Say Goodbye to CDs at Starbucks

flickr/Irfaan Photography
No more CDs here, pal.
By Reed Fischer

Starbucks is getting out of the CD game. Starting in March, the Seattle coffee behemoth's 21,000 stores worldwide will begin dismantling a twenty-year attack on the brick-and-mortar CD market -- one that mostly targeted the most indifferent of music buyers.

Sure, people bought the CDs at Starbucks, which typically consisted of a milquetoast blend of holiday jazz compilations, world music and the safest singer-songwriters. Just like that Waylon Jennings Super Hits disc you bought at a truck stop, it's easy to see these as purchases of the "Oh, what the hell," variety.

When those register endcaps featuring Norah Jones, John Legend and Diana Krall disappear, it'll be difficult to feel bad about it, and here's why.

Starbucks Sold Bad Cultural Ideals
Behold, Music for Little Hipsters. This is not an album. It's a poorly conceived product created by a cynical mind. The title is horrendous enough, the cover features a child destroying her parents' vinyl collection, and the song selection veers from Devendra Banhart to the Beach Boys to Caspar Babypants. No matter what you put on this sort of compilation, the message is clear: You're too busy hanging out at the coffee shop to teach your kid about music yourself, so leave it to us.

The interior of the now-shuttered San Antonio Starbucks Hear Music store.
Starbucks Music Stores Didn't Work
As Starbucks began forays into selling music in its coffee shops, it forged a partnership with a label called Hear Music. The companies collaborated on several music stores that served Starbucks coffee, and soon closed them or reverted them into regular Starbucks locations. Does anything in the picture above look appealing?

Starbucks CD Consumers Weren't Record Store Regulars
Over a decade ago, traditional retailers were already largely responding to CD sales at Starbucks with a shrug, even as select titles like Ray Charles' 2004 duets album Genius Loves Company posted huge sales thanks to placement at the coffee chain. "The market they isolate there is people who don't spend a lot of time in music stores and it's an impulse purchase," Billboard's Geoff Mayfield said at the time.

This is an actual Sonic Youth album.
The Artists Who Sold Music at Starbucks Will Be Just Fine 
Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and other established millionaire musicians have launched partnerships with Starbucks over the years. And why not? Just like any other "alternate model" that someone like Radiohead or Beyonce or U2 tries, it's a publicity shortcut for a product that would entice a core of dedicated fans no matter what.

Sonic Youth took Starbucks' money for its 2008 compilation Hits Are for Squares. The title and cover, featuring a working stiff enjoying a few brief minutes away from the madness of his high-paying job, say it all. "I never thought of it as being more radical than recording for Universal Music," frontman Thurston Moore told Billboard. "They're both corporations that have ties to things that people find sort of problematic." If you don't have a problem buying a Sonic Youth hits collection in the first place, the idea of picking it up at Starbucks isn't going to slow you down. And taking your business elsewhere will be even easier.


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