Music Advisory with Heart | Music Matters

KempleWebIf you’ve seen the movie High Fidelity (or read the book by Nick Hornby it was based on) then you’re familiar with the age-old stereotype of the music snob.

In one scene, music snob Barry, played by Jack Black, luxuriates behind the counter at Championship Vinyl. A middle-aged man walks in, looking a bit uncomfortable, and asks for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” for his daughter’s birthday.

Barry tells him they have the record, but won’t sell it to him because, he says, “it’s sentimental tacky crap.” The exchange comically escalates until the customer leaves, empty-handed.

Even though most record store employees—and music librarians—are actually awesome people who would never treat anyone that way, part of what makes Black’s character funny is that he taps into a common fear: that our musical tastes will be met with condescension.

Advisory = relationship building

When patrons walk into your library looking for a music recommendation, it’s important to know they are, in a sense, making themselves vulnerable and to recognize it as an opportunity to begin a relationship. Don’t be afraid. Proceed with your heart. Start a conversation based on their request. Ask questions about their taste in music, and listen to what they say. Observe their body language. Read between the lines to try to figure out what it is they look for in music. Are they reconnecting with their youth, or looking for a new kind of experience? Does music help them party hard? Or relax after a stressful day at work? Is their enjoyment of music connected to worship or religious practices? Do they more highly value virtuosic technique or singularity of expression? You don’t necessarily have to ask these questions outright. Patrons will tell you if you listen.

One strategy for starting a great conversation is to use the initial request as a starting point to talk briefly about your own taste in music. It doesn’t take much to tap into a patron’s need for connection. Recently a man came up to the reference desk and asked me for a particular Dave Brubeck live recording. When I came back to the desk with the CD in hand, I said, “I’ll never forget the first time I heard Bill Evans Trio’s ‘Sunday at the Village Vanguard.’ ”

It was an off-the-cuff comparison—Evans and Brubeck were both prominent jazz pianists—and that was all it took. For the next ten minutes he told me about his first experiences with jazz (his dad’s record collection), his favorite bassists (Scott ­LaFaro, Paul Chambers), how his tastes have changed over the years…all I had to do was smile, listen, and write down names he mentioned. He left the library with a stack of CDs he practically recommended for himself—plus a few I sneaked in for good measure. I’m confident he’ll be back for more.

This leads me to a frequently misunderstood requirement for performing stellar music advisory: expertise. It would be easy to assume the success of the interaction had something to do with me knowing enough about jazz to make the leap from Dave Brubeck to Bill Evans. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it made much of a difference what I said. What mattered was that I shared something about my own experience based on what I perceived about his tastes and that I listened to what he, in turn, shared about his. All I did was set things in motion.

Preparing to advise

Sure, music knowledge helps, but it’s no substitute for being in tune with your own musical experiences. Try to get in the habit of listening closely whenever you can. Ask yourself, “What is it about this music I enjoy?” and “What does this have in common with other music I like?” Listen to everything. Challenge yourself to encounter music that makes you uncomfortable. If you don’t like something, try to articulate why. Freely explore chains of influence and similarity, but don’t feel obligated to spend time with something that doesn’t immediately resonate with you. As long as you’re being honest with yourself, there’s no such thing as good or bad taste in music. The more tuned in you are with your own relationship to music the greater will be your capacity for empathy. And empathy, more than expertise, is what will keep patrons coming back for more.

The best recommendations are always encouraging and never judgmental. You aren’t saying, “Here, listen to this. It’s way better than what you thought you wanted.” It’s more like, “Awesome! I think you’ll like this, too.” The goal is to spark exploration—to coax patrons to their own rabbit holes. When you listen—to music and to people—with open ears and an open heart, you’ll rock at music advisory.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece (, Jennifer Finney Boylan brilliantly recalls her experience hearing the classical composer Charles Ives’s mind-expanding work “The Unanswered Question” for the first time and describes how her friend Doug turned her on to that and other works she probably wouldn’t have encountered on her own. She stresses the importance of having a friend like Doug to urge us to try new things, especially in a world of online, algorithm-driven music discovery. For your patrons, you are that friend.

Steve Kemple is a Music Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

This article was published in Library Journal's July 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.