From Billy Joel Sing-Along to Rhythm on Rikers: Make Music New York's Record-Setting 1,350 Shows

For those with a fear of missing out, New York City is a treacherous place to live with its daily overflowing smorgasbord of music, art, theatre and so many other cultural offerings. But this Saturday (June 21), when the Make Music New York festival hits the city streets with a record-setting 1,350 free concerts, it may be best for those with acute FOMO to hide under a blanket.

The eighth installment of the multi-genre music fest features thousands of musicians playing in primarily outdoor locations across the five boroughs from a range of genres: there’s marching bands at Grand Army Plaza, a gamelan at South Street Seaport, a punk rock fest on an old pier on Staten Island and a guitar army led by Testament’s Alex Skolnick at Union Square.

“It started in France,” says Aaron Friedman, Make Music’s president and cofounder who lived in Bordeaux France where he played music and taught English. He saw his first Fete de la Musique in 2006. “It’s like a holiday for musicians with people streaming into streets with instruments and playing on every corner from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m.. It’s not really a staged festival, it's almost like how people show up in costume on Halloween.“

The French version was launched in 1982 by Maurice Fleuret, composer, music journalist, radio producer, arts administrator, after he realized one in two children in France played a musical instrument. With a decidedly populist bent, Fleuret decided he wanted to find a way to bring music and musicians to the streets and launched an annual music event to coincide summer solstice. The event has spread across the world and now includes 18 cities in North America.

Make New York 2014's official poster by Josh Gosfield

Make Music New York launched in 2007 with some 560 concerts and  is a bit less of a spontaneous than its French antecedent with shows running from 10 a.m to 10 p.m and  sanctioned after parties.  “In New York there are lots of permits and regulations we have to work with,” Friedman explains. “Instead of people just showing up and playing we have a matchmaker website. People sign up offering venues, others have a band and are looking for a place to play. People have a portal to connect – it’s like an Internet dating site people making requests and going back and forth.”

Friedman says MMNY actively works with business improvement districts to locate retailers or venues where musicians can play. “The BIDS go into the stores in their areas and ask, "Can you host music in front of your hardware store? Maybe you can have drink specials.’”

Make Music New York, is a non-profit, that receives financial support from foundations and governmental organizations, such as NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, Bloomberg Philanthropies, NAMM Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. At the same time individual donations make up a large portion of MMNY's budget.  “A lot of support comes from participants,” Friedman says. “It will turn out they have a day job on Wall street and can give a thousand dollars, we have a lot of that. “

While artists do not get compensation from Make Music New York, some of the inviting venues do pay the musicians  “It’s a matchmaking situation,” Friedman says. “Carnegie Hall pays and so does the River-to-River festival...and maybe that hardware store will get their son to play and might pay his band.* But it’s completely out of our purview, we just put people in touch and sometimes they get contracts for the gig, it’s completely up to them.”

While major artists have been known to play Make Music—Philip Glass was among 175 keyboard players on Cornelia Street last year—the event is designed to be as public as possible. "We really try not to focus on that," Friedman says.

Some of the most compelling programming is Make Music’s Mass Appeal shows, which bring together hundreds of musicians playing the same instrument. This will include flutes in Central Park, gongs at Worth Square, Harps at the Grace Building, circuit benders at a firehouse in Williamsburg and a hum-a-long to a ConEd substation in DUMBO. Elsewhere there are events like Rhythm on Rikers, which teaches percussion to inmates, Red Barat’s 100+ BPM which brings together 20 marching bands to Prospect Park and a hootenanny at the Governors Island Porch Stomp but Friedman seems decidedly in a more New York State of mind for an event he's very much looking forward to.

“I’m embarrassingly excited about this sing-along Billy Joel piano bar sponsored by Casio that features a pianist in a tuxedo in the back of a pickup truck,” the MMNY president says. “June 21 coincides with Billy Joel’s show at Madison Square Garden so we’re going to be doing 100% Billy Joel covers." The Billy Joel pick-up truck has planned historical Joel stops, like:" 96th and Broadway (“Uptown Girl”); 52nd Street in tribute to the album of the same name; and Astor place where the cover of the “Turnstiles” album was shot. "I know lot of singers are going to be there," Friedman says, "some pretty interesting people."

For the full Make Music NYC schedule click here.

 *Correction appended: In the original version of this story, Mr. Friedman inaccurately stated that Joe's Pub was among the venues that paid MMNY performers when in fact musicians donate their time and talent for the concert without compensation.