Arts Desk

Listen Local First Takes Issue With Metro’s Call for Non-Busking Performers

For the most part, musicians in D.C. have the same opportunities to make a living as their peers in other cities. One notable exception: They can't busk in the Metro.

They can, however, perform at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority station entrances from time to time as part of the agency's Art in Transit program. They just can't ask for tips.

Tonight, WMATA will hold auditions for local musicians, and those who pass muster will be invited to perform at Metro entrances as well as on the National Mall for a performances series running through September. The auditions will take place at WMATA headquarters on 5th Street NW from 5 to 7 p.m. on a “first-come, first-served basis.” According to a press release from last Friday, “Selected artists will perform on a volunteer basis and are expected to adhere to performance guidelines set by Metro.”

When asked about the goal of the program, Cathy Asato, a WMATA spokesperson, defined it simply: "to provide some entertainment at our station’s entrances.”

But Listen Local First, an advocacy group whose mission includes expanding economic opportunities for local musicians, isn't pleased with Art in Transit's execution. After the Listen Local First posted the WMATA press release on its Facebook page, the group received about a dozen comments from local musicians unhappy with the upcoming auditions and WMATA's guidelines, which prevent artists from selling their merchandise and from collecting tips.

“We got a ton of responses from local musicians that were really upset about this,” says Naoum. “It’s a great idea but the actual implementation is wrong.”

Naoum sent a letter outlining his objections to Michael McBride, Metro’s Art in Transit program director, and to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped develop the Music on the Mall program along with Metro and the National Park Service:

First, we are concerned about the time-frame and lack of notice given for this event.  If the goal of this program is to exhibit the most talented and diverse musicians this city has to offer, WMATA must account for the busy schedules of many of these professionals and allow for more notice for submissions.  Due to the short notice provided, we believe WMATA has not taken the schedule of some of these artists into consideration.

Second, we believe an audition is not the correct way to select musicians for this event.  WMATA is dealing with professional musicians who have recorded content and have created an online presence (including video).  A selection committee should be assembled and tasked with judging artists' submissions on a list of objective qualifications.

Finally, if WMATA cannot afford to compensate musicians that participate in the program this year, then it should allow musicians to advertise their performance schedules, sell merchandise and collect tips from the public within the Metro.  Simply advertising musicians on WMATA's website, as proposed, is not enough compensation and discredits the hard work that these individuals have put into their profession.

WMATA isn't about to budge on busking. "There’s been a longstanding rule that panhandling is not allowed in the system," says Asato.

Naoum tells Arts Desk he would like for the auditions to be tabled. “We’ll be happy to sit down and have a forum next week—bring a bunch of musicians in and reassess their policies on tips and merch.”But if the auditions do go forward as planned—which they almost certainly will—Naoum says he still feels that WMATA policies can be changed.

In the meantime, “maybe we’ll go down there this evening,” says Naoum, “I’m interested to see who shows up to this.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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