Subway Idol? In Madrid, Street Performers Now Face Auditions
Life + Money

Subway Idol? In Madrid, Street Performers Now Face Auditions

REUTERS/Sergio Perez

The hidden camera is attached to an amplifier, and the video begins with a pair of musicians rolling their equipment through a sunny, cobblestoned square. As it progresses, the camera passes first one, then several more musicians, some alone, some in small groups. All of them seem to be practicing for something.

As the camera moves inside, it becomes clear that there is some sort of audition going on. Musicians are getting tuned up, looking about expectantly, and waiting their turn. You get the feeling that you are watching unauthorized footage of some musical reality show. Is it American Idol? The Voice? 

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When the hidden camera eventually rolls into the audition room, the amplifier is turned to face the three-judge panel. But behind the table, there is no Paula Abdul, no Nicki Minaj, and no Simon Cowell. Instead, the viewer sees three bureaucrats from the Spanish City of Madrid’s Comite de Idoneidad (roughly: Committee on Suitability). And they aren’t there to pick the next pop superstar, but to determine whether the musicians should be granted a permit to put a hat on the sidewalk and play music for tips on the streets of Spain’s largest city.

Spain was one of the European countries hit hardest by the financial crisis, and the country’s economy is still mired in a devastating slump. More than 25 percent of workers are jobless, with the rate among younger workers even higher. The result is that many Spaniards are turning to whatever means necessary to generate some income, including turning themselves into “musicos callejeros,” or buskers.

But as of January 1, a new law in the city means that no longer can just anyone take up a position on the street corner and let passersby be the judge of whether they can play or not. Now, buskers must go through an annual American Idol-like audition process to secure a one-year permit.

The law also requires that street musicians conform to various other requirements. Two musicians or groups of musicians cannot play within a certain distance of each other, buskers cannot use amplifiers, and they cannot play for more than two consecutive hours in the same spot. 

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The undercover video, shot by the two-member Potato Omelette Band, has become a minor internet sensation, garnering hundreds of thousands of YouTube views, not least because during its audition the band changed the lyrics of its songs to protest the new policy.

Internet fame, though, has done little to change the city policy, which has been spearheaded by Madrid’s mayor, Ana Botella and her allies on the city council. Botella, wife of former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, has cast the new requirements as a quality of life issue for Madrid residents who, she says, are increasingly inconvenienced by an overabundance of street musicians.

Critics claim that the rule is unnecessarily restrictive and prevents people facing economic hard times from trying to make ends meet. Others point out that musicians without the skills to earn money from busking will be naturally weeded out.

One can only imagine how Simon Cowell might have reacted to an X Factor hopeful who changed song lyrics to protest the show’s policies, but the Potato Omelette Band appears to have faced no serious hostility. In the video, the three committee members can be seen smiling and laughing at the band’s performance, and eventually, the band members received their permit.

Follow Rob Garver on Twitter @rrgarver

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