Music for the Masses: Music Clubs, Part 1, March 2013

Book clubs cater to every taste and fancy, but music lovers are usually left to find their own way in libraries. Lately, though, a handful of hardy librarians are blazing professional trails with “music clubs,” where music lovers spend an hour or so discussing a particular record, performer, or subgenre.

Music for the Masses recently sat down, virtual-round­table style, with Steve Kemple, music reference librarian with the Cincinnati Public Library (whose club is called Listen to This!); Michael Farley, adult reference librarian at Bethlehem Public Library, NY (Listening Party); and Tammy Sayles, marketing and outreach librarian, and Bill Thompson, reference librarian and professor, both at Western Illinois University Libraries, Macomb (Listening Party), to discuss their clubs.

What was your initial inspiration?

Bill Thompson: I got the narrow idea from reading about listening parties, which used to happen in Europe as a way of hearing music that was not readily or widely available, e.g., American jazz. Friends gathered to hear an LP that had just come out. It struck me that we could do something similar on campus.

Michael Farley: I ran a book discussion for many years, and I buy music CDs for the library, so the two things came together.

Steve Kemple: The initial idea for Listen to This! came about a year ago when I was brainstorming ways to increase customer engagement with the collection. I was thinking about how cool record stores are, how they’re places where people go to hang out and discover music and be around other people who like music, and I thought, “Why can’t we do that here?”

How do the programs work?

Tammy Sayles: We host Listening Parties as an event series during the fall semester. We’ve done it often enough that we’re approached by people who want to present their music interest. At first, Bill Thompson would ask faculty and staff if they would talk about their favorite musician or music genre. Our campus is in a rural setting, so our events are open to the public, with no registration required. The presenter determines the topic and the music played during the 50-minute program. We’ve covered topics from protest music and girl punk bands to Warren Zevon, local bands, and jazz festivals.

Farley: We meet the third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. from September through May, with usually a break in December or January. No registration is required. It’s publicized in a way that encourages people to come, listen, and discuss, whether they are familiar with the music or not.

I’ve tried to choose albums and artists that most music lovers would already know. I always start out with a biographical outline of the artist, or the historical context in which the album was recorded. Then we listen to tracks I’ve selected in chronological order to show the progression of the artist’s work. Sometimes I have handouts prepared with a bibliography and discography, selected websites, and YouTube links for documentaries or live performances.

Kemple: The program is held on the first and third Wednesdays in one of our largest reading areas. Anyone is welcome. Since it’s in a public area, we get a lot of people who just show up when they hear the music. We also have a small group of regulars who ask ahead of time about that week’s theme.

What was your first session?

Thompson: I believe the first one we did was Women and Punk. We did it during the summer—a very dead time at our campus—and we had a small but lively crowd, not a few of whom were sharing stories about, say, Bikini Kill concerts they had attended back in the day. When they started sharing like that, I knew we had a winner on our hands.

Farley: The first session was on the Beatles’ White Album. I had four people, two of whom were hard-core Beatles fanatics, so the discussion was deep and detailed and a real joy to lead.

Kemple: For the first program we listened to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. I learned everything I could about Coltrane and the album and even tried (and failed) to understand modal jazz. I think everyone—including me—was a bit uncomfortable initially, but, ultimately, the music and discussion won out.

What’s attendee reaction been?

Sayles: Overall, we have had positive reactions. I am often approached by people asking when the next Listening Party is. I especially love to hear someone ask if they can do one. Anyone who asks can conduct a Listening Party.

Farley: Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. People respond when you convey an excitement about something. When I start a discussion, the group can tell that I can’t wait to play some great music for them. I’ve developed a small core of people who come to every discussion and others who just come and go.

Kemple: They’re eating it up! And as a result they’re checking out more CDs—not just during the program but throughout the week. And they’re getting to know one another, too, which is ­really cool. Friendships forged by music.

Check in next month for Part 2!

About Matthew Moyer