list is always subject to addition. Call the county clerk’s office should you require an updated list, or keep in mind that if a repertoire is thought to be questionable, it probably is.

Section 3.03: Interacting With the Audience

When interacting with the audience, performers may: 1) exchange pleasantries, and 2) accept donations.

When interacting with the audience, performers may not: 1) refuse performance in order to coax encore requests, or 2) demand an additional “processing fee” for donations.

Chapter 4: Revenue & Taxation

Section 4.01: Definition of Taxable Revenue

Two types of performer revenue are eligible for taxation: 1) That revenue which is remunerated through CD/manifesto/signed-photo sales; and 2) that revenue which is received through complimentary donations by the audience.

Note: Donations not eligible for taxation include foreign currency, transfer passes, and other obvious refuse.

Section 4.02: Reporting Revenue

All monies defined as taxable revenue must be reported to the federal, state, and city governments. However:

Should a performer choose to place any monies into his/her instrument case/hat/meringue-mannequin carry-all in order to create the belief that others have already donated, these monies are post-tax dollars and thus are not eligible for re-taxation. Performers are advised to separate these monies from reported revenue, but should be advised they can forgo this step if they request additional tax forms to estimate such bait money for each subsequent tax year.

Section 4.03: Tax Exemptions

The following expenditure is considered exempt from taxation:

—Empty plastic buckets for use as percussive instrumentation.

However: Percussionists using empty plastic buckets may, following claim of bucket exemption, be sought for investigation to ensure buckets are being used to perform music and not interminable rhythms that “sound cool.” Investigators may transcribe performances and later require bucket percussionists to sight-read such transcriptions beat for beat. A panel of judges will be assembled from one or all of the following—the New York Philharmonic, the Blue Note, and the Knitting Factory—to determine the merit of the performance.

Note: The city takes a zero-tolerance policy toward drum circles. You have been warned.


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack