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MBTA Will Allow Amplified Music in Subway

Trumpets and Drums Still Banned; Musicians Limited to Certain Performance Areas

By Jenny Zhang


Following widespread public opposition, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has modified its Subway Performers Program Policy to allow for the use of amplifiers at a limited decibel level rather than banning them altogether.

Massachusetts Senator Jarrett T. Barrios had heard complaints from his constituents about the ban on amplifiers and spoke with Michael H. Mulhern, the general manager of the MBTA, who agreed to delay the ban for a week to allow further discussion, said Barrios’s press representative, Colin Durrant.

The MBTA and musicians then reached a compromise that permits the use of amplifiers at limited volumes, said MBTA spokesperson Lydia Rivera. “We spoke to musicians, the musician’s guild, commuters, and local officials,” she said.

Other rules, including the ban on trumpets, requirement that musicians obtain photo permits, and limitation of performance areas to MBTA-designated locations, still stand. The policy is online at

The new rules were implemented yesterday; however, musicians will have until the end of the year to obtain their permits, according to a Dec. 4 article by The Boston Globe.

Policy limits sound, requires ID

The new policy limits music sound level to 80 decibels at 25 feet away, and requires that musicians “obtain a photo permit from the MBTA for a fee of $25.00 prior to any performances.” Each permit lasts for a year, at which time the performer must obtain a new one. “ID will be routinely checked,” said Rivera.

Musicians are also limited to MBTA-designated performance areas, indicated by signs on the subway station walls. Brian James, a vocalist and guitarist who has been a subway musician for two years, said that some of the designated locations are unreasonable because “nobody stands there,” and that would cut deeply into musician earnings.

Durrant said that subway musicians may appeal to the MBTA to change or add designated performance areas.

The policy also bans “trumpets or trumpet-like instruments, and drums, as they are not suitable for the subway environment.” The ban does not apply to trombones, saxophones, tubas, baritones, and French horns. “There weren’t many trumpets and drums” to begin with, Rivera said.

The restrictions on subway musicians were a result of post-September 11 recommendations for increasing subway safety, Rivera said. There were concerns that the musicians were drowning out announcements and blocking traffic. She said that the MBTA has no plans to change the performers policy again.

Busking crucial, musician says

Subway performance, also known as busking, can be very important to a musician’s career and financial situation, James said.

When he received the letter in mid-November from the MBTA announcing that amplifiers would be banned, he was very concerned. “It was nerve-wracking to not know where my income would come from,” he said. “People tell me to get a real job, but this is a real job. I was thinking what part of my income comes from busking, and I thought that on December 1, I would have to find a full-time job.”

When he heard that the ban on amplifiers would not go into effect, James said he was grateful to the MBTA and people who worked for the policy change. “I’m actually impressed with the MBTA. They listened to us,” he said.

He said that he understands the photo ID requirement, and welcomes it because it legitimizes the subway musician system. James thinks that imposing a sound level limit is also understandable, although he said he personally rarely receives complaints about being too loud.

He said he had taught music for several years to teenagers with behavioral problems, but the job “needed lots of time and energy.” James said that his commitment to this occupation prevented him from performing, so he quit, and turned to subway performance as a means of contributing to his income. He found the experience to be invaluable.

“It was an epiphany, working for myself,” he said. “It’s been the best thing, having a place to practice and get better and earn income.”

“I play to a wide range of people, and I can test original songs,” he said. “It’s very different from playing for myself, and I can find out if the audience likes a piece or not.” He said that he has also earned invaluable gigs and connections through his subway performances.

“It’s like a live demo tape, they know exactly what they’re getting, he said.