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Queens Chronicle

Subsisting on songs in the subways

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Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009 12:00 am

Making a living as a street musician isn’t easy, but Matthew Nichols says he doesn’t know what he’d do if he gave it up.

“It’s not a glamorous life, that’s for sure,” Nichols said. “I’ve wanted to stop ever since I started. But it’s like a drug.”

Nichols, who lives in Astoria, spends several hours most days playing the guitar in subway stations around the city.

Performing in public spaces — or busking — was a lucrative vocation when Nichols took it up five years ago. At that time, he often took home $200 in a day. Now, he usually makes less than half that amount. To supplement his income, Nichols gives guitar lessons and sometimes plays in restaurants and bars — but even that is barely enough to get by on, even with a spartan lifestyle.

Money isn’t the only problem; the cops also present challenges. Playing in subway stations isn’t legal unless you have a permit from the city, and since Nichols doesn’t have one, he often gets slapped with hefty fines.

He said he’s fed up with Music Under New York, the entity that doles out permits. MUNY issues 100 permits each year, based on auditions, and their decisions often don’t reflect musical skill, Nichols thinks.

“They give you permission if you have a goofy gimmick, but not necessarily if you have real talent,” he said.

After testing out dozens of subway stations around the city, Nichols has figured out which ones are frequented by commuters with deep pockets — and which ones have less police activity. Some of his favorite stops are Times Square and the 59th Street station on the Lexington Avenue line. Queens stations, he says, aren’t as lucrative.

But even at “good” stations, there are hassles. Ironically, other performers are one of the biggest frustrations, because there are a lot of them and because they can be territorial and even threatening.

“It’s hard to find a spot,” Nichols said. “A lot of times it’s these really horrible musicians taking up the really good spots.”

Busking isn’t all bad though. Nichols writes his own music and finds it gratifying to play.

“I like knowing that people enjoy listening to me play,” he said, adding that the responses he sometimes gets from children can be priceless.

“What kind of guitar is that?”a little girl asked him once. Nichols, whose instrument doesn’t look like a normal guitar but is instead an open frame with strings, replied, “It’s a guitar from the future.”

“She said, ‘What’s the future?’ and I said, ‘Next week, next month.’ Then she goes, ‘How did you get to the future?’, and I said, ‘In my time machine.’ She said, ‘Where did you get a time machine?’ and I said, ‘I built it,’ and then she just walked away.”

Nichols has written a book called “Underground: My Life as a New York City Subway Musician,” which he sells, along with CDs of his music, whenever he is out busking.

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