A day in the life
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, March 19, 2017
Glenn Roth’s New York City minute usually synchs up with the time of trains. That’s
For over a decade, he’s been going into Manhattan once or twice a week, setting up shop inside big transportation hubs like Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal and on train and subway platforms around town, playing for crowds big and small, some captive, some indifferent. He also ventures down to the Staten Island Ferry’s Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan. So boat schedules are on his radar, too.
Street performing, also known as busking, is a big part of Roth’s career, largely because in New York City, he’s legally allowed to do it. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority awarded him a lifetime permit to perform in, around and under parts of Manhattan through its program Music Under New York. It’s part of MTA Music, an initiative designed to “enhance the transit experience” for those commuting around the city, according to its website. Roth’s guitar playing certainly fits that bill. The Norwalk resident is an extremely talented finger-style guitarist with several CDs’ worth of compositions that are as engaging as they are original. He tours nationally and has been a finalist at the International Fingerstyle Guitar Competition in Kansas.
I’m a big fan of the instrument, and play guitar myself. So it’s not surprising I was drawn to Roth’s music when I first heard it. It’s also not surprising the MTA recognized and rewarded his talents with the lifetime pass. What is surprising is busking happened for Roth almost accidentally.
“A friend of mine had told me about the MUNY program and suggested I audition for it,” says Roth, during a recent phone conversation. “It was early on in my career, and I was looking for a way to get exposure. It was kind of a random thing, kind of on a whim. But that audition changed my life.”
Taking place once a year at Grand Central, auditions consist of being surrounded by about 30 judges and performing for five minutes. Roth’s audition happened in June 2004. By that September, he was making his busking debut inside Penn Station. “It was an overwhelming experience,” Roth says. “It was one of my first interactions playing for a mass crowd of all different types of people. And it really helped build my esteem to perform in front of people on stage in concert.”
Performing in Grand Central is a little different from playing Carnegie Hall, though. “It’s a tough thing to set up in front of people,” Roth says. “You just show up, which is one of the weirdest, hardest parts, showing up and putting the sign up on the wall. People look over and say, ‘What is this guy going to do?’ And then, all of sudden, I’m playing. There’s always that awkward moment. But then it passes very quickly.”
Crowds can pass quickly, too. “People walk by you and ignore you for the most part, so you have to have thick skin. But then you get a handful of people who, for some reason, they stop. Every time it’s different,” Roth says. There have been brushes with celebrity, like the Grateful Dead’s bassist, Phil Lesh, who stopped and listened. Roth gave him a CD. And a brush with lost cash. “One time, many, many years ago, somebody stole a $10 bill right out of my case, like right in front of me. And they just took off running and I was out of luck, because my guitar was connected to a speaker. And I learned that day to always watch the money. Now I have a different case, and the money’s hidden. Nobody really knows what’s in there.”
Each of the 30-plus locations where Roth is allowed to play can be different, too.
“The Whitehall Ferry Terminal is pretty interesting, because you’re in a gigantic ferry terminal,” he says. “A lot of tourists come through there who just want to take a ferry ride. Every half-hour, 500 people are standing and congregating in front of a door waiting for the ferry, so I’ll be playing for a huge crowd of people. I think of it as different rounds. Round one, round two. And every half-hour, it’s totally different. Five hundred people leave, and then a whole new 500 people appear. So it’s fresh every round.”
The financial rewards of busking can have its ups and downs. “I have had some really memorable days. When I first started years ago, I could make a few hundred dollars. Then there were days when I’d come home making nothing at all. It’s very unpredictable. Lately, I’ve noticed there’s been a decline. People aren’t buying CDs, because I think it’s transitioning to a more digital market.”
Over the past dozen years, Roth describes his busking career as having been “a big piece of my puzzle. But I do so many different things. One day a week I’ll go do that. But I’m moving around every other day at different gigs. It’s just a real interesting part of my life that one particular day,” he says.
Mike Horyczun’s Sound Surfing column appears every Saturday in The Hour. He can be reached at email@example.com