Thursday, June 15, 2006

Debussy and Dr. Dre in the subway?

   Does music (unsponsored) belong in public places?  While nearly everyone claims to a fan, for most people there is some type of music -- perhaps it's hip-hop, goth, or schmaltzy '40s show tunes -- that one would just rather not hear.  This morning, I heard from my suburban house the sound of drumming; when I investigated, I found in a nearby park a man playing African drums -- quite expertly -- but doing so with amplification.  Was this necessary?

   The Washington, D.C., Metrorail system is considering allowing musicians underground for the first time in its 30-year history.  After all, New York auditions authorized subway performers, and trips to Paris and London are spiced up by musicians that move through trains.  In Washington, however, the rail system was built in the '60s and 70s, when the avoidance of crime, graffiti, and litter were foremost in the minds of the planners.  The Washington Metrorail has been criticized for its zero tolerance of snackers and solicitors, but there is no doubt that it has succeeded in creating a non-stressful environment for riders -- something that New York plainly failed to provide in the '70s.

   Today, with crime down and the New York subway cleaned up, Washington's rail operators may think about making the experience not just safe, but happy.  But I still have a concern, however, over allowing too much music underground.  One problem is avoiding really bad musicians, and the decision of what constitutes a bad musician will involve government in making "artistic" judgments (imagine the potential lawsuits!).  My first rule of thumb would relate back to the drummer in the park:  No amplification.  Almost every kind of music, from chamber quartets to "unplugged" rock to paint-pail hip hop, can be  played without amps.  Riders interested in listening could move forward for a minute of two; those uninterested could quickly move on. This simple and fair rule would help ensure that the sounds don't become a bother in our busy urban rail systems.

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