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Consumer Reports

Musicians must audition to play London subway | (KRT) LONDON — Steven "the Rock god" Petit didn't seem nervous as show time approached for his guitar solo performance before thousands at Leicester Square, in the heart of London's theater district. He had auditioned. He was ready.

Petit knew this wasn't quite the Beatles performing at Royal Albert Hall, so he stopped short of urging fans to clap or rattle their jewelry. But the 43-year-old blues guitarist from California was confident that if he met Londoners' exacting musical standards, they would go one better. They would throw money.

Petit is one of the few, the elite, the chosen. He is licensed to panhandle musically as a "busker" inside the London Underground subway system, home of the walking ovation.

Other subways have introduced a licensing arrangement for buskers as a way of keeping tabs on them. But this appears to be the first time that street musicians have been required to pass an audition first.

"I don't really think of myself as a busker," he said. "I'm just a musician who plays in the Underground."

Executives of the subway system, commonly known as the Tube, say they are using buskers to clean up the image of one of the world's busiest mass-transit systems. The goal, they say, is to reduce the annoyances and dangers posed by hundreds of scruffy panhandlers roaming unrestricted through the system, pestering passengers for handouts.

Not just anyone can play, said Martin Penney, customer programs implementation manager for the London Underground. "We had to ensure that they were not only musically competent but also of suitable character," he explained.

Although managers of the Underground have sat on the auditioning boards since the new musical standards were introduced in May, Penney said, "We were very conscious from the start that we are railway operators," not talent agents. "We knew the selection panel had to have representatives from the music industry as well." A concert promoter sent over staffers to help out.

The idea of auditioning initially didn't sit well with the typically free-spirited buskers. It was also hard for them to gauge the musical tastes of what they thought were a bunch of subway managers.

"I was very nervous about the whole thing, actually," classical guitarist Richard Stevenson, 40, said of the auditions. "I didn't know what to expect, really, whether they'd like my style and whatnot."

Petit described his audition as "horrific," because "normally, when you're putting forward your work or talent, you have a sense that the people are slightly hip or cool or funky. But this was so stuffy, like auditioning for a bunch of investment-bank managers."

Around 320 musicians ultimately passed the auditions and are now licensed to perform at any of 12 approved stations. Now, Tube passengers can sample a vast array of talent: African drummers, opera singers and concert violinists.

The response from passengers, Underground staff and the buskers themselves has been overwhelmingly positive over the initial 16-week trial period, Penney said.

During Petit's first 10 minutes belting out original blues compositions at the base of the Leicester Square station escalator, he had already earned the equivalent of $25 in spare change from a mix of smartly dressed businessmen, spiky-haired punkers and backpack-laden tourists.

"I think it's tremendous," said Suli Patel, 56, a systems analyst from Tanzania who had paused to listen. "It used to be very quiet coming down the escalator. You'd feel, I don't know, a bit apprehensive" about riding on the Tube.

Now, Patel added, "You feel the vibes as you're coming down. It makes you feel good about the Underground." So good, in fact, that Patel walked over and pressed a 10 bill into Petit's hand, about $17.

"He really made my day. He's so good, you're forced to stop and listen to him," Patel said. "We need more like him."

Underground police strongly discourage passengers from stopping too long to watch any particular musician because crowds can pose a safety hazard. In fact, Penney said, Underground executives and safety personnel initially rejected the idea of installing fixed busking "pitches" in stations for fear that they would hinder foot traffic.

For that reason, only musical performances are permitted in the Underground as opposed to mimes, jugglers, tap dancers and other acts that typically draw stationary crowds.

Penney said he spent "two years of struggle" trying to convince the Underground's seven regulatory bodies - each holding veto power - that the licensed busking plan would work. He conducted impact tests, location surveys and noise analyses. He even hired film crews to provide proof to skeptical officials that buskers could actually enhance the system's level of service.

Without licenses, he argued to the regulatory officials, buskers would continue performing illegally, as they have done for decades, forcing police to devote valuable time to chasing them away. Police reported a 77 percent drop in busker-related complaints after the new system was introduced.

Musicians say they have improved the quality of their performances as well. Previously, they said, they had to carry tiny amplifiers and cheap instruments, knowing they would have to leave in a hurry if police arrived to shoo them away.

Now, with stationary pitches, they can bring expensive keyboards and sound systems. For example, a fiery red Gibson L-4 guitar like the one Petit used in his performance retails for more than $3,000.

"I was pretty skeptical at first because I've been doing this illegally for so long," said keyboardist Joe Evans, 39, a 10-year busker.

Although he described his income as "not enough," he appreciates the honor of recognition that the new auditioning procedure has bestowed on him. "I respect the fact that you have to show you can play before they'll let you go to the pitch."

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services