The street musician Benoit Peille plays guitar in the metro station Saint-Lazare in Paris and people are passing by.

Les Musiciens du Métro: Beating heart of Paris’ underground

25 years ago the Parisian transport company RATP created a music label. With the ‘Musiciens du métro’ they do not only entertain around 6.5 million passengers every day, but also offer ‘underground’ artists the biggest stage of Paris. To make money and to shape their future.

Story by Franziska Kircher

7pm at Gare Saint-Lazare. The old wagons of the Parisian metro come to a screeching stop. They carry people squeezed back to back, the tall ones hold onto the tugs on the ceiling, causing the short ones to sniff their sweaty armpits. An old lady elbows her way out of the cart, followed by her dachshund and countless other passengers. 6.5 million people use the Parisian metro per day. Announcements in French, English, German, Spanish and Mandarin echo through the tiled tunnels, reminding the passengers of the next connections and to be aware of pickpockets.

Now and then, a guitar sound peaks through the noise, getting louder every step closer to the exit. It is Benoît Peille. His fingers strum the sides of his guitar as he sings Purple Rain by Prince. Close by there is a couple, holding each other tight and shedding some tears of goodbye. A toddler makes his way through the legs of the grown-ups as his eyes catch Benoît playing. The boy’s face lights up and he tugs at his mother’s hand, trying to stop her from rushing by. A stranger sits on the stairs watching whilst finishing his take-away fries. He gets up and walks over to Benoît. They make eye contact, he leaves 20 euros in Benoît’s guitar case and takes one of the artist’s CDs. The man then turns around and gifts the CD to the little boy before disappearing with the next wave of passengers. An act of kindness in the rushed Parisian underground.

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Passengers and musicians profit

Scenes like these are the kind that the RATP transport company wants to encourage. That is why the company founded its own label ‘Musiciens du Métro’ 25 years ago. Since then, they hold auditions every six months for musicians to gain approval to play in the metro. With the pass, the musicians are allowed to play in the metro stations – unauthorised artists are sent away by the securities. Over time being a metro musician got very popular, partly because of the effect it had on the career of previous metro musicians such as ZAZ. The last time, over 1,000 musicians applied to the auditions, but only 300 of them convinced the jury of the Musiciens du Métro.

Stella Saison, advertising manager at Musiciens du Métro, sees enormous potential in her artists, as she told BFM in a recent interview. The Label sees its main goal as “providing passengers with quality musical entertainment during their transport time while helping young talents to emerge.” Getting the ‘Musiciens du Métro’ ID-card does not only allow them to perform in the underground, where millions of people pass every day, but also at festivals of RATP partners such as Solidays, Art’Rock or Festival Chorus. On top of that, the ‘prix du public’, an audience award, is awarded annually. Passengers and fans can vote for their favourite artist via social media. In 2022, Romain Rousset won the competition with his song Attrape ton rêve.

Romain Rousset is the winner of the prix du public 2022.

Being able to inspire people with an original makes him very proud. “Normally I mostly play cover songs, because people know them and are more likely to stop”, Romain says. However, once there is a crowd forming, he sometimes uses the opportunity to throw in some of his originals. Attrape ton rêve especially means a lot to him, because he wrote it for his father, who passed away at the beginning of 2022. Winning the ‘prix du public’ only a few weeks after really helped Romain process his loss, he recalls. The price showed him once more that he enriches people’s lives with his music. It can be hard to perform in the metro if the people rush by and don’t take notice, Romain says. “You give your heart and soul, I mean it really is a performance when I make music”, he explains.

Romain does not only stick in people’s memories with his soft and at the same time smoky voice. He also has a very special way of playing his instruments. Only hearing him in the metro, one could think there is a band playing – Romain uses his guitar as a drum at the same time, sings and adds to the melodies with his harmonica, which hangs around his neck with a wire. At the moment Romain only plays guitar on the colourful couch in his living room due to a sprained ankle. He cannot wait to play in front of a real audience again.

Despite the challenges, Romain overall likes playing in public places such as the metro, because “you never know what is going to happen”. He is especially grateful for the connections because he feels like this is very rare in Paris. “People focus more on themselves and their business, but music has the power, even in this anonymous city, to bring people together”, he says.

Benoît agrees, that it is the power of music that counts, as he clears his guitar case of coins and the occasional notes. Around 100 euros have come together, but that’s not the point. The 20, maybe 30 people that stopped and listened are what counts to him. Hundreds may have passed without paying any attention. Still, he was able to make music for those who escaped the suction of everyday life for a moment. Even if it was just for the length of a song.