Best Of '99: Eurythmics, Macy Gray Brewing In Cafes

Coffeehouses play new music, give away samplers as part of labels' marketing strategy.

[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

Marilyn Monroe.

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

mind."

BMG recently used the coffeehouse marketing tactic for the Eurythmics'

first album in a decade, Peace, which features the single "17

Again" (RealAudio

excerpt). The company's West Coast office shipped out about 150

copies of the album to coffeehouses in California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada

and Colorado.

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

well."

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.