Kaki King and Freelance Whales Learned It on the Street

What busking taught them about the music business.

Today's busker—those folks singing and playing instruments on the corner for hours with a hat or case in front of them to collect the loose change (hopefully) tossed their way—could be tomorrow's star. Sure, the chances are slim. But tell that to Bob Dylan, who got his start strumming on the streets of Minneapolis in the late '50s; or the Roots, who spat rhymes and drummed on plastic buckets on Philly's South Street in the early '90s; or Washington's own Brandi Carlile, who used to wow 'em at Pike Place Market before going on to major-label fame.

Two more recent busking success stories who both got their start in New York City subways come to Neumos (separately) this weekend. Acclaimed experimental guitarist and vocalist Kaki King—who swings through town on the heels of her fifth LP, Junior—first descended into the bowels of the NYC transit system in the days after 9/11. "Things were weird," she says. "And because I didn't have a job and I'd just graduated from college, I needed something to go and do every day." A few months in, people were asking if she had CDs for sale, so King recorded some demos to peddle. One of them made its way into the hands of a booker for the Knitting Factory, where she got recurring shows, and the rest is history.

Buzzworthy indie-popsters Freelance Whales, meanwhile, lugged their banjo, mandolin, harmonium, bass drum, and other instruments into subway stations in their native Brooklyn and on Manhattan's Lower East Side beginning in 2008. "When we first started, we found out there's an audition process to get a permit, so we auditioned in front of the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority]," laughs Chuck Criss, one of five singers and multi-instrumentalists. "We got the permit, and I think it's for life." While performing one evening, they were asked by a new fan to play a house party in Brooklyn. At said party, the Whales managed to impress someone from Frenchkiss Records (home to Passion Pit, Les Savy Fav, and others), which soon signed them and issued the quintet's debut album, Weathervane, last month.

Curious about how playing in the subway prepared them for life as professional musicians, we tapped King and Criss for a few "Things I Learned While Busking":

Choosing the Right Venue

King: "When you're booking a tour, you want to try to get into the clubs and markets where you'll have the best chance of success, and you develop this sense about what's right for you. It's kind of like that with busking—you wanna find the best place in the subway to go where people will hear you play. Often people play in places where there's a lot of foot traffic, but then nobody's able to take the time to stop and actually listen. I would usually play after rush hour when there was a more mellow crowd and trains came less frequently. I found it to be a little easier."

Money (or Lack Thereof)

Criss: "Busking is a pretty good training ground for life as a new band, where you're working hard and touring around and loading all your gear in and out for hardly any money. I think the most we ever made on a night was like $100 or something between five people. It would normally go to our rehearsal-space fund."

King: "I went down there three or four times a week and I played until I made 50 bucks. That usually took about four or five hours. I guess some people can make a living off it if they're real hardcore about it, but it's really, really hard."

Holding It

King: "The thing about playing down in the subway—there's nowhere to go to the bathroom. So I really developed my bladder control, which is good for being onstage for two hours. I know some dudes who'll be down there eight hours a day. and I'm, like, 'How can you possibly hold it?!'"

Criss: "One of us had a monthly card which allows you to come in and out unlimited times, so we'd have to space out the bathroom breaks between the five of us, as opposed to going up and finding a bathroom and then having to pay another two dollars to get back in."

Dealing With Distractions

Criss: "We learned how to sing as a group and really project loudly because you get a lot of noise you gotta compete with—the trains and the random crazy screaming dudes that like to preach and stuff—if you wanna get people's attention. But unless you wanna pack up and find a new place to play, you hafta keep going, and hope that maybe the audience will help you out. One time there was a fan watching us who started talking to one of the crazy guys, distracting him so everyone else could enjoy the music."

King: "There's so many people and the trains come so frequently, it can be really hectic and noisy...Learning to tune all that stuff out was really helpful, especially later when I was a younger artist and opening for bands and half the audience was chattering and not even listening. The subway is going to be your toughest audience ever, and if you can handle that, you can handle pretty much anything."


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