When James Muschler is seriously engaged in creating an artistic piece of music, he has been known to compose 40-minute-long pieces simulating 4 billion years of Earth's history based on biological fossil records. But sometimes, he just needs to pay the rent. That's when Muschler, a 20-year-old drummer, composer and New School music student, hits the streets of New York to play jazz or drum-and-bass with his friends in Washington Square Park.
"I've been on a street-performing binge," Muschler said on a recent summer evening as he took a break from playing with two other musicians, saxophonist Wenzl McGowen and keyboardist Jacob Bergson.
The beautiful weather had drawn hundreds of people to Washington Square Park, including several groups of musicians who had picked spots at well-spaced distances from one another so they could all play and work their trade without getting into each other's way. A steady flow of appreciative listeners kept dropping money in open guitar or brief cases, and every now and then, bands would stop playing to check out their competition.
When asked if their three-piece group had a name, Muschler answered: "This is just us, basically, playing on the street. It's better than working a real job. There's a strange musicians-hustlers vibe going here."
A long tradition
Street performing, also known as busking, is a centuries-old tradition that's been around since the days of wandering minstrels and poetry-spouting bards. The tradition continues now, all over the world, and street performers from way back then until today have found busking to be a quick and easy way to earn some cash.
"And you have to make friends with the cops," McGowen said, noting that in his experience, the police at Washington Square are generally friendlier toward street performers than the officers on Union Square, a few blocks away.
On a good day, when he and his traveling drum kit are really hitting it right, Muschler can earn as much as $70 to $80 in change collected from both passersby and people who stay to listen. How did he get started as a street performer? "It's simple," Muschler said. "I just started going out on the streets and playing. I realized I could kill two birds with one stone by practicing music all day while earning some money at the same time. It's really fun to play outside, plus you get the exchange with people. And now I'm paying my rent, so I'm out here more."
Muschler is such a pro by now that he was showing Bergson the street-performing ropes that night. Bergson, whose play on his first night out involved blowing into a little melodica, said they were doing a drum-and-bass set because it seemed to pay better than jazz.
A new friend to the three musicians, Miriam Taylor, sat on a nearby bench and listened as they played. Taylor, a young woman from Oxford, Miss., who is spending her summer as an intern at Rolling Stone magazine and living in a New York University dorm room, said she often likes to spend her evenings eating dinner in the park and hanging out with the street performers there.
And while some of the musicians have been there for years, she said, others just play for their next meal: "I have a friend who just took his guitar out here one day and earned enough money to buy himself dinner."
A busker's life
Want to know more about busking as a street performer? Check out these sites:
- Busker World. This insider's guide to busking provides a history of street performance, busking hot spots, etiquette tips and loads of other essential information.
- Street Arts and Buskers Advocates. This advocacy site lays out loads of news, links, legal citations, references and directories for street performers.
- NYC Musician or Performer Permit. This New York City government site describes in detail when buskers do and don't require a permit.