Barista Magazine

APR-MAR 2014

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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JUST AS AWESOME AS SEEING your favorite barista's face behind the espresso machine when you walk into your neighbor- hood café is hearing your favorite tune or record floating around in the air among the coffee smells and the clattering of cups on saucers or spoons in mugs. Great music can be as comforting and invigorating in a coffee shop as the coffee itself, and adding the right soundtrack to an environment can elevate the experience of those who occupy it, whether they're stopping in for a to-go cup, sitting down for an hour with an Americano and a book, or working a full shift behind the counter. On the flip side, however, music can also be a divisive, dis- tracting, and alienating experience; if the sounds coming out of the speakers aren't simpatico with the ears that receive them, there's the possibility of losing customers before they even sam- ple the brews. Zack Bolotin, owner-operator of the Seattle coffee shop–cum– record store Porchlight Coffee & Records, understands explic- itly how music and coffee can mesh—or not. "Music for cafés is always a weird thing, because I don't think you should play just anything you like. There's plenty of stuff that I like that's prob- ably pretty abrasive for someone who's trying to study or have coffee with their mom. You have to pick stuff that isn't totally ge- neric because you're the one who has to listen to it when you're working in the café, but you have to make sure it's on the same page as your customers." Porchlight is one of a handful of spots that marry music and macchiatos: T-Bones in Hattiesburg, Miss., and Louisville, Ky.'s Please & Thank You are both cafés with adjacent music stores; Cake Shop is a Manhattan joint that is a café by day and small live-music venue by night; and Brooklyn's Black Gold actually does triple duty as a coffee bar, antique shop, and record store. While music certainly can enhance and create a welcoming envi- ronment, it's not always a matter of, "If you play it, they will come." Dan Storper, founder and CEO of Putumayo records, under- stood from the label's earliest days that music isn't and will nev- er be a one-size-fits-all situation—something he discovered back when Putumayo's primary focus was as a New York handicrafts shop, specializing in gifts, art, and clothing curated from Storp- er's journeys through Latin America. "I wanted to settle down and open a little shop, so I did: I named it after a beautiful little village in Colombia that I fell in love with, and I focused on handicrafts and clothing for the first five years." After a while, Dan started to mix in music from his journeys to Central and South America, Nepal, and other far- flung locations, playing indigenous artists' work alongside songs by Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. "I loved music that made you feel good, like the Temptations and the Spinners," Dan says, recognizing the power of a melody or a voice to change the mood for a moment or even a day. "I thought the [Putumayo] stores could be palaces to open that up. One day, I stopped in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and I heard an African group performing. I was really struck by the music. I only heard the tail end one or two songs, and I fell in love with this music, but they didn't have any albums to sell. I thought, How could nobody know this music?" Heady from this uplifting experience of discovering new sounds in the park, Dan got something of a jolt back to earth when he returned to his own Putumayo shops in New York City: "I walked into one of my stores and the manager was playing thrasher metal music," he says, laughing. "I actually thanked him later for pushing that envelope, but at the time I immedi- ately realized it wasn't the environment I wanted to create. I decided then to focus on the music, and the first tapes went into the stores in 1991." Immediately after releasing the first Putumayo compilation, Dan felt the energy change in his world, and the world he'd creat- ed inside his retail shops: "The feedback was instantaneous, with the managers calling up and saying, ' You have no idea what's happened, the staff is so much happier and people keep asking what's playing—it's completely changed the environment.'" Companies like Putumayo, which has long marketed its CDs and now digital music to retail shops and, specifically, cafés, can actually be a huge help to small-business owners who are wary of running afoul of the law—especially when it comes to music licensing and "performance" fees. "Some cafés run into problems with licensing with [music copyright organizations like] BMI or ASCAP," Zack says, ac- knowledging that without the right permits, it can be costly to even just turn on an FM radio station in public: Artist-rights representatives occasionally get handsy with regulations, and violations can result in large fees if a coffee shop doesn't have a piece of paper legally entitling its staff to play music during working hours. If a record label like Putumayo (or Sub Pop, or Merge, or Warner Bros.—you name it) actively sends discs to cafés, that provides implicit permission to play the tunes on-site; otherwise, many city ordinances and zoning laws contain pro- visions that require application and licensing in order to offer music within your walls. Luckily for Zack and Porchlight, "there's a record store ex- ception to that. Because we're a record store, we can play music because it helps to sell the records." Most other shops, he ex- plains, aren't so lucky: "Small cafés, most cafés, have to pay like $400 year—and that doesn't even cover every song. If they want to, they can only play small bands or get permission from bands, and have a store iPod that only has approved stuff. It's kind of a pain, on top of all the other fees of opening a business." Even with those limitations and restrictions in place, music can seem unavoidable sometimes: It's played when we're put on hold, it's pumped through the sound systems of basically every store and restaurant, and it even leaks through our neighbor's headphones on the train or bus. From cellphone ringtones to TVs at bars to the Muzak in a doctor's waiting room—every song and every soundscape becomes absorbed by us on some level, possi- bly even subconsciously. So while silence is golden, it's also very rare: This can make it difficult to even recognize when we're hearing music or intentional sound, and can dull us to the joys of listening. Tuning in might be a specialized skill, but it's not a completely lost art. "I definitely notice music, especially if it's something from a specific subculture," says Porchlight's Zack. "If I happen to go to a bar or restaurant that are playing a song and I'm like, ' Who the hell is playing this?,' when it's some obscure band from 2001. I 94 barista magazine B o o k 5 5 - 1 0 8 . i n d d 9 4 Book 55-108.indd 94 3 / 2 4 / 1 4 7 : 1 7 A M 3/24/14 7:17 AM

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