How Starbucks Suburbanized Music and Almost Got Away With It

How Starbucks Suburbanized Music and Almost Got Away With It

In the beginning, there was jazz.

In 1995, Starbucks seemed destined to expand infinitely, not unlike the universe. The brand had transformed from its humble early ’70s beginnings as a standalone coffee shop in Seattle into a national, publicly-traded chain. Smack dab in the middle of the ’90s, it launched the drink that would become its hallmark, the sugar-slush-caffeine concoction known as the Frappuccino. It also dipped its toe into the music business, a move that would ultimately yield Grammys, millions of dollars, and exclusive releases from beloved veteran acts like Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Paul McCartney.

But the beginnings of this arm of Starbucks’ business were practically unassuming. The brand’s foray into music arrived in the form of a 13-track compilation released via the legendary jazz label Blue Note that featured the likes of Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, and modern hip-hop/jazz fusers Us3, for good measure. The Blue Note Blend CD was sold alongside coffee of the same name (“a smooth, spirited complement to the improvisational quality of soulful jazz,” went the marketing copy). A Starbucks employee named Timothy Jones, whose professional designation was apparently “music specialist,” told AdWeek in 1998 that Blend ended up selling 75,000 copies. “That’s when we knew we were on the right track,” he added. He wasn’t wrong. At least, not yet.

While Starbucks was commodifying coffeehouse culture, it had similar designs for music. To give credit where it’s due: A jazz collection was hardly the most obvious route. Folk had been the form most commonly associated with java joints, a bean-and-note harmony that stretched back to the years after World War II. The intimacy of the coffeehouse—its very anti-bar nature—made it the perfect venue for someone singing quiet songs while accompanied by an acoustic guitar. New York’s Gaslight Cafe was perhaps the prototypical coffeehouse-as-folk venue. It opened in 1958 and after initially providing a stage for beat poets, the Gaslight started showcasing up-and-coming folk acts. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were among those who played sets there, early in their careers. The Gaslight closed in 1971 but it left an indelible mark on culture.

Fast forward a few decades to when Starbucks was on its cultural ascent. Post lip-sync culture-pop in the early ’90s was consumed with expressions of “authenticity.” Unplugged was riveting MTV’s audience and singer-songwriters were plentiful, especially in the echelon of culture just below the mainstream. Folk and approximations of it were commercially viable again by the time Starbucks started dropping music.

Brands as varied as Pottery Barn, Lane Bryant, Rainforest Cafe, Au Bon Pain, Blockbuster Video, and Wonderbra were selling mixed CDs to their Clinton-era customers

Meanwhile, retail-specific music compilations were growing in popularity and ubiquity. These were not “cool” by any standard divested from mainstream norms—in the ’90s, hating corporations was practically an identity and by the early 2000s, Starbucks was practically synonymous with the very concept of corporate—but they were often successful. Victoria’s Secret’s mind-bogglingly popular line of classical discs launched in 1988 and by 1997, the retailer’s eight titles had reportedly moved more than 12 million copies in total. Brands as varied as Pottery Barn, Lane Bryant, Rainforest Cafe, Au Bon Pain, Blockbuster Video, and Wonderbra were selling mixed CDs to their Clinton-era customers. It was a tradition stretching back decades—tire companies Firestone and Goodyear had hawked vinyl Christmas compilations in the ’60s and ’70s.

But there was something about Starbucks in particular that made the whole endeavor sing. “If you’re standing in line, you have a good feeling and there’s a pleasant aroma. If you’re hearing music you like, you want to experience this feeling again, so you buy the CD,” a marketing expert (who didn’t work for Starbucks) told the Chicago Tribune in 2005.

The brand’s idea of selling music, according to a story in the August 1998 issue of Workforce, stemmed from one Starbucks manager’s dubbing of mixtapes that he’d play over his store’s system. David Brewster, from Starbucks product development, said in a 1998 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News that the marketing of CDs was a direct response to “our customers [wanting] to know where they could buy the music they heard in the stores.”

