Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Macca's Not Everyone's Cup of Coffee; OFF THE RECORD

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Macca's Not Everyone's Cup of Coffee; OFF THE RECORD

Article excerpt


JUST as I wouldn't trust the chairman of EMI to make me a decent cappuccino, I'm not sure I want Starbucks to dictate my musical tastes either. The Seattle coffee company has just launched its own record label, Hear Music, with the intention of signing up artists and distributing their music both in traditional record stores and their own cafes.

What can we expect from a company for whom music is a secondary source of revenue alongside mugs and frappuccino ice lollies? After extensive research (enough time at the Oxford Circus branch for two teas and a slice of blueberry cheesecake) I conclude that Starbucks sounds are the ultimate background mush, easily ignorable at whatever volume they are played.

Hear Music already sells CDs licensed from other labels in Starbucks. A 2004 Ray Charles duets album amassed a third of its total sales in the coffee shop and went platinum, and the branch I visited had attractive compilations by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald stacked by the till. On the stereo they were playing Timeless, a recent album by the Brazilian bossa nova veteran Sergio Mendes, on which he gets a mild modern makeover thanks to US stars such as John Legend and the Black Eyed Peas.

All classy stuff, and undeniably pleasant, but as safe as a skinny latte.

The fact that young artists being plugged at Starbucks include James Morrison and Joss Stone, and that the first signing to Hear Music is expected to be Paul McCartney, all indicates that this label will be as unadventurous as possible.

Listening to Hear Music's satellite radio station at home (channel 75 at gives a better sense of the feel they're going for - lots of acoustic guitars, some tasteful soul, David Gray, Donavon Frankenreiter, Shuggie Otis, Tracy Chapman.

It's not chart-topping stuff, like the disposable pap they play in McDonald's, but is clearly meant for creating ambience rather than for people to actually listen to it.

In any case, is it really possible to identify with a brand so much that you want your home to sound like it? I found fellow temple of blandness Gap similarly playing songs that are easily associated with its all-American clothes - quirky, hummable indie pop. The retailer has also given away CDs in stores as well as using musicians such as Ryan Adams to model its clothes. A trip to Topshop offered sounds by bands so edgy and new they're probably out of fashion again by the time you read this - have you even heard of Tokyo Police Club or the Sunshine Underground?

All of them want the music they play to reflect the supposed personality of the store, and by extension, your own personality as a valued customer. Are we really that easily pigeonholed? If so, Starbucks customers should perhaps be feeling a bit slighted. The espresso may be full strength, but the songs ain't. …

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