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The Hot Topic: Coffee and CDs

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From the fevered minds of a loose grouping of self-appointed cultural commentators comes a weekly side-swipe at the issues of the day, providing a pithy and often heated debate on pop culture as they see it. Welcome, friends, to The Hot Topic…

This week’s burning issue: Would you buy music from Starbucks?

From: Greg Smyth
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Coffee and CDs

Dear Gang,

I’ve been hanging out in my local Starbucks way too much lately and I was perusing some flyers for their latest exclusive CD offering (a hideous slight on Herbie Hancock’s genius). That set me wondering about if, were they actually selling anything I might want to purchase, would I be willing to buy my music from a coffee company?

Starbucks’ appeal is that it sells you back the very thing you can get for practically no dollars right in your own living room – a cuppa joe in a homely environment. Setting aside the deep and potentially disturbing personal problems that might make you feel the need to buy into this fake lifestyle in the first place, part and parcel of the patented Starbucks experience is the idea of fitting into this Americanized, homogenized idea of respectable alt-cool. The idea being that, if you’re in Starbucks, you’re Hip and you Belong.

So far, so much bullshit. Now, to me, Starbucks selling music isn’t actually the most devilish thing Corporate America has foisted on the world (a CLOWN, selling HAMBURGERS!? WTF?) and it fits with the whole Middle Of The Road aspirational lifestyle that also brought us GAP. The thing is, while Starbucks keeps plugging a new Alanis Morrissette album, I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass. I wouldn’t buy it if they paid me. Likewise, the whole Dylan pseudo-controversy left me nonplussed, simply because (as good as he is) Bob Dylan is part of that whole Pasteurized American Monoculture.

So, when would it start bothering me? Well, call it cultural snobbery if you like (*hands up in surrender*) but the very second they start trying to flog me something cutting edge or indie or FUCKING GOOD, then I’ll be pissed. If, assuming it ever sees the light of day, I was to walk into one of Newcastle’s multiple Starbucks and find the debut album by Babyshambles going for a tenner when you buy a Venti Decaf Mochalocofrangipanifuckaluckachino with Soya Milk. THEN, I won’t be responsible for my actions.

From: Eric Berlin
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Coffee and CDs

I’m thrilled to be taking part in this little (dare I say alt-cool?) experiment. That said, let me hereby dish some chips as per request.

A great topic you’ve hit upon, one that’s strangely and nearly disturbingly universal: Starbucks and monoculture and coffee (ah, an item close to my heart, that) and world dominion. And music! You had my head spinning, what with memories of crisscrossing the American south in the ’90s and seeing the same set of megastores at every stop (Wal Mart, Old Navy, K Mart, Waffle House, next!), the first brilliant third of Fight Club, and many an afternoon huddled over a scribble pad (oh, how dark and mysterious he is, they think – writing a novel no one will ever read, let alone pay for – and drinking coffee in public, all at once!) at my local Starbucks. Well, there are technically two local Starbucks in my neighborhood, but I think you get my meaning.

And I hear you, as an avowed Starbucks junk fiend, with regard to purchasing music there. I suspect you’d agree that it would be akin to more securely and precisely positioning one’s soul over the corporate hell pits. Just one Ray Charles & Friends compilation away from eternal damnation, right? We’re all forced to tow the line in this scrambled advertisement-rich modern culture, I suppose.

The weird thing (the temptation, perhaps?) is that some of the music played at Starbucks is good. I’ve heard some great reggae and jazz and African rhythms that I’d likely never get the opportunity to experience otherwise, I’m (very) sorry to say.

So on the one hand, I might boil the Big Picture question to: how much of our souls are we willing to sell?

But then I’m forced to counter myself, Devil’s Advocate-like, with: it’s just coffee and music, so chill out, eh?

From: Aaron Fleming
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Coffee and CDs

It’s hard not to repeat the frequent rhetoric espoused by anti-corporate activists and, well, anyone in the condition of sanity, but let me begin by saying corporate powerhouses (like Starbucks) will commence with any proceedure that has the chance of increasing profits, the bottom line is the most, and only, important unit in this equation. You could argue about governmental laws (national and international) but that only goes so far, and it could be easily stated that subliminal methods used in advertising/marketing/etc are much more powerful tools within the intention of profit maximisation (to which I’d agree).

