Disappearing Act

August 23, 2013
Metroperforms

By now, you’ve likely heard of MetroPerforms, a program where musicians vie, via “American Idol”-style auditions, to perform outside Metro stations. You may well have seen this year’s winners profiled in The Washington Post, which has devoted two stories, plus two slideshows and a video, to the topic. Or maybe you caught them on any number of local news outlets. But chances are, you haven’t actually heard these musicians performing during your commute.

That’s because only about half of the 24 MetroPerforms participants are appearing at their scheduled gigs, according to Michael McBride, the program’s organizer.

“We tell them it’s important for them to show up but have been tolerant of [absenteeism] simply because they are not compensated,” McBride said.

Performers receive no funding from WMATA, and they are prohibited from collecting tips or handing out business cards.

The MetroPerforms musicians don’t even get a special spot to play. Official performers must set up shop at least 15 feet from the escalators, outside of Metro stations — just like buskers unaffiliated with the program, McBride says.

The lack of official support from Metro is why Howard University flute professor Sais Kamalidiin dropped out of the program after his first gig.

When Kamalidiin and his student arrived at Metro Center, they were disappointed there were no signs or announcements about the performance. The station manager had only heard of the program in passing, and he had them set up on an unshaded sidewalk that was not particularly close to an exit.

“There was nothing that separated us from anybody trying to play music,” he says.

That’s why most of the people you do see playing around stations are unaffiliated with Metro. By putting out a hat, they can earn as much as $100 an hour, says Chris Naoum, founder of Listen Local First. It’s a viable way for musicians to make a living, and the MetroPerforms program undermines it, he says.

“This program basically brings the value of local music down to zero,” he says.

The members of See Jane Sing, a Virginia-based barbershop quartet, disagree. For these MetroPerforms participants, singing outside loud Metro stations helps them sharpen their showmanship, says vocalist Emily Faalasli. Their Vienna-station sessions have also resulted in several paying gigs after Faalasli (unintentionally) broke the rules by handing out business cards.

For Faalasli and other amateur musicians with day jobs, MetroPerforms provides the excitement of being featured in a newspaper and, for a few, performing at a Kennedy Center gig. Others, like Michael Jackson impersonator Dimitri Reeves, participate in the hopes of being discovered and making it big.

Whatever effect MetroPerforms has on the local arts scene, it’s hard to imagine that it has done much for Metro customers. The program’s goal, to give commuters a little bit of beauty during their commute, is certainly admirable. But with vetted musicians quitting in droves and illicit buskers more than happy to take their place, the solution may lie in simply loosening Metro regulations that bar musicians from performing inside the stations.

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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