Lifestyle 5 comments

Why Do French Metro Musicians Sound SO Good?

Paris Metro Music

I remember my first RER trip back from Charles de Gaulle. Clutching my two overstuffed suitcases and taking it all in, the doors suddenly opened and an Opera singer walked in:

As if it wasn’t enough to take in the Parisian countryside on my way into the heart of the city, Paris decided to treat me with some local entertainment. That’s right — a woman got on the train and literally sang an aria out loud. God I love this place.

Excerpt from my Paris journal

And they don’t just break this out for the tourists, musicians were all over Paris. This vieil accordioniste was one of my favorties:

On the metro this morning, an elderly man and his accordion got on the ligne 4 at Cité. His frail fingers lifted up in anticipation of the first note and then hopped magically along the pegs and keyboard like young dancers. His choice of songs was perhaps cliché, though I prefer to call it classic. Something inside me longed to burst into tears as his wrinkled eyelids closed for Edith Piaf.

He didn’t stop playing or ask for money until St. Placide when a woman pressed a 1 EUR coin into his hand before two policemen escorted him off the train. When I walked up the stairs at Vavin, I could still see their hands coaxing the frail elbows of the still-smiling man off the car, waiting for him to put away the accordion that made him come alive. As I made my way to the top of the stairs, the skies were gray.

I thought of the accordionist’s lingering smile and hopeful melodies but I felt that a world where an old man got punished for a 1 EUR coin was not “la vie en rose.”

Paris is still a mystery to me. Part romance, part tragedy, she’s like the girlfriend you could never figure out, the Emma Bovary of cities. I may never understand her.

Excerpt from my Paris journal

And it was like this everywhere. In the trains, in the halls – world class concerts on the go. By the end of my sojourn in Paris as a daily metro commuter, I was completely spoiled.


So why are Parisian metro musicians so good?

Well, partly because the ones who play there legally have to be approved by a very competitive audition process, detailed in this NY Times Report:

Two classes of performers prowl the Métro: the legal ones awarded permits by Mr. Naso, and unlicensed buskers, who tend to corner captive audiences in trains with screeching accordions — or more unorthodox entertainment.

It wasn’t always like this. Before Mr. Naso’s group started assigning permits in 1997, musicians were all “unlicensed buskers” who managed to scrape by the police with their numbers.

“Transit officials came to the conclusion that if they couldn’t beat musicians at the game, perhaps they could join them — or at least organize them a bit better. So [in 1997] they set up auditions to select 300 or so performers to become the official musicians of the Paris subway.” -CNN

Now, though, many musicians see the Paris underground as a one-way ticket to stardom. For beyond just the waves of locals and tourists, music scouts tend to roam the subways as well.

The subways were the start for Keziah Jones, who played in the Paris metro in 1989 before becoming an international star. Why the Metro as a launch pad?

“It was close and Miles Davis was here”, Keziah said in a madaboutparis interview.

Jones returned to the Paris metro in 2008 to play this concert in his old stomping grounds:

In an age where most of us are listening to our favorite artists through personal earbuds, is the reign of the street musician on the decline? It remains to be seen, but perhaps Paris is on to something with its hub for live performance underneath the city.

What’s your take on street music? Should it be licensed or or more ad-hoc? Would you prefer the subways with live music or without? Let me know in the comments!


  1. I have to say today I stood in awe of a busker. I was on on an rer from Gare du nord to Charles de Gaule at about 8am. A guy got on and started to sing knock knock knocking on heavens door. Initially before I saw him I thought someone’s headphones were up too loud. Then I realised he was singing live with an acoustic guitar. At the end he got a spontaneous ovation from the packed train. I would buy his album in a flash. Absolutely stunning voice and beautiful arrangement of a fabulous classic. To be honest I was disappointed that I couldn’t ask the guy next to me who was on the headphones. A one off I guess, but totally awesome.

  2. …and sorry for not answering the question….it goes without saying that live music is great and for me, a regular English business guy visiting Paris for work, it was a brilliant and thoroughly uplifting start to the day.

  3. Emily Grossman

    These experiences are some of my favorites!
    In fact, when I found out there was an audition process at all, I was a bit surprised! Even the unlicensed performers are truly amazing. But I wonder if the risk of being reported if you annoy anyone makes you work harder. Or perhaps having to compete with licensed performers has raised standards as well. In either case, I’ve been completely obsessed with this underground music scene and love your anecdote here!

  4. Emily Grossman

    Same for a regular American student trying to jumpstart a career as a photographer. Such a power to music, it can break through even the worst “wrong side of the bed” days!

  5. Sophie P. de Saintonge

    As a french woman myself, I feel obligated to disagree with you at some point. I was born, raised and I am curently living in one france’s big city. Wherever you took it, the subway (the metro as we call it usually here) is rarely a place you enjoy good or even decent music.
    The old french accordeonist or other mythological french creature does exist but it’s a rarety. You still found sound during the tourist period of the year, mostly in Paris.

    Otherwise, music in the metro is my personal nightmare : most of the time it’s basically beggar people playing poorly of accordeon or guitar before asking for money. I have no ill-feelings against mendicant but you might find me non-receptive to loud accordeon at 7am. A fortiori if the same song has been played repeatedly for the last two years… (ai se eu te pego every morning and night and… basically almost every time I take the metro for the last three years I’ve been living i Lyon)

    The french everyday life is i manny ways great but don’t take the dream too far, you might get desapointed. We do live in a beautiful country but everything aren’t pink and music in the metro certainly ARE NOT.

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