Last weekend, when I hopped off the F train onto the Broadway-Lafayette Street station platform, something was amiss. No angry riders wedging themselves inside, or sullen faces cursing at subway delays. Even people queuing up near the MetroCard vending machines were visibly chirpy.
Turns out I had stepped into an underground takeover designed and executed by Spotify honoring the life and work of David Bowie. Visitors and commuters ambled along, occasionally pausing to read a poster or take a photo.
The artwork on display ranges from song lyrics and gigantic portraits to journal entries, all captioned and arranged with the finesse of a Chelsea art gallery. Every wall, pillar, staircase and turnstile of the subway station is decked out in signature Bowie reds and oranges. The most popular showpiece – larger-than-life photographs of the artist covering a row of iron girders – is a stunning piece of perspective art.
Spotify’s subway takeover serves not only as a thoughtful celebration of a legendary musician, but also as an example of a brand positively transforming public spaces instead of polluting it with typical outdoor advertising.
Even the choice of location for the homage is strategic. Besides the fact that Bowie lived in SoHo for decades until his death in 2016, he was also known for wandering in New York City like “common folk.”
The art that sprawled the walls alternated with Bowie’s anecdotes about his love for the City, adding yet another layer of meaning to his work. Set against a drab background, the simple, powerful photographs stand out even more. The dull white subway titles make the orange pop.
By essentially turning a transport hub into a museum, Spotify elevates subway storytelling to a new level. The brand seems to take a tip or two from Art in Ad Places – a public service campaign replacing advertisements with artwork, based on the belief that outdoor ads “mark underutilized venues for other messages.”
The station also features fan-made work: a Bowery street sign that a group of vigilante fans illegally altered to say “David Bowery” as a tribute to the departed musician. Other pieces include a neighborhood map marking Bowie’s most frequented spots, famous song lyrics adorning the staircases as well as a silhouette decal illustrating his affinity for travelling incognito. These tactics in particular make Spotify’s initiative truly interactive, fostering a sense of community with locals and establishing a deeper connection with fans.
As the ultimate finishing touch, the station booths and vending machines also sell limited edition, keepsake MetroCards called “Tickets to Mars” displaying Bowie personas like Ziggy Stardust, Alladin Sane and Thin White Duke.
Subways play a crucial role in urban areas, but they also represent unique public spaces. Driven by the insight that music is a great equalizer that contributes to our sense of shared history, Spotify reimagined the city’s subway stations as spaces of gathering.
The undertaking proves that brands can advertise in a way that benefits everyone. The Brooklyn Museum gets more foot traffic; the MTA earns more revenue as people line up to purchase MetroCards as collectors’ items; and commuters discover a pop culture icon through immersive learning. Here, the brand recedes into the background and assumes a bigger role within society – of gatherer, facilitator and educator.
This station-turned-makeshift-art-gallery is an extension of the well-received David Bowie Is exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, of which Spotify is a lead sponsor. It will be open for viewing through Sunday, May 13.