Coffee music: The guide

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There was a time when even Starbucks, now fast becoming the exclusive domain of sugar-crazed teenagers, was filled with safe but tasteful music. When I worked at one in 2004, I heard Ray Charles, Belle and Sebastian, and Bebel Gilberto, admittedly very accessible artists all, but damn near adventurous for what at the time was a nearly US$25 billion corporation. Today though, some of Winnipeg’s finest coffee shops are sullied by the sound of Phil Collins and low-budget funeral home commercials — do not go garishly into that good night. How did this come to be and what can be done for us?

Those of us who find it impossible to work outside the immediate vicinity of an industrial espresso machine are too often subjected to the whims of shop owners’ musical tastes, which too often does not accord with that of their resident scholars. The result of this is that I have, in the past month, been subjected to a cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” that made the original — by James Taylor! — sound like DMX. I have also heard the words “I make them good girls go bad” more times than is healthy for someone of my constitution.

One possibility is that coffee shops are catering to their clientele — not the students, but the ones who actually buy things. This would explain the tendency of some downtown cafés to play top 40 radio. It is easy to imagine the telemarketers and bank middle-managers who seem to inhabit the area during the day enjoying the music of Matchbox Twenty or Shakira with their sandwich and iced tea.

It would also explain the choice of radio station in one St. James coffee house. Its ageing customer base might not choose light jazz if given the choice, but its playlists, originally designed by scientists to sedate hippopotamuses, keeps them from becoming excited.

Most likely, café owners and managers do not realize the importance of the music they play. It is true that it is unlikely anyone will return to a café because of its music, but very possible that they will avoid it because of the music, consciously or not. It does not have to be this way, nor does it require impeccable taste in music to create a tolerable environment. First, all that is required of managers, owners or whomever chooses the music is that they do not play the radio.

Radio advertisements are some of the most depressing, grating, asinine configurations of sound waves ever produced and radio presenters are scarcely an improvement. CBC radio is an exception, but is still unsuitable for a coffee shop — too much talking. Satellite radio is acceptable, but often bland.

At the very least, some thought should be put into music. If a manager has no time to think about it, chances are she has an employee who would love to.

Until this happens, however, it might suit students and other loiterers to spend their time at Kay’s or Twist, both of which are downtown, or Degrees, on campus.

Kay’s is a deli at 393 William Avenue near Red River’s downtown campus. There is a distinct lack of pastry, but if you can tolerate a coffee accompanied by a Nestlé chocolate bar, you will be rewarded with cheap, decent (upstanding, old-fashioned, Christian, English) espresso and tasteful classics from artists like Neil Young and Tom Waits, as well as a few slightly newer indie acts like Modest Mouse. They also have very good sandwiches.

Twist is located directly opposite the Second Cup on Graham Avenue downtown. The coffee is better than Starbucks or Second Cup, but nothing to write home — or an article for the Manitoban — about. The staff are all spritely young bohemian girls and the owner has a moustache. I have heard Rickie Lee Jones there more often that anywhere else, including my house — my mother, with whom I spent a lot of time as a child, is a big fan. There’s other stuff, mostly a decade or two old, but safe and tasteful. Like Kay’s, Twist is very likely to play Neil Young.

Understandably, but unfortunately for you and me, both Kay’s and Twist close quite early and are not open on weekends.

I recommend Degrees with some hesitation because, though the coffee is always very good and the atmosphere is nice, the music varies wildly. In my experience, they play a lot of Radiohead. When they are not playing Radiohead, they often play something that sounds a lot like Radiohead, collaborating with Sigur Rós and Saul Williams, only not very good. While most coffee shops suffer from music that is too tacky or mainstream, Degrees sometimes has the opposite problem. A very small portion of any customer base is likely to appreciate experimental music by philosophy students, even if it does not include someone chanting Machiavelli quotes in Hebrew — even smaller if it does. Nevertheless, go to Degrees. If you do not like the music, you will at least have your bourgeois worldview shattered, which is good to do once in a while.