Bens Hilaire was new to the city learning the subway system when he heard a beautiful singing voice at an underground station.
“At first, I thought the station itself had like a radio station underground,” said Hilaire, who moved here from Delray Beach, Fla., in 2014.
But as he walked through the station, the sound of the female opera singer grew louder. Hilaire thought he was nearing the speakers until he found a woman singing live. When he returned home, he searched for the singer online, but he didn’t know her name. He couldn’t even remember the station he was in when he heard her voice.
In a cultural mecca like New York, talent abounds, both above ground and below. Hilaire and his partner Kirill Valyas hope to bring more attention to artists like the opera singer with Subway Talents, a website for subway musicians and street performers that they launched in June.
The concept is part talent database, part social media platform, where artists receive unique profiles that include performance videos, interviews, links to their own music pages and an option to book artists for gigs directly from the website. Hilaire also helps raise artist profiles. When woodwind quintet Washington Square Winds, which performs at Penn Station and Times Square, joined Subway Talents about a month ago, Hilaire promoted one of their performances on social media (the site has 5,200 Instagram followers) and traveled to Queens to record the group’s concert.
Hilaire, 26, met co-founder Valyas, 24, on Craigslist, when both were looking to start a website to promote subway talent. Valyas hatched a similar idea around the same time; he wanted a site that gave fans a direct way to donate money to performers online. He had web building experience, but lacked video expertise and the necessary film equipment. Hilaire was a former film student who started a film company when he moved to New York. He was searching for musicians to include on his site when he encountered Valyas’ ad.
Valyas, who moved to New York from Kemerovo, Russia, five years ago, and Hilaire both possess entrepreneurial sensibilities, and initially started Subway Talents as a side project while working other jobs, each finding a skill set in the other that they lacked themselves.
“The fact that randomly we, Russian and South Florida kids, somehow we come together on Craigslist to kind of build this thing to help out other people too, I feel like it was kind of meant to be,” said Hilaire as he sat next to Valyas on a narrow bench at Seven Grams Caffe in Chelsea. Hilaire possesses seemingly boundless energy, and does much of the talking. Valyas is more measured, with fewer words.
“Destiny,” Valyas added.
Subway Talents is a non-profit, designed to provide its artists with free promotional tools. But money is tight so far. Users can donate to the organization through the website. A recent Indiegogo campaign brought in a little more than $300.
“It’s basically bootstrap,” Valyas said.
The founders invested their own money into the project, and are focusing their energies on Subway Talents full time. With the crowdfunding campaign over, they’re looking for investors.
They worked with clothing brand Boy Meets Girl during a New York Fashion Week event, which brought out celebrities such as Kendall Jenner and Randy Jackson. Subway Talents brought one of its artists, breakdance group Extreme Kingz, as the event’s entertainment.
So far, Subway Talents has 17 musicians on its roster, from pop group 212Green to Theremin player Llamano and saw player Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz. Qualifying for a presence on the site is simple: have an act, and perform on the subway or street.
“If you go to YouTube, there’s some garbage singers up there, but YouTube won’t say, ‘you know what, you suck, you can’t sign up,’” said Hilaire.
Some of the artists are also part of audition-based Music Under New York, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority arts program that grants permits for artists to perform at designated spots in the transit system. Most of Subway Talents’ artists are based in New York, with one in Paris and another, a 15-year-old singer named Evan Cole, who busks in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I think he’s the next Justin Bieber,” said Hilaire.
“I was about to say the same thing,” said Valyas.
“He’s like mega-famous,” Hilaire added.
When the site grows, the pair hopes to build regional sections for each city.
Emily Hopkins, a harpist from Long Island who’s on the website, plays at Penn Station during the evening commute. She first saw a harp player at a Mexican restaurant when she was eight years old, and was hooked.
“I hand out a lot of business cards when I play on the subway, and I talk to people, and some people have no idea what the harp is about,” she said. “Sometimes I’m the first harpist they’ve ever seen. So that’s really nice that I’m kind of representing the harp.”
Subway Talents has brought in more email inquiries for weddings and cocktail hours, Hopkins said, as well as new Instagram followers.
The organization is still in its earliest stage, and by the end of the year, Valyas and Hilaire will start rebuilding the website, adding filters and search functions. They also plan to launch a concert series next summer, and hope to spread to other locations, especially during the winter, when busking in New York becomes frigid.
“I love thinking big,” said Hilaire. “I just like, think beyond.”
Hilaire hopes that the site will become the singular source for promoting and discovering underground talent globally, which he thinks could make record labels unnecessary. The website will provide free promotion to a built-in audience, and fans can purchase music from the site.
Brick-and-mortar studios are also part of the vision, which artists could book online to record music and shoot videos, interviews and photos, a free resource for typically pricey, but necessary, services.
“The music market, there’s stars, Rihanna and Beyoncé, and there’s someone else who’s behind them,” said Valyas. “We basically want to put that lower layer at the same level as the stars.”
Meanwhile, they’re growing, and hope to add around 10 new artists a month, they said, which could bring Hilaire back to the voice that first piqued his interest.
“I never found the girl,” Hilaire said of the opera singer he heard when he first moved to the city. “Maybe I will.”