“The CDs are one of the most convenient ways that people can take the Starbucks store experience home with them,” Brewster told The Ottawa Citizen in 1998. For “daunting” genres like jazz and classical, Starbucks’ curation was like training wheels for the ears. “You’re not jumping into the deep end. You’re sort of walking into the pool,” is how Jones put it to the Chicago Tribune in a 1997 story.

“I head for daycare after work,” Jones also told the Tribune. “I don’t have time to hang out in a Tower Records like I used to, and I have a hard time staying in touch with developing artists. Then, one day you look up and some guy named Beck is winning an award and you say, ‘Where have I been?’”

Though Starbucks wouldn’t really extend its suburban outreach in any substantial way until after the turn of the millennium, its designs were already being telegraphed with its foray into slinging music. The Starbucks compilations, whose output increased steadily over the years, were utterly suburban in feel. Neat, inoffensive, and modern in their convenience, they presented a skin-deep assessment of the genres they represented. They gestured toward what it was to be cultured while requiring none of the time or work it actually took to be so. They commodified the grit of the ’60s coffeehouse and encased it in plastic. It was hardly a surprise that the brand soon aligned itself with the mostly white female singer-songwriter boom of the latter half of the ‘90s.

Rockist ‘90s notions of what made a woman singer-songwriter legit—stays in the middle of the road with adult alternative stylings

Starbucks’ music train chugged along throughout the late ’90s, with Christmas compilations, a disc focused on “Starbucks’ favorite divas,” and another pegged to the 1998 Lilith Fair, a tour of predominantly alt-ish women acts that featured a traveling Starbucks cafe. (I’ll refrain from making a joke about the attendees needing something to keep them awake during the more laconic sets.) Rockist ‘90s notions of what made a woman singer-songwriter legit—stays in the middle of the road with adult alternative stylings and relies upon “traditional” instruments—was very much on display in Starbucks’ contemporary selections. (So, for example, no Missy Elliott, who actually was on the 1998 Lilith Fair bill.) From a business standpoint, Starbucks struck the right note. By 1997, according to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the brand had sold half a million albums. That figure would rise exponentially over the next 10 years.

What helped propel Starbucks beyond virtually every other brand’s dilettantish stab at music retail was its 1999 acquisition of Hear Music. Hear was once a catalog company that had turned into a particularly user-friendly music store. “Listening stations are arranged thematically; shoppers are allowed to unwrap and listen to any CD in the store,” reported SFGate at the time of the acquisition. It may help younger readers to remind them that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when blind-buying was the norm. You’d go into a music store and throw down $15 on something that you’d maybe heard a song or two from, or whose artist you enjoyed, or whose cover you admired. A store allowing a potential customer to listen to an album of their choice before purchasing was virtually unheard of. (This may also explain why people paid handsomely for playlists curated by corporate coffee.)

By all accounts, it went swimmingly. At the time of the acquisition’s announcement, Starbucks installed fixtures to hold Starbucks-branded and Hear-chosen CDs, an upgrade from modest counter displays. In a 2004 Fast Company interview, Schultz’s ravings about Starbucks’ unique penetration of the music retail market verged on the messianic. “The Starbucks customer might want to find a Diana Krall album, a Tony Bennett album, or anything that was not being played on the radio, well, they would have a hard time going into Tower Records,” he said. “Maybe they’d find the album there, but they could not find someone who could talk to them about it. That consumer has disposable income and has had a long history of buying and enjoying music, but they have nowhere to go.” He promised that the Hear Music coffeehouse that had then recently opened in Santa Monica and contained a “media bar” at which customers could burn a CD from a selection of songs was “the first manifestation of a much larger, much more aggressive, more intricate strategy in terms of how music is going to play a significant role in Starbucks.” The media bars were also installed in some Starbucks locations. In 2005, a BusinessWeek item reportedly claimed that the bars were not doing well, but the Austin Business Journal reported that Starbucks said: “BusinessWeek mischaracterized the music venture, and that the company will continue to move forward with its plans to roll out more music bars and coffeehouses.”

