The coffee chain released some unexpectedly credible music in its time
Since being founded way back in 1971, Starbucks has become an international chain known for its souped-up drinks, failsafe wi-fi, and, well, occasional tax avoidance. Alongside perfecting its pumpkin spice latte recipe, the company has also spent decades experimenting with various business ventures – some successful, some not. Its long, messy history with the music industry, for example, is often swept under the rug, and it’s not hard to see why.
Today, the music industry may be dominated by streaming, but back in the 1990s, Starbucks decided that CDs were its ticket to credibility. In the middle of the decade, various branches began stocking the work of saxophonist Kenny G, an early investor who – for any pub quiz fans – apparently inspired the Frappuccino. This was just the start of the coffee chain’s link to the music business. In 1999, the company bought out Hear Music (an unconventional music retailer who at one point allowed customers to create their own mix CDs), sparking a series of strange events involving artists as varied as Sia and Sonic Youth, that collectively document a failed rebranding.
Here, we unpick the secret history of a business move Starbucks would likely rather forget.
THE EARLY DAYS
When Starbucks first landed the Hear Music deal, executives put coffee houses in the company’s five existing North American stores, marking its first physical attempt to unite the disparate worlds of overpriced drinks and mind-numbing easy-listening music. Like an uncle in the midst of a midlife crisis, company bigwigs toyed with various experimental new ideas for the shops – including the short-lived ‘concept store’, whereby customers could burn their own CDs from a pre-arranged library of tracks for a fee.
Other experiments included exclusive releases; surprisingly, even Alanis Morissette signed a deal that meant that Starbucks could sell an acoustic working of her iconic Jagged Little Pill for six weeks. These tactics were indicative of a company attempting to find its feet in the music industry, but executives quickly realised that inoffensive guitar ballads and soft jazz – the standard ‘coffee shop’ music that journalist Liz Pelly describes as “emotional wallpaper” – were Starbucks’ key to success.
BRINGING IN THE BIG GUNS
For a while, Starbucks looked poised to become a significant player in the music industry. Emboldened by its early high-profile successes – the most notable of which was an album by none other than soul pioneer Ray Charles – the company announced the creation of a record label, Hear Music, in 2007, shortly followed by the news that Paul McCartney was on board. He was swiftly followed by “You’re So Vain” hitmaker Carly Simon. Interestingly, the label became well-known for recruiting musical greats; even bonafide musical icon Joni Mitchell signed with Hear Music to release Shine, an album which served as both her comeback and her swan song. The cult legend had famously announced she was quitting the music industry – which she described as “an incessant cesspool” – back in 2002, but was somehow enticed into teaming up with Starbucks for an album which landed her highest chart debut since Hejira in 1976.
The label existed alongside Starbucks Entertainment, which focused heavily on compilation albums and, similarly, united some shockingly credible names. Principal among them was Sonic Youth, who got the piss taken out of them in a Pitchfork interview in which they casually announced that a Starbucks compilation album was on its way. Unlike the usual half-arsed hodge-podge of hits and misses, this compilation was curated by stars: Chloë Sevigny, Beck, Radiohead, and Gus Van Sant all got involved, picking their favourite Sonic Youth song and contributing to a bizarre piece of musical history in the process (fashion designer Marc Jacobs was also rumoured to be involved, but ultimately never made the final cut). Not only that, the band also released an original track, “Slow Revolution”, on the CD. The compilations came thick and fast over the following years, with artists like Beck, Fiona Apple, and Vampire Weekend spawning a series of themed, lacklustre covers that undoubtedly raked in some big time caramel macchiato cash.
When Pitchfork asked why he got involved, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore replied (perhaps jokingly, perhaps not): “Starbucks is the new record store, right?”
WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?
This emphasis on retail has been cited as one of the key reasons for the record label’s quick demise in 2008. After all, the idea of kids going to a half-coffee, half-record shop to pay money to burn music from a preselected library of Norah Jones knock-offs is laughable, and many believed this lack of insight and focus on the physical product was the reason for its failure. There was also an inevitable backlash: competing record stores started voicing their annoyance with Starbucks, while customers became increasingly bewildered by how much more mainstream the music on offer was becoming (which, in 2018, shows how far things have come). Sales were astonishingly bad, with one report claiming that only two CDs per day were actually being purchased in any Starbucks store. The company refuted this claim, but also declined to give alternative figures.
There was, however, a bigger, more important catch: the music was shit. Really shit. It’s unsurprising, especially considering the fact that Starbucks is literally a company which sells the idea of homogeneity, a nice cosy cappuccino in an environment that’s familiar no matter where in the world you are. The music was always bound to be bland, and reviewers were quick to implicate Starbucks’ involvement when discussing unadventurous original releases.
Still, there were some success stories – Hear Music gave Sia her first ever charting album, in the form of 2008’s Some People Have Real Problems. Before she became known for her ability to cough out mega-hits in her sleep, Sia signed to the label in 2007 after years on the edges of mainstream success. The album was met with extremely divided reviews, the most negative of which acknowledged her talent but panned the album’s deliberately safe pop music. Then, there was a lawsuit from Carly Simon for lack of promotion which compounded the company’s negative press – even though the case was filed, dismissed, re-filed, and finally lost again. The damage was done; unsurprisingly, corporations and creativity were quickly proving to be a more difficult partnership than executives had predicted.
A DIGITAL FUTURE
Since the demise of the label, Starbucks has teamed up with Spotify and instructed its long-standing curators to create specialised playlists to accompany its cappuccinos, but ultimately the brand now sticks to what it does best – coffee. Finally, the chain seems to have taken a hint and stopped trying to make CDs happen in an increasingly digital age. Still, a lot can be learned from the company’s ill-advised venture into music, the first of which is that ‘safe’ doesn’t always sell. Then, there was the timing – while the label was peddling diluted, ultimately soulless guitar ballads and jazz-lite tracks, the internet was both revolutionising and democratising the music industry, giving stars whose music may have been otherwise buried the chance to come up online.
This might not have been enough of a problem to bring the label down had the music actually been good. Sure, the label housed a stable of musical icons, but Starbucks’ failures demonstrate that the guitar-strumming, easy-listening brand of ‘coffee shop music’ isn’t always enough to keep a record label afloat. It also shows what happens when corporate executives are tasked with the challenge of cracking a music industry that never wanted them. The ‘concept stores’, the cheesy compilations and the desire to churn out inoffensive content – these are all retrospective indicators of a conglomerate which should really just stick to Frappuccinos.