With vast departments of employees working in these areas, the corporations are constantly evolving and developing new strategies, no demographic or sub-culture is safe from it’s roaming tentacles. If I were feeling particularly anarchic right now I’d call for a major uprising to combat the machine, or at least for people to continue to strive for constructing a wall of defence against it. Of course there is plenty of that evident in society (anti-globalisation groups etc), but clearly far from enough to have any substantial effect, and, as corporate power expands, it only increases in difficulty.

So to Starbucks. This company has clearly hit gold with its image, the proliferation of music retail is just another part of this. Eric says that he has heard decent music in the outlets, consider that another success bestowed on the heads of those advanced marketeers. It’s all image construction, as is the entire “Middle Of The Road aspirational lifestyle” that Greg discusses.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not faining some personal invincibility here, I too have heard commendable music in Starbucks, and have enjoyed sitting within it’s stylish interiors (planned down to miniscule detail no doubt). I probably wouldn’t buy music CD’s in there, that’s simply due to my musical tastes, but to use a hypothetic situation and assume there were a CD of liking seen to me, then I guess if it were a favourable price then I might indeed purchase said item.

Eric asks: how much of our souls are we willing to sell? The writhing consumerist chunk out to attain a bargain is my answer.

From: Mat Brewster
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Coffee and CDs

My initial, gut reaction is, why would anyone buy anything from Starbucks at any time? It’s a giant corporation trying to pretend it is a local, alt.cool place for hip cats. It’s a faux-trendy mega-store selling brown sludge with a 200% mark-up.

Confession #1: I don’t like coffee. I hate the look of it. I hate the smell of it. I hate the whole hipster-trendy feel of it. And I certainly, without a doubt, hate the taste of it. And for all you people out there ready to offer me the new vanilla/caramel mocho-choca-froca latee-achino with a twist, claiming it tastes just like hot chocolate and you can’t even taste the coffee – stop wasting your time. It tastes exactly like coffee, and it is all nasty. Guess what? If I want something that tastes like hot chocolate, I’ll buy some freaking hot chocolate.

The confession comes in because not liking coffee kind of puts a damper on actually wanting to go to a coffee shop. I don’t think I’ve ever actually set foot into a stand alone Starbucks shop.

Confession #2: I have actually made a purchase at Starbucks. It wasn’t at a stand alone Starbucks, but one of those coffee bars inside a Barnes and Nobles, or Borders or whatever giant book corporations they set up shop in. And I know, I know, giant book selling corporations are evil too. I do frequent my fabulous local book shop, but I still like the big corporations for the lounging, browsing opportunities they provide.

Sitting in those giant leather chairs with my Calvin and Hobbes collection, or the complete works of Raymond Chandler, I often feel the desire to have a warm, chocolaty beverage. When this happens, I have to admit, I pay way too much for a little cocoa, and sometimes that cocoa comes from a Starbucks.

Confession #3: I bough a coffee at a Starbucks just yesterday. I went through the drive through, thus not falsifying my “never been to a stand alone Starbucks” schpeel, and the coffee was for a friend, whom I happened to owe a couple of bucks.

Enough ranting and onto the question at hand, would I ever buy music from Starbucks? Not frequenting the franchise that is hard to answer. I honestly, didn’t even know they sold music. So, I think I’ll change it around to something like:

What if the Antichrist herself, Oprah, put one of my favorite authors books in her book club, would I buy it?

In both cases, I think it comes down to whether or not the product is available from any other market. I’m not buying a rehashed Ray Charles greatest hits package from Starbucks, because I can get his music elsewhere. I don’t need to buy any Steinbeck from Oprah, either. There are plenty of other copies around. But if Lyle Lovett puts out a Starbucks only disks, then I guess, I’d have to start drinking coffee.

In the end if Starbucks, or Oprah are bringing wonderful artist to a broader audience than they’d ever get without them, that’s a good thing.

From: Bennett Dawson
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Coffee and CDs

You gotta look at the birthplace of Starbucks (the rainy Pacific Northwest), and the original market of the super-strong coffee industry to understand a bit about why this phenomenon has taken hold. During my days in Seattle, the chill, the numb, and the gray and cloudy week, after week. It sucks the life outta your day and you need stimulants or you will die. After a year my personal Cobainesque urge to end it all was barely held at bay by the six caffeine-charged bevvies that I picked up at whatever chichi outlet happened by, and there’s one on every corner. Double shots of espresso mixed into frothy hot milk, plain dark coffee, or some choco-latte richness that sustains and excites both my body, and my weather dulled synapses.

