People who have travelled on the New York City subway might not have heard of Mike Yung. But there’s a good chance they have heard him.
Yung has been singing on subway platforms for the past 38 years, his soulful baritone echoing along platforms, his dressed-down style being filmed by countless onlookers.
Now, at the age of 57, Yung is hoping to take his unique voice to a wider audience – with a crowdfunding campaign he hopes will finance his first record.
“It feels great,” Yung told the Guardian. “It’s like being a prizefighter. You’ve got another shot at the title.”
Yung has raised more than $80,000 on Kickstarter so far, and has signed with Paradigm Talent Agency, which represents artists including Chvrches and Pulp. It’s the latest step in a winding career that saw him sing for decades without acclaim until a video of him performing went
DADDY KANG ☄️ (@thedaddykang)
these ppl walking by don’t even notice what they are missing… pic.twitter.com/QIq24NvzIs
After that he appeared on the Late Late Show with James Corden and made the semi-finals of America’s Got Talent. With his newfound fame – and millions of views of him singing online – Yung was hoping for a record deal, but offers failed to materialize, and he returned to the subway.
It wasn’t the first setback Yung has faced. He started singing in his church as a toddler, and as a 14-year-old signed a record deal – but his label, which also released Etta James’ album Changes, got into financial difficulties and no record was ever released.
After his appearance on America’s Got Talent in 2017, Yung began to get recognized on the subway platform. But sometimes those interactions were disheartening. People would ask why he was still singing on the subway. Why he didn’t have a record contract.
“There’s this assumption that once you get onto one of those TV shows that you have a career or something. You’re going to be OK,” Kang, who originally tweeted the viral clip of Yung, said.
But that wasn’t the case. Instead, Yung lost his home shortly after appearing on America’s Got Talent. Fans helped him raise money to move into a new apartment and he went back to subway, and back to the methods he had picked up over the years. Yung would choose one particular subway platform – usually somewhere in Manhattan – and perform there for a week.
“So Thursdays and Fridays people have seen you all week and then have money to give you,” he said. “There’s a cycle that you use on the subway. Because nobody gets paid every day. People get paid on Thursdays and Fridays.”
After that week, he’d usually choose a different spot – “you can’t stay in one stop because the same people are not going to tip you,” he said – except for in winter.
Some subway platforms are warmer than others, so he would go to places where the platforms were deeper underground – often Herald Square, which serves seven different subways and the New Jersey-bound Path train, and is close to Macy’s and Penn Station.
Mike Yung in March 2018 Photograph: Mike Yung
Approaching 60, and with a partner and five children and more grandchildren to support or assist, that brush with fame could have been the end for Yung’s career outside of the subway, and another lost opportunity.
“When I was a kid 14 or 15 that’s, like, crushing. But as you become older you have to know that life is not easy,” Yung said. “So as long as you can still wake up with a voice, it’s not over. That was my motto. If I’m able to sing and pay my bills basically I was successful.”
Yung had been working with Kang to try and fund an album themselves, but they ran out of money. That’s when Kang suggested setting up a Kickstarter. They set a minimum goal on the crowdfunding platform of $75,000, enough to pay for a “mini album” of five or six songs.
The campaign has already surpassed that, but really Yung and Kang are hoping to get past $125,000, which would fund a full-length record, while if they reach $250,000 they’d be able to begin
In the meantime, Yung has written and published a song – Alright – on YouTube, and has already begun recording in LA. He’s hopeful that he can release his first record at the end of the year – 44 years after he first got a record deal.
“It’s just something to wait for now,” Yung said.
“The music is going to speak for itself. I can’t wait for my career to be on stage in front of millions of people.
“Even though I’ve been on stage in front of millions of people already, basically to finish your career outside of the subway. It means the world to me.”