London Underground Calling: Buskers Audition To Play On The Tube

Aug 31, 2017
Originally published on August 31, 2017 12:09 pm

Vicki Sayers arrives at London's Westminster tube station with her guitar slung over her shoulders like a backpack, pulling her amp on a dolly. She sets up in a corner of the cavernous subway station and plays John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as three judges and a crowd of commuters listen.

Sayers, a high school senior from outside London, is among more than 300 musicians vying for up to 100 coveted licenses to play on the Tube, the world's oldest subway system.

Transport for London, which operates the Tube, has been holding auditions since 2003. It's a way to ensure quality and control the number of buskers. Each year, musicians provide more than 100,000 hours of live music in stations here.

For Sayers, who hopes to become a professional musician, it's a way to practice her craft, make some money and entertain a potential audience that numbers in the millions.

"I'm really trying to get more into [the] London music scene," says Sayers, who wears jeans and a black sweatshirt. She lives in Berkshire, about 50 miles west of the British capital. "I think busking is a great way to do that."

Sayers is going up against a number of competitors this morning in a competition that could be called Tube's Got Talent. This includes Tony Moore, who played keyboards in an English rock band in the 1980s and sings Elton John's "Rocket Man" for his audition; Miles Sutton, a university student, who plays a jazz number on his guitar; and Tom Ryder, 27, from Essex, who plays an affecting acoustic version of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody."

At 17, Sayers is already a veteran of London's busking scene; her poise shows as she gives a haunting rendition of the ode to the simple life in West Virginia. In the past, she's played beneath the escalator at London's Waterloo train station — the country's busiest – which offers big crowds and little competition. Sayers explains the appeal of Waterloo – a prime busking spot – through another passion of hers: economics.

"There's a theory called scarcity," she says. "When you play in London Waterloo, you normally have a licence and you have to book [space in advance]. I find that a lot more people stop and listen and enjoy what I'm playing because there's not really anyone else around playing."

Sayers says in two hours at Waterloo, she can make nearly $80 in tips.

Playing in London's Tube and rail stations is not for the faint of heart. Tim Frasier, a songwriter who is serving as one of today's judges, says landing a Tube license takes grit, grace and presence.

"We're looking for people to almost be having a little bit of a suit of armor when they're playing," he says as a subway train rumbles beneath. "This is not an open mic night. This is not playing for their friends. This is playing against a lot of background noise. So they have to be quite tough and friendly."

Some big British stars got their start busking, including Ed Sheeran, George Michael and Rod Stewart. Buskers on the Tube play all kinds of music, from classical to blues. As the music echoes along the subway's tile walls, it can provide a pleasant surprise or a soothing distraction to commuters, especially in a city that's suffered three terrorist attacks in the past five months.

"The other week, we were up here and there was a man playing steel pans," said a woman named Kay, 39, who was watching the auditions and down from Tottenham. "If you're nervous about travelling and stuff, sometimes it makes you feel distracted and relaxed. So it's handy to have them around."

Another one of today's contestants, Marco Felici, sings Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." He has been trying to get a tube busking license for eight years.

"It is extremely competitive," says Felici. "You have some really young kids who deliver some great stuff. At 36 years old, I have to compete with that. Not getting any younger."

When he isn't vying for a license, Felici also busks on sidewalks where tourists routinely make requests.

"They will go: 'Wonderwall! Play Wonderwall!'" Felici says wearily. "So, you do it; you can't be too picky about things when your income depends on that."

After this morning's auditions, the judges see one clear winner.

"I've got to say young Vicki — 17-year-old Vicki — was absolutely amazing," says judge Rita Campbell, a singer-songwriter. "Loved her; she connected."

But there are many more auditions to come, and the hopefuls won't learn their fate until late September. Sayers isn't wasting any time. She packs up her amp and guitar and heads back out to busk on the sidewalk in the shadow of Big Ben.

