Monday, March 12, 2007

I'll Take a Double Decaf, Soy Macchiato with My Media Please

If like me you are addicted to good coffee but are often amazed that Norah Jones is somehow always on the menu in front of you when you grab your morning brew, be prepared to get a lot more amazed. The New York Post Online Edition reports that,
the formation of Starbucks Records, as the unit is expected to be called, could be announced as soon as this week, according to these sources.

Launching a record label is something "that has been bandied about for quite a while," said one source. "They think they are empowered enough to do that."

Said another: "They have a very targeted, efficient distribution channel that allows them to be profitable in a limited way with music."

Starbusks could also take on a partner in the venture.

Unlike its Hear Music operation, which releases the Artists Choice compilation series that features musicians such as Sheryl Crow or The Rolling Stones selecting songs that influenced them, Starbucks Records is expected sign, record and produce its own artists rather than licensing songs from other labels.
Idolator chimes in
If Starbucks intends to revamp the record industry the same way it revamped the coffee industry, expect all albums to be $2-$3 more expensive than normal, and available only after a 15-minute mid-afternoon wait.
What is interesting for me is that we are seeing a continuation of what has always been the case in the music industry: the alliance of distribution with identity. Allow me to repeat that in a form that everyone can understand: THIS IS NOTHING NEW, WHEN AND WHERE YOU BUY YOUR MEDIA IS OFTEN AS IMPORTANT FOR THE CONSUMER AS TO WHAT THE MEDIA IS!

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but if you are honest, and Lord knows that is rarity, then this is simply a variation on discussions about "selling out" (aka, I was into band x before my little brother was, now they have sold out...) and community. The reasons why people buy at Starbucks are twofold: 1) they feel like Starbucks is an efficient gatekeeper for their lifestyle and 2) it's convenient. That's it. It's the same reason why punks in the 1980s purchased at their local indie shops or dubheads head on down to their local reggae shop. Starbucks has essentially corporatized the gatekeeping element and allows in only the media that they feel is "Starbucky" or has meaning for their audience. That people won't buy the same media at the shop down the street that is not quite as clean or staffed by people who sneer down their noses at them because they have "terrible" tastes has as much to do with a specific kind of identity as does the person who, like myself, prefers trolling through bin after bin of dusties when I have the time.

Now, I am not one to judge on this. To be fair, I would rather buy a great Dylan record at Starbucks than a crap singer-songwriter record at my local indie store. But I am not the key. I am an omnivore and what Starbucks is targeting is the person who buys, perhaps, 7-10 cds a year. When I worked in record stores back in the days of vinyl, this person was someone who stopped buying new music in their early 20s and has stuck with artists for a long time. On a lark they would purchase a mega-seller that was by a new artist, but it really had to have some sort of cultural import. So, for example, in the mid 1980s this person would drop coin on replacing one or two Beatles records that they had worn out (yes, kiddies, people used to wear out records) and then something new by an oldie or two (say you would have sold something by Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon), something new in pop that won a grammy (Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper) and something "new" new (Windham Hill was becoming a cultural force then, so let's say they purchased "Winter"). That's about seven records for themselves. All other purchases would be for the kids. These people are commonly known as middle class parents. Historically, record stores are not the haven for middle class people who are trying to move 200 miles per hour in their career and in trying to raise a family. They get out of work, they hit the road, listen to NPR who plays Norah Jones and it sounds nice and then they see it at the place where they buy their drugs... er, coffee and they pick it up because, like that latte, it is soothing.

But it is interesting that Starbucks is entering into the labeling business, right? That's different, right? It's a company that doesn't do music so this is odd right? Well, no... Records have, in the past, been issued by labels owned by film studios who then would produce soundtracks and 45s that could be sold at places of exhibition; record companies have worked with numerous types of consumer good manufacturers to produce records that would tie-in with the "needs" of each others audiences; comic books have been made into hitmakers in search of specific demographics. So, while this is interesting because Starbucks is utilizing state-of-the-art data crunching and marketing methods, let's just see this as an extension of a popular music history rather than something that is beyond the pale. Remember, what's really beyond-the-pale is that acoustic Alanis Morrissette record.

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