Selling music for free, a story in four acts

Act one. We are already full

August 12, 2019. 13:26

He saw me taking some pictures of a screen and immediately he came to me. Without saying a word, he attempted to give me a CD. I looked at him, pretending I did not know what was going on. With his hand outstretched and his merchandise pointing at me, he looked me in the eye and said: “This is good stuff for you, man, and it’s free.” I did not take his CD but I asked him, “what is it? Is that your music?” “Yes,” he replied and continued, “It’s a mix of hip-hop and reggae I made in my studio.” I was about to ask him where his studio was located but he took control of the conversation, asking me where I was from. Although by then I was living in New Jersey, I did not tell exactly where my place was located. “Just across the river,” I replied to him. Immediately he understood I was not a tourist and put his CD down. Now, it was my chance to continue the conversation. I asked him where his studio was. He replied that it was in the Bronx. “Are you from New York?” I continued asking him. “Born and raised in the same block in Fordham Heights[1], man,” he said to me. “How long have you been selling your music in Times Square?”. “Like three years or so” he replied. “How much money do you make per day? “I asked. Laughing, he replied to me as he left: “Naha bro, if I tell you that, you will be selling your shit here tomorrow, we are already full.”

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Act two. Don’t be scared of a black man

July 24, 2019. 10:51

The scene starts with a black man following a white couple across Times Square and telling them: “don’t be scared of a black man, we ain’t nothing.” Everyone involved in the situation is laughing. The couple, composed of a middle-aged man and a young woman, decides to stop. The black man approaches them and gives the other man a handshake. At the same time, he introduces himself as Sean. “Where are you guys from”, Sean asks them. “From the Netherlands,” they reply. “Ah! Europe! Nice, I was in France once but many years ago. Which language do you speak there, French, German?” “Dutch,” the white man replies with a big smile. “Dutch? Never heard of that.” Everybody laughs. “What’re your names, guys?” “Thomas and Hannah, Thomas answers.” “Cool, nice to meet you, guys,” the black man says. Another handshake but this time Hannah is included. After that short introduction, Sean grabs a CD and a Sharpie from a bag holding around his chest and starts to write a sort of dedication to them. “Guys, I’m promoting my music” —Sean gives Thomas the CD, the Dutchman takes it— “I’m a New York rapper, and this is my way of making my art going around the world. The CD is for free but I will accept any tip you want for supporting my music… five bucks, ten bucks, a hundred bucks —everybody is laughing again— or even euros. Do you guys have euros in the Netherlands?” “Yes, Thomas replied.” “Well, so a hundred euros is also fine for me too.” The couple is having a short private conversation. Thomas gives Sean ten dollars and Hannah asks Sean for a picture altogether. The scene ends with a group picture taken by another CD seller. Sean is in the middle sticking his tongue out. Hanna is displaying the CD and flashing the horn sign. Thomas is just standing there, a little bit out of focus, smiling.

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Act three. We are three, my friend

September 9, 2017. 17:13

The Chinese couple tries to avoid the situation. They, a boy and a girl, are walking faster than before, avoiding pedestrians going in the opposite direction. A nearby CD vendor is about to catch them. He is getting closer. He asks them their names and where they are from, asking them to stop walking and getting louder and closer. Still walking, the Chinese boy gives the vendor a nervous smile and, with a wave of his hand, expresses that they are not interested in anything more than keeping going. The man behind them continues to follow them and ask them their names and where they are from. They ignore all of his requests. They are about to reach a corner. The corner seems to represent the possibility of escaping this awkward situation. I am walking behind the seller, who right now is extending his hand with a CD, almost touching the tourist couple’s shoulders. I can see how this man is trying to catch them no matter what but I cannot understand why. There are many people around. What is unique about that boy and that girl? Just as I was asking myself this question, the couple near the corner and were approached by other CD vendors who blocked their way. Smiling and asking for their names, the two new sellers surrounded the now defeated couple. The Chinese couple had no other option than to stop and smile back at them. The first seller arrives and tries to give the couple his merchandise. This time it works. The Chinese guy grabs the CD, “it is free for you, my friend,” says the seller. The forced buyer says “thank you” in a shallow voice. His partner, who has been grabbing his arm, also says “thanks” with her head. Nobody moves. Then, the seller asks for a tip. A $5 bill is proposed, the seller rejects the proposal. He wants more. Another $5 bill is added to the proposition. Rejected again. “This is good music, man, and there are three of us.” The Chinese guy smiles nervously, looking inside his pocket. Her partner moves behind him. Suddenly, a pile of bills appears from the pocket of the Chinese guy. Immediately the seller tells the forced buyer to add a twenty dollar bill to proposed ten buck tip. The Chinese guy is doubtful. “There are three of us my friend, ten for each one.” Twenty bucks are added to the tip. The seller agrees and takes the money. “Thank you, my friend,” he says. The other two sellers stop blocking the couple’s way. The foreign couple is free to continue walking. Without saying a word and without looking back, they finally escape the tourist trap.

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Act four. The impostors

July 9, 2019

Two guys are walking around Times Square. They look scared. They walk beside each other and both of them are always looking around as if constantly checking that everything is alright. They are selling CDs; they are trying to give their merchandise to the tourists but they do not know how to do this properly. They look ashamed, shy, inexperienced. They have neither the necessary empathy nor the spark for doing this. Without saying a word, without a smile, without making eye contact or much effort, they extend their hands waiting for the tourists to take their music and attempt to initiate conversation, asking the tourists for money. But all the tourists are ignoring them. The tourists do not care about these two men who are just there, lost, walking around Times Square, hopeless. Eventually, they just stand together in a random place, looking around, again extending their hands in lame gestures of supplication. It is hard to watch them. It seems like it is their first day doing this in the square. And they are failing, failing epically. Those two men are not like the other CD vendors. Right now the others are gathering together, talking to each other, speaking loudly, following tourists, chatting to them, yelling, singing, walking faster, and selling their merchandise. The two scared guys are looking at the other vendors. They do this frequently but the other vendors ignore them. I do not even think they realize these two men exist. Otherwise, the situation would be quite different. A couple of days ago, I saw a group of CD vendors confronting three men that were also offering their merchandise (also CDs) in one of the designated activity areas in Duffy Square. Someone in the group was booing the three men and yelling, “they’re not real artists, they’re selling other people’s songs! don’t buy their music, they’re fake!” Today, so far, the two shy boys are outside their radar. It seems like I am the only one watching them. I have observed them for an hour and nothing has changed, neither their way of selling —if we can call it that— nor their luck. They continue walking around Duffy Square, always coming back to the same point, waiting, extending their arms, doing nothing new. Then, after 45 minutes, they changed their route. Instead of milling around, they go south and turn at the corner of W. 46th, going into 8th  Avenue. I did not see them again that day. Actually, I never saw them again.


[1] Fordham Heights is a neighborhood in the western section of the Bronx.