Starbucks's Failed Music Revolution

Once upon a time, the coffee chain represented hope that record-buying could remain a physical experience for most people. What happens when it stops selling CDs?

The cover of Sonic Youth's 2008 compilation Hits are for Squares, created for Starbucks. (Starbucks Music)

Starbucks will stop selling CDs at the end of the month, and it isn't hip to cry about it. Last week's news that the coffee chain would do away with its register-side racks was met on Twitter with many a condolence to Norah Jones's career; at Vulture, Lindsey Weber mock-mourned, “Oh no, how will we know what adult contemporary stations are playing without having to listen to the radio?”

The profound middlebrowness of Starbucks and many of its music offerings can't be disputed; the first CD the store offered, in 1994, was by Kenny G. But it's worth remembering that not too long ago, Starbucks was seen as a record-industry rebel, and the effective shuttering of its retail-music arm suggests that one vision for the future of music is dead.

In 1999, the chain purchased the music-curation startup Hear Music, and in the ensuing years established a record label with big aspirations. “We believe strongly that we can transform the retail record industry,” Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz said in 2004, and evidently others agreed. Paul McCartney ditched EMI to become Starbucks's first signee, saying that the coffee giant seemed more excited about the musical innovation than his record company did.

Other mainstream legends like Ray Charles and Joni Mitchell would soon come aboard, but so would younger, avant garde acts.  “Starbucks is the new record store, right?” Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore told a somewhat-horrified Pitchfork in 2007, and his colleague and then-wife Kim Gordon later said the band worked with the chain because it was “less evil” than their record-company parent Universal.

In this long era of music-sales decline, Starbucks represented the possibility that album shopping could again be a physical experience for a mass market. “Starbucks has the opportunity to break new artists in ways that no other retailer can today because of the footprint, the breadth, and the loyalty we have,” Schultz said in ’04. “... We're now the ‘Third Place.’ The physical environment has become as important as anything we do, including the coffee.”

The idea of using music to foster a gathering spot didn’t merely include stocking a handful of CDs in each store. Amid much hype, Starbucks rolled out retail kiosks where people could browse a library of thousands of songs and burn them to discs, for a fee. It seems like an inevitably doomed initiative now—and indeed only survived a couple years—but did represent optimism about reinventing the record shop in the digital age.

Starbuck’s musical efforts also made for one of the most high-profile examples of a commercial brand trying to double as cultural tastemaker. It played talent scout, signing newbie acts and famous ones alike, aiming to create some coherent aesthetic identity. In that 2004 Fast Company interview, Schultz talked about looking for "the next Norah Jones" and appealing to Tony Bennett fans alienated by Tower Records-like outlets that "skewed toward more MTV and a narrower, much younger audience." Similar partnership strategies have since been embraced by other brands, from Adult Swim to Red Bull to Mountain Dew, who sign buzz-catching acts embracing the 21st-century credo that "selling out" isn't possible.

Along the way, Starbucks ran into a few typical record-company problems. In 2009, signee Carly Simon sued the company, arguing that its stores didn’t promote her album This Kind of Love enough and were responsible for its poor sales. (She lost.) A 2008 New York Times article somewhat hilariously chronicled Starbucks’s fraught attempt to stay cool but also make money; apparently, there were consumers who admired the company’s credibility enough to say things like, “I want to come in and be surprised. … If they do get more mainstream, why bother?”

Why ditch CDs? A Starbucks rep would only tell me that the firm is trying to "evolve" its music offerings. But with sales of all formats but vinyl continuing to crater industry-wide, it's perhaps not shocking to see the end of the grand experiment in having a multinational coffee chain try and be the new erudite album retailer. Starbucks will stay in the music business digitally, but some see its retreat on physical sales as the final death knell for the CD in general. "Once you’ve lost Starbucks, you’ve lost the game," writes Ari Herstand at Digital Music News.

Whether that's true or not, it is the end of one kind of music-shopping experience. At Gizmodo on Friday, Adam Clark Estes offered a wistful remembrance of making an impulse Vampire Weekend purchase with his iced coffee, and a commenter replied that it's bizarre to feel nostalgia for a soulless chain’s money-making attempts. Maybe so, but a failed revolution is a failed revolution—someone’s got to grieve.