That might have happened if it weren’t for Apple. The iPod had debuted in 2001, and in 2003, the iTunes Store followed. People didn’t need Starbucks or physical media to assemble their own playlists. They could do it from their couches. Still, there was reason for optimism, if not over the particulars of media delivery options, then more broadly for Starbucks’ musical efforts. In 2004, Hear Music and the label Concord posthumously released Ray Charles’s last album, Genius Loves Company. The duets collection, featuring Starbucks-friendly artists like Norah Jones, Van Morrison, and Elton John, was a smash. It was certified triple platinum (by August 2007, a reported 775,000 copies had been sold at Starbucks locations) and racked up an astonishing eight Grammy Awards, including the coveted Album of the Year. It was the first Starbucks release of all-new material. The bean pusher had knocked it out of the park on the first swing. “This is not an attempt to sell more coffee,” Ken Lombard, president of music and entertainment for Starbucks, told The San Luis Obispo Tribune. “It’s a commitment to try to fill the void the industry currently has in terms of a quality music outlet. We’re going to build Starbucks into the destination, so whenever you think about buying music, you’re going to go to Starbucks to purchase it.”

A flurry of releases followed. Starbucks signed New York-based rock band Antigone Rising and marketed them as the inaugural act in its “Hear Music Debut” series. Starbucks forged a direct through-line from coffeehouse music’s past to its present by officially releasing a widely circulating Bob Dylan bootleg. Live at the Gaslight 1962 was sold exclusively at Starbucks locations for its first 18 months out. Alanis Morissette’s rerecorded acoustic version of her landmark Jagged Little Pill album was a similar Starbucks exclusive, but only for six weeks. During that time it sold a reported 160,000 copies. Starbucks upped its compilation game, inviting artists to effectively make their own mix CDs that were sold in stores—the Artist’s Choice series included discs assembled by the likes of Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson. The inverse concept of these compilations assembled a variety of musicians and other famous people to chose their favorite song of a compilation’s focus act—perhaps the oddest Starbucks release of all time was Sonic Youth’s Hits Are for Squares, featuring selections from the noise-pop legends’ catalog chosen by Catherine Keener, Dave Eggers, and Diablo Cody.

The chain stocked other albums that it had no hand in producing but that were geared toward adults looking for tunes that didn’t rock the boat or rock much at all—releases by acts like Van Morrison, Dave Matthews Band, and Coldplay. At the company’s 2006 Biennial Analyst Conference, it was announced that over eight percent of sales of John Mayer’s then-new Continuum album had been purchased at Starbucks.

So that was all going great. In 2006, Starbucks moved 3.6 million CDs, which put its music revenue at $65 million. It was a fraction of the brand’s $7.8 billion in total revenue, but a notable fraction. In 2007, Starbucks and Concord launched the Hear Music label, which would go on to release new material from Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. And then came the Great Recession. That combined with the already shaky ground the music industry had been on for years as it struggled to catch up to the internet and the piracy that it allowed made music and dicier and dicier business. A little over a year after the Hear Music label was announced, Starbucks revealed it was turning over its day-to-day management of the label over to Concord. Stores closed, executives stepped down, stocks tumbled. Plans to expand the CD-burning media bar program were scrapped.

The dream was over, but the plastic remained. Despite their precipitous drop in sales, CDs hung around Starbucks stores until 2015, when Starbucks announced it would stop carrying the discs. “Music will remain a key component of our coffeehouse and retail experience, however we will continue to evolve the format of our music offerings to ensure we’re offering relevant options for our customers,” a rep told Billboard. “As a leader in music curation, we will continue to strive to select unique and compelling artists from a broad range of genres we think will resonate with our customers.”

But what that has meant practically in the years is a rather quotidian online presence. Starbucks, like everyone else, is making playlists. The Starbucks Music page on the company’s website directs to the company’s Spotify profile, which contains 20 public playlists and, at the time of this article, has a little over 133,800 followers—a fraction of the consumers who once bought music at Starbucks, which was always a fraction of its business model. It’s almost as though a coffeemaker wasn’t meant to hawk music after all. Meanwhile, Starbucks’ suburban invasion continues on.

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