Subway playlists: How Toronto got its groove back

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Meagan Perry is the executive director of the rabble podcast network. She recently started The Stationary Groove in Toronto, a story first reported by The Sniffer and also covered by the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, Torontoist, BlogTO -- among others. Here, Meagan shares the inspiration and concept behind this popular music mapping project. 

You know what's wonderful? When you do a project because you love it, and it catches on. That's how I feel about rabble.ca and that's how I'm feeling about one of my other babies, The Stationary Groove: Toronto Subway Playlist project.

Stationary Groove is a site that maps the musical tastes of each stop on the Toronto subway with a playlist created by asking people on those subway platforms what song they had playing on their headphones.

Will you like all the music? Not possible. Will you judge others based on their musical taste? Probably. Will the list offer an entry point into new realms of music? Definitely, if you let it.

I work at rabble.ca as the executive producer of podcasts. One day a week I coordinate the network, and host and produce rabble radio, and in the other four days of the week I make podcasts for a range of clients across the country as MAP Communications Consulting. As a podcast producer, I am one of many people who spend their time nurturing a thriving headphone culture.

While podcasts can share ideas and create a community of likeminded people spread over wide geographic areas, listening alone in public space forces us to disengage from the people, sounds and experiences around us. It's why we shouldn't talk on phones while we're driving. All that said, I like to listen. Music and podcasts on headphones have got me through any number of seemingly endless waits in line at the grocery store, workouts or bus stop sojourns.

When I moved back to Toronto after six years in the Yukon Territory (where there is no subway), I noticed a stark change on the subways. So many more people were using music and podcasts to turn communal spaces into individual ones. Why, for instance, would you stand around numbly waiting for a subway train with your fellow passengers when you could be enjoying your favourite songs instead? Most commuters are sharing physical space with your neighbour -- but headspace is another matter.

The more I saw plugged in people around me, the more I reflected about diversity of tastes, diversity of culture, and the way we engage or disengage ourselves from both those things. I wanted to show how that diversity played out in the subway system, where people are on the move across the city at all times of day or night.

I imagined a map with pop-up playlists, and found a developer, François Villeneuve, to help me create a database and functioning map. At a basic level, I was more and more curious about what my fellow travellers were listening to. 

As far as I could see, there was only one way to find out, and that was to ask them. Whenever I had a few hours to spare, I descended into the subway with low-tech tools - a pen and paper -- approaching people in headphones to ask what they were listening to at that moment. What I found was this: TTC platforms are home to an inaudible cacophony of music and culture. If we could hear it all at once, what a noise it would be!

It's almost taboo to talk to another person on the subway in Toronto. To complete the project, I had to break this "sound barrier." I steeled myself for some heavy criticism, and started miming to people that they should take out one headphone. I thought they would ignore me, and some did. The big surprise came when most people, after an initial moment of uncertainty, were more than happy to tell me what they were listening to.

When songs weren’t in English, I'd ask the surveyees to write out the titles for me, and many people obliged. At the central stations in Toronto this was easier to do than I expected. People were eager to share: "Do you know about Bollywood?" or "This guy is a musician from Kenya," or my personal favourite at the top of the Yonge line when I asked whether I'd be able to find Amr Diab on iTunes -- "Yes, he is very very famous," I was informed with a very surprised look. It's true. The guy is huge. I was learning a lot.

As I moved east, west and north it was a little more difficult. People listening to non-English music would often answer my question about their song with "I am listening to my cultural music." It seemed that they simply couldn't believe that I might be interested. In the end many of them agreed to write out song titles and artists so I could search that music out online, and as much as I could find on iTunes I included in the iTunes playlists. The rest will be added on my blog with YouTube links where they are available.

From K-Pop to the Qur'an, from Tamil music to heavy metal and hip-hop to children's music, I found it on the subway. Many contributors blushed and said, "busted!" before sharing their song with me. Thirty-somethings admitted they were listening to children's music, or teenybopper hits from 15 years ago. I learned about new-to-me artists from places on the other side of the world. Headphone listeners shared their musical knowledge and encouraged me to search out other songs by the same artist. Reactions ranged from mystified looks about this strange project to pleasure at the chance to share a tune. I took the songs commuters shared with me, made playlists at iTunes, and linked those lists to the Stationary Groove subway map.

Some of the songs commuters shared with me were rare, independent or simply unavailable in iTunes, which is the tool I used to create the final lists. I don't think that being unavailable at iTunes should stop us from hearing those songs, so I'll be posting their videos or links to them on Facebook, on Twitter (@MAPpodcasting) and at www.stationarygroove.com.

If you want to participate, please do! You can email me at groove[at]mapcommunications[dot]ca. Simply use the submission button, or tweet with your location and your song along with the hashtag #stationarygroove. I'd love to have your help turning up the volume on the music we each add to the mix.

When I started this project I envisioned a simple map of the subway with pop-up lists showing what people at each station were listening to the day I asked them what was on their ipod. As the project grew I added a mobile component where subway riders could send me their songs.

Wednesday morning, I had enough submissions from Finch Station in Toronto to start the second round of the project. You're welcome to tell me where you are and what you're listening to anytime. If you're not in Toronto, submit anyway, and I'll do what I can to create more maps. I can't wait to hear from you.

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