(A link at the end of this post allows you to hear and download an mp3 called Starbucks Music Mask. It's a sound file designed to mask the music and extraneous sound of Starbucks and elsewhere.)
I walk lots. I often walk to local coffee shops where I spend time reading before I walk home. I call it exercise. Since Starbucks has many convenient locations in Pasadena, a large percentage of my coffee shop reading goes on there. Apparently there is no such thing as a Starbucks where they don't play continuous background music.
I like music. I listen to music lots. I think about and create music. My life has been pretty much devoted to it. I have strong opinions about music. I can be very distracted by music which I don't like.
Careful readers of Mixed Meters will remember that I keep a list of my all-time least favorite music. This list includes the music Richard Wagner, La Monte Young, Elliott Carter and Joni Mitchell. (No, I don't think they have anything in common besides earning my personal distaste.)
Most Starbucks locations play music too loudly for me and they seem to choose only music from a certain narrow palette. That's infuriating. Rarely someone forgets to turn the music on. I like that. One local location does not broadcast music on their outside patio area. I find this space rather pleasant in spite of the fact that it faces a busy intersection.
One day I walked into my local Starbucks to discover that they were blasting a tune by one of my least favorite composers. No, it wasn't anything by Wagner, Young or Carter. Can you imagine a world where Starbucks played those guys? I can't. Of course it was Joni Mitchell.
I casually told a Barista "Joni Mitchell is on my list of least favorite musicians." He smiled broadly, saying "Me, too" he gave me a high five and abruptly walked away. A moment later Joni was cut off in mid-parking lot and some reggae came on. I was much happier with reggae and so was he. Apparently they're allowed to adjust the music only if a customer complains. I didn't feel that I had actually complained, but my remark sufficed. Later he asked "Is Barbra Striesand on your list too?". I told him no. I didn't mention Wagner, Young or Carter.
Most everyone really likes some music and really hates other music and doesn't care one way or another about the rest. I also figure that literally everyone is a potential Starbucks customer. For years I've felt alienated by Starbucks' music selection and I suspect that many others feel the same way. Or maybe I'm the only one listening.
Three and a half years ago, in this Mixed Meters article, I described why I purchased my first iPod. In short, I needed an alternative to the music at Starbucks. In specific: Willie Nelson. To my surprise today, in 2007 I wrote:
Starbucks' philosophy of music changed several times since then. For a while, faced with competing coffee from McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks tried to morph into a music store. They prominently displayed big racks of CDs on their own label and played the same tunes in the stores. Their all-time marketing low point was a Paul McCartney album repeated continuously in every store for an entire day.Over the years I've had surprisingly few issues with the music selection in my local Starbucks. Except at Christmas time, of course.
A recent New York Times story (Some Venti Tunes to Go With That Latte) put a face to the Starbucks music monster. The face belongs to Timothy Jones, executive in charge of music for Starbucks. He got the job by owning a record store across the street from the original Starbucks in Seattle. Here's a quote:
The coffeehouse seems to beckon to singer-songwriters, Chicago blues, Ella and Miles, soul, the blues and reggae. When selecting music, we use a coffeehouse filter.Fascinating. A "coffeehouse filter" goes a long way to explaining my problem with Starbucks' narrow musical palette. Apparently Starbucks thinks of itself, at least musically, as a throwback to some idealized fifties coffee house, the sort of smoky venue where a skinny singer with long hair sings her own songs (or those of Joan Baez) and strums guitar while Maynard G. Krebs plays bongos and the audience, sipping espresso, attentively hangs on every bloody word. Hey, man. Cool.
My absolute worst real-life Starbucks music experiences involved live in-store performances. One was another singer-songwriter with a guitar - Joan couldn't make it. Who can forget the out of tune Christmas carolers singing to a tape. I composed this 30 Second Spot while they were singing.
Of course, there are other kinds of coffee houses besides the folk-music revival coffeehouse image. Read about the history of coffee houses. Coffee houses have existed in many cultures and eras, presumably each incarnation was associated with some sort of music at the time. In 17th century England, I wonder, was Samuel Pepys distracted by Henry Purcell's music on the PA system of his local coffee house?
