April 10, 2008
When "Music" Is Not about Music (1 of 2)

A few weeks ago, The New York Times published an article on the Starbucks' music label Hear Music where they contend that the latte mogul is watering down their musical supply. Worse even, the article suggests that, "despite adopting a broader musical approach, Starbucks on average sells only two CDs a store each day at company-owned shops, according to people briefed on its business. Starbucks disputed that figure but declined to provide a different one."

This mainstream approach, successful or not, apparently goes counter to their original focus on undiscovered music. After all, it was Hear Music that put Madelein Peyroux's Careless Love on the map. As an alternative retailer, Starbucks is a dream, but since the label is the coffee shop franchise itself, my sense is that they are not about selling music, but rather about selling some sort of commoditized authenticity, status and most of all, the Starbucks brand. This gives them permission to create a catalogue that appeals to a target as wide as those who are willing to pay $3.50 for a cappuccino, and incredibly enough, that's a large chunk of people. This has meant that Hear Music now offers Simon & Garfunkel and James Brown, a far cry from undiscovered artists.

By wrapping the music in the Starbucks brand and relating it to the coffee shops, Hear Music has transformed it into what British media scholar Anahid Kassabian calls 'ubiquitous music' - "the range of musics that, in one way or another, accompany other activities. One obvious component of that study is music in retail spaces, the music most famously produced by Muzak."

Starbucks music was first associated with the World of Music, Arts & Dance Festival and Peter Gabriel's Real World Records label, which produced the album WOMAD: Starbucks World Music Volume One in 1998 But, as of 1999, Hear Music decided to work on their own and since their identity has continued to shift. In 2002, their website said that they were "a music company dedicated to guiding curious, thinking adults to great music, joined by the Starbucks family. We invite you to listen to hundreds of CDs, explore music you've never heard, and discover your next favorite record."

Their current site says very little about the kind of music you should expect to find, except for the fact that it's "hand picked" (like coffee beans?) and that "Just like the Starbucks coffee company, we apply the highest standards of excellence to the products that bear our name, developing enthusiastically satisfied costumers in the process."

As Kassabian has pointed out, Hear Music offers a lifestyle-oriented approach to music marketing that is very much in synch with the Starbucks franchise. Hear Music is about offering a type of lifestyle while generating brand loyalty and awareness and not so much about the music it sells and less even about a discovery process.

I'll be providing a follow-up post on the subject soon here on the Consortium's blog.

Reference: Kassabian, Anahid. "Would You Like Some World Music with your Latte? Starbucks, Putumayo, and Distributed Tourism" Twentieth-Century Music, 1: 209-223 (2004), Cambridge University Press