The strong coffee addiction persists to this day, even though I’ve moved on to sunnier locales. French roast brewed strong enough to melt a plastic spoon, a Krupps Mini-Espresso Machine for those all night jitters of creative madness, the *click* of my brain turning on (after only a half a mug) in the wee hours of the morning, and the unparalleled ability of a strong “cuppa joe” to push the haze of too many late-night beers into the distant past.

All hail Caffeine! And to the purveyors of ultra-strong brews I say Thank-ya! Turkish? Oh yeah.

Living in a rural area, the closest Starbucks is now a distant hours drive. It’s tucked into the streetside corner of a Barnes & Nobles, and I see it only when looking to expand my library. But the allure is gone. The hapless yearning to meet someone interesting no longer drives my life. The biscotti beckon, but the corporate atmosphere pales when compared to the warmth and comfort of my own private place. Alas, I hear no music as I chase the register down and scoot out of the store with something guaranteed to provide hours of pleasure and escape. CD’s? Music? If they’re selling, I’m not buying.

Years ago, perhaps. But only if I was still single, still looking for the One. And only if the gal behind the counter looked like a potential snuggle. “Alternative? Sounds great!” But she’d have to smile real purty, and suggest that the purchase would bring us closer to the love, closer to the end of the numbness that comes with living in Seattle.

From: Duke DeMondo
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Coffee and CDs

What this whole brouhaha has me remembering is the time I was sat in Starbucks back in the day, sippin some gargantuan mug a foam and reading some toss or other about zombies. What happened was that next thing I knew, holy shit, it’s Cold Roses by Ryan Adams And The Cardinals blaring out the speakers!

(Well, whispering out.)

What in fucks name to do?

It felt odd, and this gets back to Greg’s concern. I don’t mind shite or at least Old Stuff That Everyone Knows fillin the airwaves in these places, but hearin the new Ryan Adams record in such a cripplingly bland, safe, pseudo-BoHo hive, it did the arse of my soul a good deal of frazzlement.

In the end, what I did was I made sure everyone could see that I knew every word, and the smugness afforded by this, well, it made it all worthwhile.

But you have to start worrying when Starbucks are endorsing records, because not only does it mean that said records have become incredibly hip amongst the kinda vacant terrors who yack about “World Music” (yeah, I’m with David Byrne on that one), but also, it means they’re probably fairly safe and unthreatening.

But part of me also thinks it’s a good thing that these cats are getting turned on to Dylan and the like whilst huddled round the tables sharing a thimble-fulla yak’s milk on account of they’re all school-kids and broke.

It’s the old Us And Them thing. I fucking hate the thought of Our Stuff being bounded ‘pon by these faceless fucks, but at the same time, I’d rather hear Ryan Adams when I’m sippin an overpriced milk / mint / caffeine abomination than, say, 50 Cent.

It would, however, pain me to find out the next Todd Snider record was only available at Starbucks, for example, because not only does it mean he’s gone back on all that leftist pot-soaked banter and instead focused on making money offa leftist-for-a-day pot-soaked posers, but it also means One Of Us has gone gotten snared by the fuckers.

It’s bad enough that Jack White’s writing songs for fucking Coke.

I mean I exist on nothing BUT Diet Coke, but God Almighty, I don’t want Jack White writing the advert music.

(And yeah, it pains me also that Ryan Adams did the GAP ad, that Dylan did Victoria’s Secret, and the whole Bill Hicks “Off the artistic roll-call forever” thing would apply if not for the fact that fuck my eyes, it’s Dylan and Ryan Adams! They can do whatever the hell they want.)

Still, I never did buy that Starbucks Dylan CD. I woulda done had it been the complete Gaslight tapes, but ten tracks when I already have the 17-track bootleg seems like a whole lotta nothing. Even WITH enhanced sound.

And I must point out that I have yet to see that Morissette record in a Starbucks, but it’s in the HMV in town. Curious…

Alas, I can’t go into the why’s and wherefores of how come I can’t get a fucking “large” anything anymore, on account of the ladies at the door needin a crate of speed for the weekend.

(Being sober has it’s advantages, since the ladies know they can trust a fella to get the job done efficiently and with little or no puke.)

The bloggers have had their say, now it’s your chance to chip in!
Are exclusive coffee shop albums hurting sales in mainstream record shops? Do you agree with HMV Canada boycotting Dylan’s back catalogue in response? More importantly, could you care less?

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About Greg Smyth

  • anita

    Bob Dylan could never in a million years be described as Pasteurized

    there is nothing cutting edge or indie or FUCKING GOOD about Babyshambles

    therefore you are spouting worthless foam from the mouth, in an uncanny impersonation of a steaming cappuccino machine, perhaps?