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(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "TOM RYDER - AIN'T NOBODY (CHAKHA KHAN COVER)")

TOM RYDER: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh. Ain't nobody loves me better, makes me...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And it is showtime on London's Tube. More than 300 musicians are auditioning for coveted licenses to play the world's oldest subway system, to practice their craft, make some cash and entertain a potential audience that numbers in the millions. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

TONY MOORE: (Singing) Till touch down brings me round again to find. I'm not the man they think I am at home - oh, no, no, no.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The competition begins around 10 a.m. at the Westminster Tube station, just across from Big Ben. First up, Tony Moore, who played keyboards in an English rock band in 1980s.

MOORE: (Singing) Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone.

MILES SUTTON: (Playing electric guitar).

LANGFITT: He's going up against Miles Sutton, a university student who stares at his shoes as his fingers dance across the neck of his electric guitar; and Vicki Sayers, a 17-year-old high school student from the suburbs.

VICKI SAYERS: (Singing) Country roads, take me home to the place I belong. West Virginia...

LANGFITT: They're all trying to land one of up to a hundred licenses in this sort of Tube's Got Talent. It's a way for London to ensure quality and control the number of buskers. And in this round of auditions, it comes down to three judges who are watching from a table just inside the subway station gates. Vicki Sayers arrives with her amp on a dolly.

SAYERS: I live about an hour away from London. I live in Berkshire, near Windsor Castle. But I'm really trying to get more into London music scene, really. Busking is a really great way to do that.

LANGFITT: She's already played London's Waterloo station, the country's busiest, with their big crowds and hardly any other musicians. Sayers, whose other great passion is economics, explains.

SAYERS: There's a theory could scarcity. And when you play in London Waterloo, you normally have a license and you have to book. And I find that a lot more people stop and listen and enjoy what I'm playing because there's not really anyone else around playing.

LANGFITT: So in Waterloo, you're playing old covers. How much could you make in a couple of hours?

SAYERS: Excess of 60 pounds.

LANGFITT: Or more than $77.

London's Tube has been holding auditions since 2003. Each year, musicians provide more than 100,000 hours of live music in stations according to Tube officials. Judge Tim Frasier, a songwriter, says landing a license takes grit, grace and presence.

TIM FRASIER: We're looking for people to almost be having a little bit of a suit of armor when they're playing. This is not an open mic night. This is not playing for their friends. This is playing against a lot of background noise, so they have to be quite tough and friendly.

LANGFITT: Fellow judge Rita Campbell, a singer-songwriter, points out that some big stars got their start in places like this.

RITA CAMPBELL: Absolutely. I mean, Ed Sheeran started out as a busker - Jessie J., busking; George Michael, busking; Rod Stewart, busking.

LANGFITT: London has suffered three terrorist attacks in the past five months. So music can be a soothing distraction, particularly for riders like Kay from Tottenham, who's watching today's auditions.

KAY: The other week, we was up here, and there was a man playing steel pans. And if you're nervous about traveling and stuff, sometimes it makes you feel, like, distracted and relaxed. So it's handy to have them around.

MARCO FELICI: (Singing) With somebody who loves me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

FELICI: Thank you very much.

LANGFITT: Marco Felici's from Rome. He's been trying to get a Tube busking license for eight years.

FELICI: It is extremely competitive, you know. You have some really, really young kids who deliver some great stuff. So at 36 years old, I have to compete with that, you know - not getting any younger.

LANGFITT: Felici busks on sidewalks, where tourists routinely make requests.

FELICI: It will happen almost every day. They will go like, "Wonderwall." Play "Wonderwall." And so you do it 'cause, you know, you can't be too picky about things when your income depends on that.

LANGFITT: After this morning's auditions, the judges see one clear winner.

CAMPBELL: I've got to say, young Vicki, 17-year-old Vicki was absolutely amazing - loved her. She connected.

LANGFITT: So you think she gets a license?

FRASIER: If I were the big kahuna, I'd give her the license.

SAYERS: (Singing) Country roads, take me home.

LANGFITT: But there are many more auditions to come. The hopefuls won't learn their fate until late September. Vicki isn't wasting any time. Her next performance venue is just outside on the sidewalk, in the shadow of Big Ben.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, the Westminster Tube station in London.

SAYERS: (Singing) Mountain mama, take me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.