As revealed by Mr. Jones' quote, Starbucks has added more kinds of music to the idea of "coffeehouse". Historically these other musics are associated with different types of commercial establishments where you get other drugs besides caffeine. At a blues club most people will not be drinking coffee. Reggae is associated with a drug which is smoked. Miles' favorite drug was something he snorted.
This all suggests a new field of academic study - pharmamusicology: the study of how drugs are associated with music. I think it might be interesting to investigate the ways social drugs have interacted with popular music over the centuries. Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin and hallucinogens all come to mind as having strong musical associations with various musical styles. The worst that could happen from such a study would be to make Acid Rock even more boring than it already is.
Starbucks is far from the ideal place for music, even if they happen to play something interesting. It's hard - sometimes almost impossible - to pay attention to the music in Starbucks. Their stores feature countless aural annoyances - espresso machines hiss, Frappacino blenders whizz even from within their special sound baffles, cabinets slam and people insist on talking in loud annoying voices. Why make it even noisier by adding a continuous stream of semi-audible music to this mix?
It's not surprising to see Starbucks customers wearing earphones - presumably they've chosen favorite music in hopes of avoiding the sound distractions around them. Maybe they're just using the headphones as ear plugs.
I discovered that listening to music on an iPod in Starbucks doesn't always help. If my music is less aggressive than the music on their PA system, the iPod will lose the battle. Imagine how much amplification a Scarlatti harpsichord sonata needs to make it overpower some other piece of popular music. The volume would need be beyond the comfort level, into the realm of hearing loss.
Of course, while I'm at Starbucks, I could set my iPod at a reasonable level and listen to my selection and their selection simultaneously. Very John Cage. Sometimes that even works. I am someone who has been known to listen to two radio stations simultaneously - although for the result to be interesting the stations must be carefully selected.
Sadly, my iPod playlist and Starbucks' playlist do not blend well. But the act of trying to listen to music at Starbucks gave me an idea: I could listen to sounds in my earphones which would neutralize the sound environment of Starbucks. Like the notion that matter and antimatter can collide and extinguish one another, I needed "antimusic" to cancel out the "music" which I didn't care to hear. Someday, maybe an unimaginably powerful super-computer will do such massively complex noise cancellation in real time. The result would be perfect silence. Until then my solution is much lower tech.
I tried this first in late 2007. On my laptop, right in Starbucks, I generated ten minutes of white noise, just a steady hiss, and saved it to my iPod. It was soothing. Well, sort of soothing. But it had no effect; the distractions of Starbucks were still distracting.
I began to identify the components of the sonic environment of Starbucks, for example conversation, music and noise. If I added random bits of these components to my white noise track and balanced the level with the "natural" conversation, music and noise in Starbucks, maybe I wouldn't be able to tell which sounds were recorded on the iPod and which were happening live.
I've worked on this idea sporadically for three years. For some reason I took it up again in recent months and come up with a version which works for me. Sitting in a noisy coffee house environment, I put this track on and adjust the volume. In my experience the sound distractions are reduced considerably. The track is not terribly interesting by itself. That is not the intention. But it is relaxing and has become a familiar sonic environment I can use anywhere.
The components of the current version of Starbucks Music Mask are:
- White Noise - now randomly filtered and amplified to create variety
- Conversation - which might have been recorded at Starbucks except I needed a recording of people talking with no background music
- Various bumps, hits, scrapes etc - these noises came from sound effects recordings
- Traffic Noise - not that one hears much traffic at Starbucks, but this blends well with the white noise
- Musical Tones - various notes, long and short, mostly in the low register, some glissando slowly, some are bell-like. I tried to limit the quantity of these sounds so they didn't start to combine into their own musical piece.
- Birds Singing - actually mockingbirds recorded at my home. I've never heard a mockingbird at Starbucks. I like the singing of mockingbirds and their songs seem to fit in to this piece.
Here's the link: Starbucks Music Mask © 2010 David Ocker
A Mixed Meters article about David Hockney's opinion of the iPod.
Mask Tags: Starbucks Music. . . sound environment. . . pharmamusicology. . . music and antimusic. . . iPod