Cafe Music Crankiness

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Those who know me know this is continuing struggle of mine: music played at cafes.

I was recently at a cafe, OCF on South St, and the music was spectacularly bad. When I arrived it was thumping techno — not electronica or lounge — TECHNO. After a little while I approached the barista and semi-tactfully explained that the music was intrusive, poorly-selected, and too loud for the cafe. So he changed it, to a mix of…

…calypso music. I’m not joking. I thought he was, at first, to spite me, but no, he was serious. That’s what hipsters do. They tend shop at cafes in ironic ugly Christmas sweaters, playing calypso.

But at least the calypso was pretty soft and not too offensive, even if it made no sense to play it on a freezing cold December day. Once that mix was over, the playlist of fail continued:

– Electronica, none of which was listenable
– The full “Loveless” album by My Bloody Valentine. Now this is an “important” album and I get that. It’s overrated, though, because Kevin Shields’s legendary perfectionism and layering process makes the sound more muddled than it should be. Hence how good Japancakes’s cover (of the whole album) sounds. Regardless, anyone who knows MBV knows it’s not cafe music.
– Drone music

You read that right, too. Drone music. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Like a blog entry wwwwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiittttttttteeeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnn lllllllllllliiiiiiiiiiikkkkkeeeeeeeeeeeeee ttttttttthhhhhhhhhhhhhhiiiiissssssssss.

As I packed up to leave, I mentioned to the barista (who, to be fair, tolerated me pretty well) that when I got back to my seat after complaining about the techno, the patron next to me THANKED ME for getting it changed.

The sole remaining patron heard this comment, and this initiated an interesting discussion between the three of us. Alas, the barista felt exactly as I lobby against — that he should play what he feels like, because music taste is “subjective” anyway.

Well, yes, of course it’s subjective. But why don’t dance clubs play quiet folk music, if it’s all subjective anyway? BECAUSE PEOPLE COME TO HEAR TECHNO. Which they DO NOT come to cafes to hear. Again, though, to his credit, the barista seemed to understand the issue at stake, especially since the other patron said that she expects to hear non-intrusive music at cafes and seriously thought about leaving because of the techno. (Once again, the Starbucks advantage.)

We also discussed the Hungarian Cafe in NYC and how popular it is — for the pastries, but also because they never play music. So people can come with their mp3 players and listen to whatever they want, at normal volumes, without competing against calypso music pumped through 8 speakers.

The point? Cafes can continue to do what they’re doing, ignorant that even if 33% of the patrons are totally fine with the music, 33% aren’t and won’t frequent the cafe, and the other 33% also aren’t fine with it, but aren’t crazy like me and won’t say anything — but won’t come back. But the cafe that plays no music becomes the standout, and my hunch is that it’d be hard to get a table.

I think this connects to a deeper point, besides the horrendous cultural norm that states that music must blare from speakers in every public space at all times: if you want to stand out and be very successful, you can’t do what everyone else is doing. Duh, right? But it’s harder than it seems.

But I’ll let you ponder that on your own. In a silent cafe.

M. Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He recently published Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel, a companion novel to Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Visit his blog at meliaskeller.com/

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