Dan Pierson was in awe of Robert Leslie when he heard him playing in the Second Avenue F station for quarters. But instead of dropping a bill in the British-born performer’s guitar case and moving along, he took his card and invited him to perform at the apartment-warming party he was throwing on his Brooklyn Heights roof.
“I asked [Leslie] if he wanted to do it, and he said ‘I’ll do it for 50 bucks,’” said Pierson, who works at a venture capital firm. “I said, ‘that’s not enough money, you should start charging more than that!”
Pierson, who moved to the city in April, then recorded Leslie playing a set on a buddy’s rooftop on the Upper East Side, with a breathtaking view of Manhattan at his back, and threw it up online, along with a Kickstarter campaign promising to organize a rooftop concert on August 10 with a full line-up of subway musicians.
“On the dark hot noisy subway platforms the listeners only ever get something like a random five-minute slice of a performer’s set, and chances are he’s just bashing out some loud crowdpleaser in order to catch the people’s attention,” said Leslie, who usually alternates between stations around the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, and who will be performing at the show next weekend. “Whereas with these rooftop shows the fellow on stage will have a nice leisurely hour or so to bring across the songs start to finish with all their delicate nuances.”
The Subway Sets Kickstarter reached its $2,000 goal after only a day, and has since been moving steadily toward its “stretch goal” of $5,000. It was just named Kickstarter’s Staff Pick of the day, and won a $1,000 grant (which will go to paying performers) from the Awesome Foundation, a Boston-based organization that supports creative projects.
Pierson has booked four artists so far (he’s encouraging his Kickstarter backers to tweet their favorites at him in order to crowdsource the final act). They all have a folksy bent, from banjo-playing, tambourine-kicking soloist Morgan O’Kane to folk-pop siren Catey Shaw. None of them are complete unknowns, as they each play occasional shows in the Lower East Side at venues like Rockwood Music Hall and Arlene’s Grocery. But as Leslie explained, subway busking is still the best way for an unsigned artists to make rent, and Pierson found all his performers by looking underground rather than at any above-ground shows.
“Dan heard of me through a friend who had seen me on the subway,” said Shaw, who frequents the 23rd Street F and M station with her ukulele. “Word of mouth is the way to go.”
As for the venue, Pierson has been considering open air spots in both Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, but a rooftop in Bushwick is currently a major contender. He hopes to turn Subway Sets into a monthly endeavor, at a different venue each time. This first concert will be BYOB, and tickets can only be purchased via the Kickstarter campaign, which ends tonight.