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"For us," says Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment, "it's always been about great music." He sounds like a press release when he speaks, especially when asked about selling more underground music: "We are expanding the genres and recognizing that our customers, who have given us permission to go beyond coffee, love music in a wide variety of genres. We don't exclude Top 40, but it's our objective to go beyond that." Translation: Don't expect to hear Mastodon, John Zorn, or Luther Campbell anytime soon. The coffee shop still won't play or sell music that might cause you to jostle your java or to look up from your laptop. For chrissakes, even Bruce Springsteen's new Devils & Dust was reportedly deemed too risqué due to an anal-sex allusionapparently the mermaid doesn't like her customers to use the back door. (Starbucks claims it didn't stock the album due to shelf space.)
The brewmasters' straight-up-the-middle music taste is coupled with sheer marketing muscle. Madeleine Peyroux, a relatively obscure torch singer on the independent Rounder Records, put out her first album in 1996. Her latest, Careless Love, was released last September, but in mid March Starbucks started prominently displaying it. Suddenly sales more than tripled in one week, from 4,849 albums to 16,636, pushing the album to No. 81 on the Billboard Top 200. "People are so busy these days," says an elated Sheri Sands, vice president of sales and marketing at Rounder Records. "To have music in a store you visit every day is just that much more convenient."
Starbucks's Hear Music label's first release was a 1995 jazz compilation with Blue Note Records. The company subsequently expanded its music roasts to include everything from opera to Afro-pop, classical to children's music, and of course rock, blues, and soulbut still nothing too abrasive or hard. Its Artist's Choice CDs, which feature legendary artists like the Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, and Johnny Cash, most often feel like an exercise in licensing clearances for the canonical. More useful are the Hear Music Playlist compilations, featuring slightly off-the-beaten-path performers like Magnetic Fields, Calexico, and Sondre Lerchechoices suggesting corporate headquarters may be more musically savvy than your average label exec.
"I think the biggest challenge for labels is breaking bands," says Antigone's Kristen Henderson, whose band will release its major-label studio debut in August. "The situation with Starbucks is perfect for us because it's going to get us into 4,400 stores, front and center, and expose our band, our music, our name to a whole group of people who have never known us." The acoustic Starbucks release doesn't do the band's accomplished hard-rock chopswhich at times recall the Allman Brothers or the Black Crowesjustice. Still, the twentysomething guitarist feels no shame in having her band associated with the coffee store. "There's always negative spin, people get like, hate the Man, the corporationbut we're signed to a major label. We were an indie touring band, but we consider our band a small business. We want to grow our business. . . . It doesn't really freak us out."
photo: Andrew MacNaughtan
On several occasions I ask baristas what the CD sitting two feet from their noses sounds like. Each time the question is met with blank stares and a colleague consultation, inevitably resulting in a mutually agreed-upon two-word genre description like "sorta jazz" (Michael Bublé), "kinda r&b" (John Legend), "rock 'n' roll" (Beck), "like folk" (Antigone Rising). "We will continue to work very hard with our baristas to be able to help them build awareness around which titles are part of the offerings," says Ken Lombard. "That's a big part of our music strategy right now, but with over 9,200 stores worldwide, you can imagine it takes a lot of work." Don't expect "partners," who are basically higher-paid fast-food employees, to ever appropriately describe what Sondre Lerche sounds like.
In late April barista Daniel Gross, an employee at the 36th and Madison store, organized a benefit to support the first Starbucks workers union. Last January, following allegations of Starbucks's aggressive union-busting tactics, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against the company. The benefit's headliner was David Rovics, a folk singer described by no less an authority than WBAI's Amy Goodman as a musical version of her progressive politics show, Democracy Now! Rovics receives the evening's loudest applause for a song entitled "Minimum Wage Strike": "There was no one flipping burgers/All the grills were cold/Onion rings were in their bags/Fries were growing mold/There were no baristas at Starbucks/Asking, 'How many shots would you like?'/When all the minimum-wage workers went on strike." After the show I ask Rovics, a thirtysomething Woody Guthrie acolyte with nine independent releases, if he wouldn't mind selling his music out of the megalith coffee retailer. "I really don't think Starbucks would be interested in selling my records," he answers. "I'm not going to refuse to sell my records to any store. If Starbucks wanted to promote pro-union, anti-war music that is directly in contradiction with the basic principles of the people who run the company . . . it just seems extremely unlikely."