For every mediocre mariachi band that plays on the New York City subway, and every slightly out-of-tune rendition of Otis Redding, there’s a truly talented musician on a platform somewhere. A project called Subway Sets finds those artists and brings them above ground to perform for larger crowds.
“When I moved to New York a couple of years ago, I was just blown away by how much amazing music there was in the subway,” says Dan Pierson, the project’s founder. “There’s that really unexpected pleasure of finding something new during a commute to work or taking a ride to Brooklyn on a Sunday afternoon. I never would have expected to find the breadth and quality of music that I ended up discovering.”
After meeting a young musician named Robert Leslie on the F train platform at Second Avenue, Pierson invited him to play at a rooftop party for friends. People liked the concert so much that he decided to keep going and create a public project, inviting anyone to suggest new artists to feature or attend a show.
For musicians, it’s a chance to finally play for a crowd that’s paying attention. “In the subway, it’s dark, it’s crowded, they have 10, 15 seconds to catch someone’s attention before they walk past or the next train comes,” says Pierson. “On a rooftop, folks have paid for that experience. A lot of it is about reshaping people’s ideas about what it means to respect a performance.”
After a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch the project a couple of years ago, Pierson has hosted sold-out shows for more than 20 musicians. Now, he’s back on Kickstarter to raise funds for a documentary to tell the stories of the artists he’s met.
“One of the things we discovered across all of those shows is that even more interesting and impressive than the music are the stories of the artists themselves,” he says. “These are folks who come from all over the world to play music in the New York City subway. It’s just been really fascinating to me to hear all of these stories of where people come from, their aspirations, their dreams, and their struggles to make it in the music industry.”
Twenty two-year old Robert Leslie, for example, has busked around the world–from Morocco to Czechoslovakia to the U.K., where he’s from–and now makes a living on New York subway platforms. “That’s his full-time gig, playing music in the NYC subway,” says Pierson.
For Pierson, the new documentary is also a way to draw attention to art on the subway at a time when the city has been less supportive. “One of the issues in New York right now is that a lot of people have been getting arrested for exercising what I think is a pretty fundamental right to peacefully perform art in a public space,” he says.