By Kid Reporter ALEXIA ALMONTE, age 11
Have you ever stopped to enjoy music played by a street musician? Did you know that many of them are harassed by the police, told to move, given tickets and sometimes arrested? IndyKids spoke with Todd Grunder about his life as a street musician. He plays bass for the doo wop group Acapella Soul.
How many times have you been harassed by police officers?
I’ve been doing it for three years; we probably had to move 20 or 30 times in those three years. We work every day.
What is it like when they approach you?
They usually will just come up to us and say you guys have to go. The other day a cop said we were blocking the sidewalk and had to move. We took it in stride because we only play for a couple of hours. We weren’t really in anybody’s way. That was the most recent situation. We got run off from Lexington and 53rd two days in a row, but when we get run off we just find another place to go. We don’t give a hard time to any of them.
How did you feel when this happened?
Well, it depends on the police officer’s attitude, there’s nice cops and not so nice ones. If they treat us nice we’re cool, we’ll move on. Some of them have an attitude. A couple of times I was with people that were arrested. I’ve been given a summons but never arrested for playing the bass.
Have you seen an increase in harassment of yourself and other musicians?
I have seen an effect. The first year I played with one of the Doo Wop groups we played under the arch in Washington Square Park, but now no one is allowed under the arch. It’s a landmark—you have to be within a certain number of feet from the arch. The fine for playing under the arch is $250—that’s more than other places, and for some musicians that could be a week’s worth or work. If they fine you a second time it’s $1,000.
I know a guy that kept coming back to Central Park. He was in the paper, because he racked up thousands of dollars but he did it as a protest. Central Park has “quiet zones” that you can’t play in, the only place you can play now is in the bandshell, but you can’t make money over there, because there’s no real traffic.
We have several spots that are worth it because they attract a lot of tourists. We sometimes play in front of the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum and we always get a crowd but now they’re running us off and we’re afraid that in the spring we won’t be able to play. The Parks Department employees tell us to move. They’re usually nice, but they do tell us to move.
Why do you think they are making it so difficult for musicians right now?
It’s kind of a mystery, I don’t know what the big deal is. They’ll say were blocking pedestrian traffic but that’s not really true. I don’t know why they don’t want live music on the streets.
Do you think that the police are trying to project a certain image of the city to tourists?
Some tourists come to the city just to see things like musicians and different kinds of street acts. It brings in tourist money. Maybe these cops need something to do. They’re getting paid so maybe they have to do something to give the impression that they’re busy, but I’m not sure why they would harass artists.
Is the musician’s union or other groups fighting back against police harassment?
I don’t know that much about that, I’m not participating in it, or haven’t heard about it. I’d participate if I knew what was going on.
What will happen in the future to street musicians?
It seems the way things are headed that musicians will only be able to play in the Central Park bandshell unless they’re with MUNY [an MTA program where musicians have permits to play and a designated spot in the subway system]. My group is not in MUNY right now but we hope to try to get a MUNY spot, MUNY has a couple hundred musicians. They don’t let anyone play in your spot if you’re with MUNY, even if you’re not there that day. They will definitely move you out of the MUNY spots even if they’re empty, I don’t know why.
Do you think musicians should have to have permits?
No, of course not. The MUNY program is fine and they should have it, but they should leave people alone and let them play unless there are complaints. If we were playing in front of a residential building and there were complaints I would understand, but we don’t play in residential areas and everyone enjoys it.
I think we even make the street safer. A couple of years ago the guys from Acapella Soul saved a guy who fell onto the [subway] tracks. They were there to see it and they pulled him out of the tracks, it was in the newspaper. Also one day we were at the museum and a guy was acting unusual, and the next thing you know he was lighting a bag on fire. We put the fire out and ran him off. Afterwards, the parks cops came and dealt with him, but we were the first ones who saw what was happening and we stopped it. If someone falls or is lost or is getting attacked we usually help. We’re helpful people, we’re not bad people. We don’t use any amplification. It’s just voices and upright bass so it’s not too loud. I don’t see what the harm is and I think they should just leave artists who are not disturbing anyone alone and let us make a living.