What is it about these damn vanilla bean lattes? I think if the warmth of a king-size duvet were a drink, it would be the vanilla bean latte. Or more likely, it is the beverage equivalent of a paycheck on payday. No wait, that’s actually the cost of a vanilla bean latte; my full paycheck. People tend to accuse Starbucks of gauging prices of a typically low-cost beverage. But the company’s apparent defense to these accusations lies in the affectionate moniker they give their stores, “The Third Place.” It is the company’s desire is to be the third place that you go to in your busy day—your home, your office and your Starbucks. In fact, former C.E.O. and now board chair Howard Schultz once said, “our stores have become America’s living room, and we are thrilled!” I’ve come to the observation that these high prices for a cup of coffee are simply our “membership” to this public living room, and I’m okay with that. The truth may very well be that Starbucks are as thirsty for profits as we are for coffee. But today, at Starbucks store #5623, this living room has friendly staff, people to watch, a sweet café aroma and trendy music overhead. I like this living room more than I like my own living room. To have my own living room, I pay over $35 per day (mortgage and utilities divided by 30). At Starbucks, I pay $4.50 per day, and I get a vanilla bean latte, for that matter.
Howard Schultz also said, “we are not in the coffee business serving people, instead we are in the people business serving coffee.” The coffee shop cares about the experience of buying a beverage as much as it cares about the beverage itself. If coffee was all that Starbucks customers were looking for then they could just as easily sell simple cups of coffee in a warehouse style shop. But for Starbucks, the reception is as crucial as the invention.
When I’m recording, producing and marketing an album (or song), I hope to deliver an entire emotion that reflects the music. It would be easy for me to hire a pro studio and have pro musicians come in and record the whole album for me. I would then only have to walk in and do my part to record the vocals on top of this perfect landscape. (An option that has once, been a mild temptation for me). But the way in which a song (or album) is recorded is just as important as the music itself; I pride myself in the integrity of my music. I write the song from scratch in an honest and independent way. I write them in my home, in a moment of solace and distance from the outside world. I want the instruments and the people that play them to reflect the honest nature of the writer. I want someone to hear my album and think, “this sounds like it was made in a living room, perhaps on a Saturday afternoon.” I don’t have the luxury of playing a live gig in everyone’s living room, and so the listening experience that the album provides is my only chance to fully communicate the intended emotion.
The way in which the message is delivered is just as important to me as the message itself. I once had a listener write to me and explain how my album was something they put on every Sunday afternoon to listen to while they read. Another listener told me how they put my record on whenever they have company over for brunch. A reviewer once described my record as a perfect “front porch” record. These responses to the album thrilled me! The fact that my music could fit into someone’s life and play a crucial role in his or her ideal moment was a fulfillment of intent for me. Such a compliment gave me the same pleasure that the Starbucks’ C.E.O. felt when his customers were affectionately calling his stores their “living room.”
I did a phone interview once while building an Adirondack (or “Muskoka”, to my Canadian readers) chair. The interviewer was aware that I was building this chair on my porch because I had to explain my periodic grunts and expletives. She asked me how I would describe my latest album, and I quickly responded (as if I had been longing to use this analogy) by saying that it was the soundtrack to the Adirondack chair. If you have an Adirondack chair and a porch of any kind, then you need to have this album. If the album had a smell, it would be cedar (or pine). If the album provoked a feeling, it would be relaxation. The creation of the album had to be in line with the emotion and feeling I wanted to deliver. The lyrics are down to earth, the vocals are laid-back and the music is full of natural mistakes (similar to natural inconsistencies found in a wood grain). If Starbucks tries to make their shops emote the feeling that a cup of coffee gives you – then they have succeeded. Coffee makes me feel relaxed and rejuvenated. The aromas from the beans can deliver a natural, organic mood to a busy city-life. A Starbucks store often has the feeling of a cup of coffee.
My cousin Jason is a multi-award winning songwriter and lead singer for a popular Christian pop-rock outfit in Nashville. He’s five years my senior and he has been a music mentor of mine for as long as I can remember. Our views on music and production values, however, don’t always align. We differed on how to approach recording and writing a song. I see music to have more freedom and fewer restrictions than perhaps he might. Jason’s song creation is more intentional and structured; he will write a song that connects with a general audience where I will write a song to connect with that exact moment. I think music should come out the same way it came in. If a relaxing autumn afternoon inspires a song about relaxation, then it needs to be delivered sonically in a way that reproduces that atmosphere.
Jason and I discussed our differences at length earlier this year, over a pipe-smoke at his home in Nashville, Tenn. Somewhere along the way, Jason memorably put his finger on our divergent philosophies: “Scott, you are an artist and I am a chartist.” I discovered creative writing, and in this case, music, will not only have different genres, but will also have different origins. Jason writes for a living. I don’t. I have another job. Jason’s mortgage is dependent on his ability to write, so freedom and natural productivity are not luxuries that he enjoys. Self-expression and capturing a moment is primarily on my mind when I’m writing and recording a song. I can only imagine that self-sustainability would be dominant in Jason’s mind when he writes music. It’s the same product; only different in the way it is manufactured and packaged.
I’ve been sitting in Starbucks #5623 for over and hour and a half. I have probably seen a few hundred people come and go. There must be something about the way in which this coffee is sold. There must be something about “the delivery” that attracts people. I want my listeners to experience an album I’ve made. I want them to share in the experience that occurred when the music was made. I want listeners to appreciate the lyrics and the music but also the experience that is found in a Scott Orr album. I hope that they discover and appreciate music’s “third place.”
Scott Orr is an independent musician living in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He released his second album, Miles from Today, in 2007, which is currently available for free download at www.scottorrmusic.com/freemiles. Scott can be contact at email@example.com.