After Heineken released a video yesterday announcing that it was backing James Murphy’s dream of turning the shrill beeps of Metrocard swipes into a series of pleasant musical tones, we had a few questions about the logistics of this “subway symphony.” So we got the LCD Soundsystem frontman on the phone.
The first thing he did was clear up an MTA spokesperson’s statement in a Gothamist item that he said “took me by surprise.” The spokesperson (whom Murphy pointed out is “not a policy maker, he’s the press guy, so I wouldn’t expect him to know what our project is”) said that as a condition of letting team Subway Symphony film its promo video, “we made them acknowledge that we can’t and won’t do it.” Murphy refutes that: “There’s a clause in our agreement that says allowing us to shoot in the subway doesn’t mean that the MTA endorses the project,” but there’s nothing saying the MTA won’t ever do it, he said.
(Adam Lisberg, the MTA spokesperson who spoke to Gothamist, sent us the exact wording in the MTA’s contract with Heineken’s ad firm, Weiden & Kennedy: “Licensee and Agent hereby acknowledge that the MTA has informed the individual depicted in the advertisement that the concept presented in the advertisement involving the turnstiles of the New York City subway system cannot be implemented.”)
Murphy thinks it’s too early to tell whether the agency will come around: “We haven’t had meetings with them where we’ve gone over our project,” he said. “I’ve only loosely met the head of the MTA at a function for their Regional Plan Association.”
He also contests the spokesperson’s belief that “the tones are an ADA element for the visually impaired, and we won’t mess with them – much less take turnstiles out of service and risk disabling them for an art project.”
The way he sees it, the tones could be implemented as Metrocards are phased out, by 2019. “We’re hoping it would happen then,” he said. “They have to intervene with the turnstiles to do the tap-and-ride switch. Our plan is instead of doing it on its own, this would be riding on that intervention.” (Lisberg told us it’s too early to say what exactly will happen with the turnstiles, assuming there’s sufficient funding for the project. “We will certainly be installing new types of payment-method readers on the turnstiles,” he said, but it remains to be seen whether the turnstiles will be replaced entirely.)
As for the ADA issue, Murphy is still looking into whether his dulcet tones are suitable for the hard of hearing: “At the moment, the only ADA info you can get about the subway is the width of the turnstiles to be wheelchair accessible,” he said. “We haven’t found anything about sound.”
“One of the big dreams of this project is that it’s significantly better for people with hearing or visual impairments,” he said, going on to note that the current system doesn’t cut it: “You find out the swipe didn’t work by hitting your hips against the bar – it’s not very clear auditory information.” His system, he said, would allow for positive or negative feedback depending on whether your swipe was successful.
(Lisberg said he didn’t have the wording of the ADA requirements handy, but noted that the beeps do provide auditory information: one beep means go, two beeps means swipe again, and three beeps means insufficient fair.)
Murphy admitted he hasn’t yet been able to make a formal entreaty to the MTA or to Mayor de Blasio: “I haven’t had a chance to sit with anybody, but at the moment it’s difficult to get in there.” That’s part of why he’s doing interviews, despite his reluctance to be the face of the project. “What I understand is that a system like the MTA – with getting people to school and work – they’re not going to take notice necessarily until there’s a reason to take notice. I’m trying to give a reason to take notice.”
In the meantime, Heineken has put up the money for research and development. Even if the MTA doesn’t end up letting Murphy et al install their prototype turnstiles in a pilot station (Lisberg told us it won’t happen), commuters will eventually be able to try them out. “We’re trying to get a place for the public to actually play with it, let people see what it’s like,” Murphy said.
As for how a citywide implementation might be funded, Murphy believes costs will be minimal so long as the tones can be programmed into the sound cards that will go into the tap-and-ride turnstiles. (Lisberg said tinkering will probably be kept to a minimum lest it damage a much needed turnstile and cause it to be out of commission while it’s repaired.)
It’s too early to say exactly what will happen with turnstiles when which will be at least 2019 depending on whether or not we get funding on it or not which is an open question or not.
So if Heineken is putting up all this R&D money, Murphy must be serving the stuff at his new Williamsburg spot, The Four Horsemen. Right?
“No,” he said. “We’re a wine bar.”
Sorachi Ace it is!
Update, 5:15 p.m.: The original version of this post was updated throughout with quotes (in parentheses) from Adam Lisberg, Director of External Communications at the MTA.