The Freakonomics of Street Musicians


About three years ago I read a book called Freakonomics, a paradigm-shifting expose, by Steven Levett and Steven Dubner.
I was particularly interested in their theory about how abortion lowers the
crime rate, after it ignited a huge controversy in the political world. He also
shows how many drug dealers make no real money, and the reasons real estate
agents never have you in their best interests. After reading it, I found the
real benefit of the book was to see the world in a new way.

Everywhere I go now I question statistics and do my own Freakonomics
experiments. I obsessively read their blog over at the for it unusual take on what really makes the world tick.

I am a Brooklynite and I do not have a driver’s license, so the subway is my way of getting around. So I live in a very iPod world, however one thing that will get me to take off my Sennheiser HD 202s is a good street musician. I live in the part of Brooklyn known for being home to the musicians (Williamsburg) so I have the fortune of riding the subway and seeing a particular tasteful breed of subway musicians (no SRV wannabes), and a crowd that is usually sympathetic to them.
When seeing these talented musicians, I often wonder what they are making in exchange for their talent. As a record producer, I constantly have friends asking me what can they do for money when they are home from tour. So I started to run my own Freakonomics experiment on my commutes. For a month, anytime I would see a subway performer I would make a record of it in my phone in a notepad. Here were my :

-Three Mexican Guys Inside Subway Car: These guys cross my path often, but I don’t get much thrill out of it since it isn’t my thing, as well as the whole language barrier thing. Anyway, these guys generally take two-four minutes to do their show then they move to another car on the subway. Anyway, I would do estimates on them, every time I saw them I would give them 55 cents personally (don’t ask why), I would try to look in the hat and see what others gave. By no means is this an exact science, but I recorded $2.55, $3.55, and $2.55 in the three times I measured.

-Hand Drumming guy AKA Mr. Hands(1 guy playing drums and cymbals without sticks on a modified kit and a ton of talent): I have seen this guy play at the Union Square L train stop twice. He is really good at what he does, and he got a full dollar from me both times. The first time my sample time was six minutes in which he made $9. The second I got 18 min. of his time since the NYC Transit system thinks micromanaging is bad word or something. I estimate he made $29 in that time.

-Three Hippies Covering The Smiths and The Pogues: Same spot as Mr. Hands, much worse smell. I only saw this crew do their thing once, and they were really fun and had the platform singing. My sample time was seven minutes and what I found remarkable was these guys made 75 cents till between the songs when they raked in $8. I didn’t give them any money since all I had was $20′s and I grew up punk and I am weary of that weird gene in people that makes them like the Pogues.

-Really dirty but talented guy playing sax by the N train on 42nd: This guy has the benefit of high traffic and this dude rips on the sax. He has one of those cheesy Roland backing track machines going on in back of him while he slobbers all over the reed for Bob from Accounting and Vicki from Payroll as they walk to the train from the Nokia Theatre after seeing One Republic. Anyway I stood for five minutes at 9:30 and guy raked in AT LEAST $8. I didn’t contribute yet again because all I had was big bills. So let’s do the math here:

The Three Mexicans – These guys made, let’s say, three dollars every three min. Now they have one flaw in their game, it only works from 10 AM-3PM since the subway is too packed for them to work unless they come back after 8PM which is doubtful. Now these entrepreneurs in sombreros may have one up on me and have a spot like the Sax guy where they rake in the big rush hour bucks, or a restaurant gig they are on their way to on the train. Who knows? Lets do worst case scenario: five hours is three hundred minutes so if they are pulling that type of loot, that is sixty dollars an hour divided by three hombres which is twenty dollars an hour tax free, which is pretty respectable.

Handsy- This guy is a real crowd pleaser, so let’s estimate his pay every six minutes is nine dollars, making $90 an hour. He is a one man operation, however I have never seen him operate before 5PM or after 10PM so we are going to also give him the same window as the Mexican guys. With that type of money he doesn’t need to work more then 5 hours a day. Plus, you don’t need a gym membership with that workout.

Three Hippies- I think these guys were an impromptu bunch, but let’s say that was the case and they pulled $68.50 an hour as long as they didn’t bust out a CSNY cover that the hipsters weren’t into. Though you have to divide this up three ways, and I bet these guys weren’t pros and were pulling a 2 hour shift, tops. Not a sustainable living but a fun and awesome way to earn a few bucks.

Sax guy with a prime spot- I was walking by late at night so I am gonna give him the benefit of the doubt and say he makes way more round rush hour. $96 dollars is what I am going to give him since he probably has to pay for that spot since I can see the little license sign and there are always different people there. Regardless, I am sure he does a 5-hour shift, meaning he is making pretty great bank for something he does here and there. Even if it’s a once-a-week stint, that’s a great odd job and earns you a lot more then McDonalds. Also keep in mind these findings are from between Nov-Dec of 08 when everyday the news tells us we are in a Global Financial Meltdown and tons of my friends have been laid off, so people are naturally being a bit stingier with their money. All 4 street musicians/groups I chronicled made a decent amount of cash at this. If you can find a good location, without a lot of people in your act, you can definitely pick up a decent amount of living money doing street music in NYC.

Photo by Flickr user duesxflorida

Jesse Cannon is the editor of Musformation. He produces records at his studio Cannon Found Soundation. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseCannonMusF. For more info please visit his website.