[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Thursday, Nov. 11.]
For more than five years, Manhal Jweinat, owner of the Higher Grounds
coffeehouse in San Francisco, has been offering his clients more than
their usual dose of caffeine.
He's also been acting as their DJ.
At the small cafe in the Glen Park neighborhood, customers drink
their coffee while they listen to music by such hot new artists as
hip-hop/soul singer Macy Gray, whose debut album, On How Life Is,
features the single "Do Something" (RealAudio
excerpt). Occasionally, patrons can pick up free music samplers,
showcasing the likes of rising R&B singer Rahsaan Patterson or offering
a mix of performers.
Higher Grounds is participating in what music-marketing executives say
is an increasingly popular trend: Cafes receive free music from record
labels' marketing departments and intermediary organizations, such as
Cafe Music Network. The coffeehouses' only obligation is to give customers
who inquire the name of the artist and, in some cases, the location of
the nearest record retailer.
"You become a different person the second you step into a coffeehouse,"
Brian McNelis, vice president and general manager at Cleopatra Records,
said. The label, which has promoted its electronica and ambient music
artists in coffeehouses, plans to use the tactic again in February for
reissues of albums by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and
When you're in a cafe, McNelis said, "you're in a frame of mind where
you're willing to accept Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. A coffeehouse
brings with it a different connotation there's a 'hip' quotient
there, that if you're hearing this stuff, that it's cool."
A chalkboard in Higher Grounds displays the performers' names, and
management occasionally sets the CD cases out for inspection. Still,
patrons inquire about the music playing in the cafe so often "that sometimes
we get annoyed," said Jweinat, who previews the CDs before trying them
out on his customers. "If I don't like it, I don't play it."
"I like the upbeat jazz in the afternoons," said Susan Tauber, who, for
21 years, has owned the hardware store next door to Higher Grounds.
"[Jweinat] plays a lot of classical and bluegrass, which is just right
for the atmosphere here."
Though there's no way to measure the success of the marketing technique,
because the cafes don't sell the CDs, many music industry executives said
the coffeehouse environment is an effective place to promote artists.
"It's not easily quantifiable," said Christi Crowe, marketing manager
for BMG, which handles distribution for imprints including Arista, RCA
and Jive. "But what it does is create an impression in the consumer's
BMG recently used the coffeehouse marketing tactic for the Eurythmics'
first album in a decade, Peace, which features the single "17
excerpt). The company's West Coast office shipped out about 150
copies of the album to coffeehouses in California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada
While coffeehouse marketing is becoming a popular promotional technique,
it isn't suitable for all artists, Crowe said. "It can't ever be something
with offensive lyrics; it has to be sort of mellow background music," she
said. "Holiday music, theme records and ethnic world music work really
Epic Records marketing Vice President Barbara Bausman said she uses
coffeehouse promotion for "hip sort of underground" acts, such as trip-hop
pioneers Portishead, as well as Epic's more "easy listening" artists.
"Records that are sort of mood music vibey and laid back
go over really well," she said. Epic has used coffeehouse marketing for
singer/songwriters Heather Nova and Cree Summer, as well as for Fiona
Apple's 1996 debut album, Tidal.
While Debra Flanagan, a partner at Cafe Music Network, agreed that mellower
types of music are more common targets, she said her company's research
recently showed an increased demand for pop music.
"We were getting a lot of feedback from people saying, 'People are sitting
around drinking caffeine, and we're sending them mixed messages,' " she
said. Cafe Music Network works with many major labels to deliver their
artists' music to 425 coffeehouses around the U.S.
Flanagan said her organization typically targets smaller, independently
owned coffeehouses instead of chains such as Starbucks. "These are more
your independent stores that have some autonomy to create their own
atmospheres and musical style," she said. She added that the network has
grown considerably just from word-of-mouth, and it has branched out from
coffeehouses to hair salons and doctors' offices as a result of those
businesses' hearing of the network's services.
Labels and distributors also are shipping their music to car dealerships,
clothing stores and charity organizations. "More and more companies are
becoming aware of lifestyle marketing and are plugging into that sort of
out-of-the-box, peripheral marketing, instead of just throwing money into
advertising," Crowe said.