The Music of the Paris Metro

Singer-songwriter Sian Pottock at her RATP audition.
Sitting in the basement of the RATP building, Paris’s urban transportation headquarters, I was tapping my foot along with the young girl who was crooning along with her guitar. Next on stage was a Cuban salsa band, followed by a blues singer with an American accent that gave him away immediately. As the jury looked on, it felt like an episode of The Voice, and not an audition to play in one of Paris’s largest theaters…

You get on the metro. And then it happens. You’re on your way to work, probably with your earphones in, and that man you know oh so well boards the train.

Mesdames et messieurs…” he begins, and then the music starts. It’s an accordion, maybe violin, or  God forbid a trumpet, but the scene is always the same. They play some music for a stop or two and then ask for money.

“But I didn’t ask you to play that music,” you think to yourself, narrowly avoiding eye contact as the musicians pass by with their paper cup or hat.

As you recover from the blaring trumpet, returning to your Beyoncé or Céline Dion (no judgement), you don’t even entertain the idea of paying him.

As you leave the metro, you walk briskly past performers in the station, assuming that they, too, will just be there to irritate you and ask for money. Here, however, is your first mistake of the day.
Cuban salsa group Tentacion de Cuba rocking it out at their audition.

Few know that many of the musicians who play in the halls of Paris’s metro system have actually auditioned and have been selected to be there. And yes, most of them are actually really, really good. It's been 15 years that this program has existed, but even I wasn't entirely aware of how it worked.

With around 4 million passengers per day traveling through the Paris metro, who wouldn’t want to play to such an audience? The Stade de France only seats some 81,000 people – that’s nothing in comparison (no offense Justin Timberlake and Madonna).

Antoine Naso, the artistic director of the Musiciens du Métro program, said that some 2000 people come in for an audition, with about 300 awarded badges that let them play legally in the metro halls. The jury is composed largely of RATP representatives – among them, those who will be listening to the music on a daily basis, so there is an invested interest. But the performers come from all over the world.

Sion Pottock, a Belgian-American, was auditioning to renew her badge after playing in the metro for 6 months already. She said the program is a great way to test new material and see what people react to while she’s strumming away on her guitar.

“If they stop to watch, then that means there’s something special there,” she said after her audition.
Many like Pottock are full-time musicians who play on stages across Europe. She said that the money, mostly tips that people leave, is far from the motivation to play in the various stations.
Mr. Miller on stage at RATP auditions.
RenéMiller, an American  in Paris for 24 years, cited freedom as a motivator. “It makes you feel free from working in bars and for bar owners,” he said. Look for him at the Bastille station with his new guitar, bringing a little Bob Dylan blues to your commute.

Both artists agree that the program has been beneficial. Miller said that Naso gives advice to aspiring performers, and exposure has brought Pottock gigs. “They’re really helping me out,” she said, “and it opens up your audience without getting annoying on Facebook.”

While buskers inside the trains are illegally performing, not all metro music is quite as tedious. So next time you see someone playing in the hallways of your local metro station, look for their badge and maybe stop to listen – chances are you won’t be disappointed.