moments before the wind.

March 7, 2006

in somebody else’s sky

Filed under: authenticity — alimarcus @ 9:36 am

When I first moved to Seattle, there was some real interesting musical stuff going on in the Starbucks realm. I believe it was right around the time that Ray Charles passed away, Ray came out, and Hear Music had their first bona fide hit with the Ray Charles music they put out. All of a sudden, it became clear to me and lots of other people that music retail has potential to survive outside of the local music store. If you could pick any demographic to market music to, wouldn’t you pick the Starbucks crowd? People who will drop $5 on a latte, daily, would most likely also be willing to throw in a nicely packaged CD every now and then. Plus, the music is right next to the cash register, and the artist is almost always some kind of legendary figure, so it can’t be bad music; it can’t be nearly as abrasive or silly as the stuff that music stores often keep on their displays.

Back in 2004, the future of Hear Music seemed incredibly bright. There seemed to be an already powerful system in place, and no outside distribution deals were necessary, and the customers were willing. Ask my parents, or your parents…and you’ll see. Back in 2004, what I envisioned happening was the fulfillment of the Hear Music doctrine, which, though I can’t find the text anymore, had to do with people of discerning taste bringing truly good music to the forefront of their priorities. Basically, Hear Music used to say, “This is music that we think is good, and we are making this compilation so that you will find out how good it is too.”

But that was then. Now, in the “about us” section of the S-bucks site, it says, among other things:

Starbucks Hear Music is dedicated to creating a new and convenient way for consumers to discover, experience and acquire all genres of great music through its CD compilations and music programming for Starbucks coffeehouses worldwide, as well as its innovative partnerships with other music labels to produce, market and distribute both exclusive and non-exclusive music.

To quote that famous 70’s sitcom, “Hey, wha’ happened?”

This is what business does, right? It grows and grows and makes more money and more money…or it doesn’t, and is considered a failure. Now, I dont think that Hear Music has been a failure, necessarily, because obviously their media ambitions are only getting larger. Soon they will be distributing movies as well, and soon they will be moving to Los Angeles, which is what all media companies do when they get “serious,” i.e. be closer to the bigwigs. (Besides, Seattle will always have that inferiority complex towards the “other” west coast music scene.) As you may have noticed, Starbucks distributes albums from other record labels too, and I wouldn’t be surprised that a large source of their income comes from those CDs rather than the compilations that Hear Music was founded on. Clearly, their future is bright, and the possibilities of more media involvement seem increasingly plausible as time goes on. More and more Hear Music Coffeehouses will open, if the digital downloading services turn out successful. How about a Starbucks magazine? How about a Starbucks digital download service, complete with an exclusive iPod to boot?

I know that this all sounds very critical, but I don’t think that what Hear Music is turning into is bad. It’s still very far from the major-label exploitation that we have come to know and despise. In fact, watching its development is of great interest to me; their learning experiences are valuable to me. I think it’s important to pay attention to what they started off as, and what they are pointing towards, as success and reputation build. It’s exciting, I know, but it’s a big responsibility. If a company starts off with certain values, and then gains respect for having those values, it’s important to grow in proportion to them. Not that any one person’s or company’s values should remain stagnant, because that is a worse offense, but graceful change is possible. If beliefs are really a true element of a person’s or a company’s being, than it should be obvious to the world.

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