On average, Parisians spend 92 minutes on public transport each day of their lives. Fortunately, these minutes can seem less longer and boring thanks to the artists who sing in the metro. Twenty-three-year old David James Murphy is one of them. He became what we –Parisians– call a “musicien du métro”.
Singing on the paved streets of the city of light has always been seen as a way to achieve a dream of success. Inspired by the stories of Piaf, Gainsbourg, Brassens, Moustaki, and many others, rookies in the musical business try their luck in the French capital. But, oddly enough, these days, it’s the French subway that seems to provide more opportunities.
Four years ago, David was living in Cork, Ireland. He did pretty well in business school and was chosen to make an Erasmus in Paris. This is when his journey into the musical world began. After some open mics in the capital and a year spent in Spain as an English teacher at the end of his school exchange, he came back to Paris and decided that he would become an artist. He moved into an apartment in Belleville with two other musicians and began to play music in bars trying to make a living out of his passion. Then, a few months ago, he was told about “les musiciens du métro” by a friend. Interested in becoming one, he auditioned with the RATP (the public transport authority in charge of most of the public transport in Paris), was selected and started to play in the French metro.
In order to sing in the French metro, musicians have to take an audition with the RATP. This system was created in 1997. Since then, the RATP has received more than 60, 000 applications, organized about 40, 000 auditions and selected almost 12, 000 artists to play in the metro. That’s around 300 musicians selected per year to play in the French subway. Once you decide you want to play in the metro, you have to send an email or a file to the RATP and if they’re interested in your profile you are invited to audition in their office in front of a jury. This jury is composed of members of the RATP staff who are music lovers. The selections are organized twice a year. That means that if you’re selected you have the ‘right’ to play in the subway for six months. Moreover, in addition to allowing artist to sing in the metro, the RATP also helps them play in festivals and other important French musical events such as Solidays, Rock en Seine, Art’Rock and more recently at L’Olympia. Regrettably, David hasn’t been in the metro long enough to benefit from these promotional events.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the creation of “Les Musiciens du Métro”, the RATP organized on Nov. 23rd 2017 a concert in one of the most prestigious French concert halls: L’Olympia. A ticket for the event cost 15 to 25 euros and all profits were given to Emmaüs Solidarité (an international charity founded in Paris). Among the famous artists present at the event were Oxmo Puccino and Tété. Former subway singers like Clément Verzi and Emji were also participating but most importantly, unknown current metro musicians were there too. The latter were selected to sing for the event in a two-stage process. First, internet users went on a website specifically created for the occasion to pre-select eighty-five current musiciens du métro. Then, a jury composed of members of the RATP and artists who sponsor the event had to choose five singers among the preselected candidates. These five artists had the chance to sing at L’Olympia. Hence, working as a musician for the RATP offers a lot of opportunities.
All the artists chosen by the RATP are unique in their very own style, and you can find French singers, but also Nigerian, English, Brazilian artists, and many more. They all have one thing in common: they do believe that singing in the metro is a a way to “make it” in music. Artists such as Keziah Jones, Zaz, Manu di Bango, Irma and more recently Benjamin Clementine, are proofs that the myth can be true. Indeed, these former metro singers are now famous. Hence, what could have been seen as a precarious job, is actually considered a springboard for singers. Subway musicians all tell stories of successful careers started out in the Métro: “[My friend] did this, five days a week for almost three years. That was his job. He didn’t do any gigs outside the metro. Same spot every day. Then, one day, a woman just came up and told him ‘come and talk to me tomorrow’. She was from a record label. He was signed the following day and he is playing first parts in La Cigale now.” The reality is harsher. Not all “musiciens du métro” will have the chance to be noticed by a producer while singing in the Parisian metro, nor the chance to be selected to play in a festival. Most of them, will just sing in the subway to make some money and not always in the best conditions.
Artists singing in the metro are in direct contact with their audiences. When in a concert hall you get to feel the physical presence of the crowd, subway artists get to feel the very personal reactions of audiences right away. Acoustics and lights are bad, and you never know what to expect from the people that walk by. David experienced this bad side of singing in the metro when he started. “I just got my pass to play in the metro. I was quite happy with what I was doing and thought “That’s good. I’m going to do one more song”. The one that I really pushed a lot of energy into. And for one song there was a person giving ten euros and another five euros in three minutes. I was like ‘ok, that was great. That was a really good decision to end like that’. Then, this really drunk, crazy-looking man comes up and I thought ‘oh, this doesn’t look good’. He just picked up the ten euros and the five euros. I was like ‘no… Don’t do that, please’ but he took a knife out of his pocket. So, I said ‘Take it. Take it. My life is not worth fifteen euros’”.
Most musicians are so blinded by the myth of ‘making it through the subway’, that they don’t really care about this issue nor the financial one.
Singing in the metro is not supposed to be a money maker full-time job. Betting on it to make a living is not for everyone. For now, this is the path David has chosen and he is lucky: “I can pay my rent. I can go out and have a few drinks with friends. It means certain sacrifices to be a singer. You don’t eat too often in a restaurant, watch movies at home instead of going out to the cinema, but I wouldn’t say there’re huge sacrifices at the same time. You have to lay out the benefits as well. I can make a living out of my passion but it wouldn’t be a living that everybody might like.” For the Irish young man, Paris is magic. The paved streets, the smell of croissants in the morning, the Eiffel Tower, everything is gathered to make it a dreamy place.
But is it really the right place to become an artist? Besides the great musical opportunities, accommodation is expensive and success hard to reach. However, more and more musicians are seeing the French capital and its subway as a one-way ticket to stardom. Live performances underneath the capital are not ready to end.