Down below Times Square, where crowds swell and trains screech by, Lorenzo LaRoc plays his five-string plexiglass electric violin. A few blocks south, at Penn Station, the rhythms of Afro-Caribbean beats reverberate through subway tunnels as the United Drummers of Yisrael (UDY) pound their conga drums. To some commuters these musicians are simply nuisances. But to Andrew Rallo they are his “close-knit army of musicians.”
Rallo is the president and founder of Subway Records, a two-year-old, home-based company that promotes the artistic achievements of subterranean musicians. He acts as an unpaid agent for more than 70 performers from New York, Denver, London, Spain, and Tokyo by booking gigs, finding recording studios, selling albums, and promoting his international roster of talent to the general public.
The concept of Subway Records came to Rallo naturally, because he too once performed underground. “I couldn’t perform every day, but I knew that even if I could, the likelihood of reaching a larger audience was slim,” he says. “[Subway Records] isn’t a way to become the next American Idol or anything like that, it’s just an opportunity for really talented, streetwise musicians to get ahead in this profession. There’s this common misconception that [subway musicians] are all panhandlers, and while some are trying to earn a living, performing is in their heart and I want to help them express that,” says Rallo.
Previously, the only way for musicians to gain exposure in the subway was through support from the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Every May, a panel of MTA judges holds auditions for short-term performance permits. But for every five hundred who try out, fewer than one hundred make it. The process leaves some artists out of work, while others who continue to play risk fines for performing without a permit.
Subway Records currently does not produce albums, though according to Rallo the company is slowly making the transition into a “full-fledged legitimate record label.” His main concern right now is expanding his online platform
(subwayrecords.com) by profiling artists and mass-emailing fans who sign-up for gig announcements on the site. He also pays for ads in local magazines, distributes musician bio sheets to subway passengers, contacts music writers and local venues on behalf of artists, and ensures that all proceeds from the sales go directly to his musicians.
Singer Theo Eastwind, one of the label’s most popular musicians according to Rallo, moved to New York from Austria seven years ago with nothing to his name except for an intoxicating voice and lullaby-like style. He eventually formed his own production company, TheoSophical Music, through which he has produced four albums. But it wasn’t till Eastwind’s music was showcased on Subway’s website that his albums began flying off the shelves. At last count he had sold more than fourteen thousand copies.
Subway artists do not have to pay any sign-up or management fees because the company derives its revenue from advertising; businesses can either sponsor specific performers and be publicized at the venues where they perform or post online ads on Subway’s site. However, artists are not contractually obligated to promote specific brand names.
Ariel Ephrayeem is one of 25 drummers in UDY, an eight-year-old band that rotates in teams of five and performs in Manhattan’s busiest subway stations. He dismisses claims that the group is “selling out” by countering that Subway Records is finally providing an equal opportunity for all artists to earn a living at performing music. Following a brief interview and live audition, a standard procedure to sign with Subway Records, UDY joined the company last year. “My brothers have been fighting to be heard for a long time,” Ephrayeem says, “so it’s good to see someone take interest.”
Neil Parmar is a freelance writer and graduate student in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication at NYU.