WRITTEN BY KEAH WATKINS
We’ve all stepped into subway stations and gone onto the platforms and have had the opportunity to be entertained, or annoyed, by the live music happening around us.
Why are they here? Why don’t they go and get a job? Don’t they have anything better to do? All these questions and more might come into our minds during these moments, but you never really know a person’s story until you’ve asked. Snap judgments are easy to make, but Trevor Exter and Mister Reed have more to them than any superficial judgment will be able to explain. They have both managed to become professional musicians and it all began by busking in the subways.
“Busking” can be explained as expressing oneself musically in a physical space. Exter and Reed both have had their fair share of busking in their day, and have been given the opportunity to move onto bigger Venues but the subways is where it began.
Exter hails from Ithaca, New York and had always had the dream to move to New York City and make music. In his early 20s, he finally made the move. Exter lived in the city for 10 years during which he hustled on the platforms, switched his genres and instruments and even wrote jingles, but in the end, he realized that he wanted to be on the road.
“For some people, New York is the only place they can perform. For me, it’s the only place I can’t.” Exter said.
Exter is currently on a mission to take the cello places it’s never been before; and to do so in a unique way. Instead of playing the instrument in the traditional way, by bowing the strings, he plucks them, like that of a guitar. “I want to make it funky. It’s less pressure,” said Exter. “There isn’t anything that I could do, that hasn’t been done with a bow a hundred times before.”
For Exter, the subway was a means of needing somewhere to start musically. While for Reed it’s a place he still continues to come back to.
Before Reed aspired to be a musician, he was wanted to be a psychologist, though having come from 10 generations of clergy, music was in his blood. He grew up in a household where he was only allowed to listen to Gospel music, which of course meant he wanted to branch out and listen to everything. But music still wasn’t his passions. It wasn’t until Oct. 14, 2008 in his English class, being only 24 credits short of getting his college degree that Reed realized he didn’t want to be in college anymore. It no longer felt right being in college. This led him to the realization that music was his calling and he never looked back. But this realization doesn’t mean that music is all he became. While he is a professional musician, he is also a tailor and anything else he wants to be. And largely because playing music, and knowing that at the end of the day he will be able to make the money he needs, at his own will, is a liberating feeling.
Playing in public is more than just finding a location and getting down to it. There are various strategies but location is key. For Reed, Bedford is the place to be. It is now the center of the art scene and Reed describes it as “a place you can find yourself.” And knowing when to play is equally important, as you don’t want to end up on the receiving end of a nasty lashing out by someone who is in a foul mood. Along with these strategies, there is an unspoken code of etiquette. There is an honor system in the subways. They take each other into consideration, not playing over one another, politely asking when their sessions will be over and Reed has even gone as far as to pay another artist for the spot, because in the end, he knows he will make it back by the tenfold at the end of the day. A sense of gratification from audience reaction is also what keeps buskers coming back and performing.
While money is certainly a luxury for them to have, their main motivation for playing in public is the emotion and thought from the audience listening to them. Both Exter and Reed agreed that the worst reaction they can receive is to be ignored completely. Even getting kicked by strangers or being told that they suck, is better than being completely ignored by someone who won’t stop to give them a moment of their time. But a positive reaction is even more gratifying.
“Every dollar received,” explains Reed, “is an affirmation that someone believes in you and what you’re doing.”
Having a public audience in a particular location can help them advance professionally as well. When buskers play at a particular location on a regular basis, it creates a bond between them and the people who live there. As a result of constantly playing in Bedford, Reed was able to network, enabling him to book shows at Bamboozle and has shot two national commercials. He will also be going international this summer, while Exter is taking his cello playing across the country.
All in all, busking is about doing what you love and helping to inspire others. These men have a sense of freedom that most people have yet to experience in their lives and it comes from being able to do what the love: playing music.
Everyone has the opportunity to experience their brands of music by connecting with them through social media.