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Subway musicians, unplugged

T says electric equipment can drown out PA system

Commuters have long enjoyed the cool riffs of electric guitarist Sergei Alexeev, who has played rock, jazz, and classical music in MBTA stations throughout central Boston for seven years. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many subway passengers thanked Alexeev for lightening their mood.

"They said thank you for coming out, thank you for keeping the music going," Alexeev recalled. "I make people happy."

But now, MBTA officials have deemed nonacoustic music a hazard in T stations. Beginning Dec. 1, they are banning electric keyboards and guitars, microphones, and amplifiers, saying they drown out important messages on the public address system. Saxophones, trumpets, and horns of any kind also will be forbidden.

"If people can't hear those messages, then we have a problem," said Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

The new Subway Performers Program Policy requires that performers be "neat in appearance," with "proper clothing," and have photo identification badges on display at all times. The policy also institutes a $25 charge for an annual performance permit. The new rules were laid out in a letter sent last week to some 650 performers who have been licensed to play in MBTA stations, free of charge in the past.

"This is a privilege, not a right," Pesaturo said. "A subway station is a transit center first, and a concert venue probably last." The musicians, he said, "add to the experience and the atmosphere, but we have to draw the line somewhere."

Performers are calling the new rules "discriminatory," "arrogant," and "unconstitutional." The Subway Artists Guild filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union on Friday. Guild members were looking for a lawyer over the weekend to represent them in a legal challenge of the policy, which they say threatens to put many performers out of business.

"It's devastating," said Stephen Baird, head of the guild. "It's drastic overkill."

During the winter, when outdoor performances are nearly impossible in New England, hundreds of musicians rely on T stations for performance space, he said. Many do not have other income, Baird added, and the new regulations will force dozens to quit playing, including Alexeev.

"I'm going to be homeless," said Alexeev, who circulated a petition protesting the new policies at Park Street station on Saturday night. "I don't know what to do. This is my life. They might as well put me in chains and handcuffs."

MBTA officials contend the regulations are an appropriate response to security concerns after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A task force conducted a yearlong review of MBTA security after the attacks and recommended musicians be banned from T stations altogether, Pesaturo said. MBTA general manager Michael H. Mulhern, however, said he wanted a "more balanced approach."

The musicians contend the policy has nothing to do with security and is just another in a long history of attempts to silence them. In 1987, Baird and others formed the guild in response to threats to arrest performers. The two sides reached an agreement the following year, allowing musicians to play in the stations, sell recordings, and to use amplification devices. Baird said the performers, in return, agreed to a free, quarterly permitting process.

In 1989, MBTA officials started piping recorded music into stations during the holiday season, a practice that Baird said undercut performers' ability to play. The guild successfully fought back with a letter-writing campaign, and squelched the recorded music by mid-December of that year.

Four years later, MBTA officials decided to install hundreds of televisions in T stations, broadcasting news, advertising, and other programming. After another guild campaign, Baird said MBTA officials agreed the televisions would broadcast only video and not audio signals. The television plan eventually petered out altogether.

For the next several years, relations between performers and MBTA officials appeared peaceful. Then came Sept. 11.

"This was the best, probably most open, subway system in the whole world," Baird said yesterday. "Now a lot of these artists are being kicked out in the street."

Transit authorities in London, New York, Toronto, and Atlanta appear to allow saxophones and horns in their stations, as well as amplification devices, according to a review of their websites. Almost all of them, however, require performers to audition for the opportunity to play during scheduled times at specific stations. Some cities, including Washington, D.C., do not allow musicians to perform in transit stations.

Hundreds of passengers breezed through Park Street station this weekend, some dropping money in Alexeev's tip jar and some signing his petition. One floor above, Dan Blakeslee pulled out his petition and prepared to make copies as he packed up his guitar, microphone, and 45-watt amplifier on Saturday night. Without the amplifier, Blakeslee said, people wouldn't hear his "melodic rock" or his lyrics.

Some passengers said the new policy will change Boston in a fundamental way.

"The music in the subway system is a real thumbprint of our city," said 22-year-old Stephanie Messina, a Brookline resident who stopped to listen to Blakeslee for a few minutes on Saturday night. "When I think of the subway system in Boston, I think of a guy playing `It's a Wonderful Life,' and then I think, `You know, it is a wonderful life.' "

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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