Thursday, November 12, 2009

Letter to the West Coast

Clocking in at two minutes and ten seconds, John Vanderslice's "Letter To The East Coast" might easily be dismissed as the disposable opener to the mid-career album of a not-very-well-known singer-songwriter. It's a tonal thing, opening JV's fifth studio album short and bittersweet, placed so to earn the analog 'explosion' of track two, "Plymouth Rock".

The reason I bring it up is that I happen to be sitting in a Starbucks and the song just played. I've been killing some time here and have paid some attention to the in-house music. The only word I can think to describe the mix I've heard over the course of the night is "eclectic", and not in the KCRW way. If there are any genre-leanings in my coffee shop, favor is paid heavily to easy listening pop vocals.

Mixed in with the soft jazz, I've heard at least two Bob Dylan tracks and a Neko Case song, though I can't at this point remember which. There was also some post-Peter, Bjorn and John dreck and a viciously unnecessary cover of Beck's "The Golden Age" sung by what sounded like the female bastard child of Norah Jones and Diana Krall.

When "Letter to the East Coast" came on in the store, it immediately made me think of one specific incident: probably a year-and-a-half ago, I was in a Starbucks and "Letter to the East Coast" came on. I excitedly asked the two baristas if one of them was a John Vanderslice fan (we JV fans are few and far between, you see). I received some gentle mockery and the promise that nobody working at a Starbucks has any say in the music you hear.

I have worked in retail. I've experienced the Pavlovian gag-reflex at the house muzak you have no choice but to hear over and over while working for the man. Now, months and months and months go by and I hear the same slow and pretty song by one of my favorite dudes in two different Starbucks - in two different states, no less.

It's bad enough that my John Vanderslice (and my Neko) are getting lumped in with this music-that-was-made-to-be-ignored. But if there's so little variety in the Starbucks in-house playlist (which, so far as I can tell, doesn't mirror their slightly superior in-house available-for-purchase list) that I can randomly hear that same song twice - that song that I can easily say I have never heard anywhere else ever that wasn't either cued up by myself or played live at a show - is it safe to presume that all over America there are Starbucks employees psychologically conditioned to cringe at the sound of this beautiful piece of music?

I'm sure Starbucks' playlists are all built around the idea of being non-invasive. The corporate higher-ups want people to feel comfortable here, like a home away from home. Since you can't let the customers pick the music (well, you could: it's called a jukebox), Starbucks must provide inhouse sounds that breed quiet conversation as well as the ability to tune out and read a book or study for your exam. But I suggest that for every person that can ignore this stuff there's got to be at least one other (like me) that cannot help but listen very closely to this terrible music and wonder, "Why?"

For one of my favorite artists to be included on this playlist bothers me personally. For these playlists to exist in the first place, though, bothers me on a deeper level. Starbucks has been earning some negative publicity, by the way, for mishandling of its physical media. With the Hear Music label, Starbucks seemed poised to monopolize the only remaining demographic that buys CDs (old folks) thanks to exclusive new Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell albums. They fumbled the ball, though, and passed the label on for someone else to go bankrupt with.

But my point is: somebody in Seattle is making deals for certain music to get played all over the country. I'm sure the idea is that you pay Starbucks for exposure and then hopefully somebody buys your record after hearing it over a caramel machiatto. If they weren't making money, there wouldn't be any reason for the company to exert the control it does over the music. It's just like the horrible commercials that play before the previews: it's ubiquitous, we can't ignore it if we are at all sensitive to the stench of shit, and it's making the wrong kind of money for the wrong kind of people. I wish John Vanderslice wasn't a part of it.

As I finished this tirade, "Fake Plastic Trees" came on. Oh, it wears me out.

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