Subway Singers Serenade for Survival
For solo performer Blake Charleton and jazz trio Moon Hooch, busking is a tax-free, permit-free, and not completely illegal means of making money, not as a supplement to a nine-to-five job, but as a replacement.
Charleton is 26 years old and a member of two bands — Akudama (indie rock) and Glitter Bliss (dance pop) — but it’s his solo work that pays the rent. Monday through Friday, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Charleton plays for his rent and sings for his supper on the east end of the Sixth Avenue L platform.
Blake explained that holding down a normal job had always been hard because of his proclivity toward dropping the work he was being paid to do and picking up his guitar anytime inspiration paid a visit. However, it seems that Charleton found the work ethic that was lacking in those more traditional jobs in busking.
While Charleton treats his daily performances more like a job, Moon Hooch is taking advantage of the flexibility that being your own boss allows, only playing one, two or three nights a week, mostly on Fridays and weekends, in the center of the Union Square L platform, one stop away from Charleton. Moon Hooch is a band comprised of 22-year-old drummer James Muschler and his two tenor sax bandmates, Wenzl McGowen and Mike Wilbur. Even playing as irregularly as they do, the members of Moon Hooch manage to make enough money in tips for each of them to pay their respective $550 rent checks each month, without having to watch them bounce.
When Moon Hooch began playing the subway circuit they had planned to play closer to their Bushwick homes, rather than having to make the trek into Manhattan. “We used to play at the Bedford Avenue stop,” explained Muschler, “but the cops said that the subway was nowhere to party and that if he saw us again, he would arrest us… So we won‘t be playing there for a while.” After being banned from the Bedford Avenue stop, the trio found their place in Union Square, and have been playing with no trouble ever since. Now that it’s colder, Moon Hooch sometimes only makes it to Union Square one or two nights a week. This means playing for several hours on a day they know they can make up that lost time and money. “On Halloween I played for 11 hours straight,” Muschler said. “It was great.”
Muschler describes Moon Hooch’s music as a fusion of improvisational jazz, dance pop and dubstep, which they somehow manage with only a small drum kit and two tenor saxophones. The trio begins playing around 10 p.m. and goes until the wee hours of the morning, and at that time of night, Muschler explains, dance music is what the people want. By the end of the night, on average, they take home between $50 and $100 a piece.
But buskers will find more than just just dollar bills and change in their case at the end of the night. Muschler described finding everything from crystals to Silly Bandz, weed and a small painting in their case at one point or another, and on one occasion even a note that read, “I don’t have any cash but the three of you can call me,” followed by the author’s number.
Charleton earns around $50 a day, most of which comes from his CD sales rather than tips alone. “My rent’s $400 plus a hundred for the practice space, so that’s about $500 a month and I barely make that playing the subway,” says Charleton. Rebelling against the pressure to play popular songs (well-known covers bring in larger tips and more of them), the songs Charleton sings are his own.
However, even with his album sales and tips from busking, Charleton finds himself barely scraping by. “I’m always behind… If I have my last seven dollars I’ll use it on a sandwich as opposed to guitar strings,” says Charleton.
Guitar strings aren’t cheap and for a while Charleton would lose a G string every few days, but ever since a kind stranger tossed a box of nylon strings into his case he has been using those. He explained that though nylon strings aren’t as loud as steel strings, and he has to play a lot harder to get a sound out, they don’t break. Since receiving those strings, he hasn’t had to make the choice between food and playing with all six strings.