  • Anita: agree with you on point #1, disagree on #2 (and please note: you might just make our Duke cry with that), and strongly disagree with #3.

    Please note, too, that six hearty lads took part in writing this piece. Maybe “you” applies to all of us? You’re entitled to your opinion, of course.

  • I’m as big a fan of Dylan as anyone but you’ve got to admit that, with the passage of time, all the political bite that was once in his message has slowly leeched out as he became The Great American Songwriter.

    Also, whether you like Babyshambles or not has very little to do with the point I was trying to make. Starbucks will always play it close to the middle-American mainstream (although, obviously just enough to the left to acquire some cultural cachet).

  • anita

    Oh, lordy, no – the thought of the Duke crying into his Diet Coke, while Jack White wails in the background, it’s too awful, but… it’s surely no coincidence that the name of the band so closely resembles that of the original “alcopop”, the ultimate “Ladies’ drink” in Little Britain, a veritable trademark of ersatz “kulture”?

    as per the estimable Philip Norman http://www.waitrose.com/food_drink/wfi/notesandmiscellany/nostalgia/0306090.asp
    “Its trademark was a baby deer, with spindly legs, protruding eyes, two underdeveloped horns, and an outsize blue bow around its neck.”

    Back to coffee, though. The Duke hits the nail on the head – surely a dose of Dylan for the poor sods caught up in the Pasteurized Monoculture can only be A Good Thing?

    The canny way to deal with this is to get some minion or other to pick up the disc on your behalf, thus alleviating you of the need to enter the belly of the beast and running no risk of being inadvertently pasteurized. The sound quality of the abbreviated Gaslight will knock your “Guaranteed Fair Trade” cotton socks off and when you’re listening to it you won’t give a toss where it came from.

  • nice experiment guys (hey, why the hell didn’t anybody ask ME about this?!!! 😉


    i love to bitch on about monoculture. it’s one of the main reasons that we moved from the nashua, new hampshire area further out into what’s called the monadnock region. quite a number of years ago now, nashua was voted ‘best place to live’. i can’t even remember the publication. what i DO remember is that i thought they were nuts. best place to live if your idea of culture is dinner at the mall food court followed by a movie where lots of shit explodes at the local megasuperdupermuliplex movie bunker.

    i’ve been dipping into this book called “That Great Good Place”. it’s about the history of various gathering places…and gathering places are lacking in the land of coast-to-coast strip malls (well, unless you like hanging out at those things).

    so, is starbucks a true gathering place? i suppose it could be. are the people hanging out there all looking to be hip? no. c’mon, get that danged chip offa yer shoulder.

    on the other hand, i don’t do starbucks very often. near me, there are a few ‘real’ coffee shop that feel more genuine (whatever the hell that means).

    i do get aggravated when i see that the afterage person will gravitate toward ‘corporate food/drink’, avoiding local shops. i see this all the time. not far from my house there’s a beautiful coffee shop set up in an old one-room schoolhouse. right next door, there’s a friggin’ dunkin’ donuts. i’ve driven by there in the morning and the local place has one car in the lot. the dd has 15 cars in the drivethrough. i just don’t get it. is it because the ‘product’ is safe? they’re gonna wait 10 minutes to get a water-down, overpriced version of what they could have next door. oh-my-gawd though, it’s not dunkin’ donuts!!! can’t go there….too scary!!!

    anyhoo, buying music at starbucks. since my tastes are too wacky, i probably wouldn’t do it very often. but hell, if they offered up, say, some only-here Springsteen, i’d push my way to the front of the line.

  • Margaret

    I’m not a coffee drinker – and even if I did have a caffeine addiction I probably wouldn’t go to Starbucks (overpriced, overpackaged etc). I’m satellite radio subscriber though… and Starbucks’ HEAR radio station plays an interesting mix of genres, juxtaposing artists I wouldn’t normally listen to with my favourites (who don’t get regular radio airplay).
    I feel like I’m the winner here: I get interesting music, Starbucks doesn’t get my coffee $$.

  • Margaret, actually I should have mentioned that the real genesis for all of this addict-driven madness (for me at any rate) is Pete’s in the Oakland/Berkeley area.

    Addiction never tasted so good.

    Then came Starbucks and the like. Seattle was awesome for coffee. Believe me, after a few months of no sun at all, you’d convert.


  • Wow, Pete’s really is out of this world, Bennett. However, I heard it started out in Seattle as well.

    Which one do you visit in the Bay Area? I was a fan of the one in Berkeley, on 4th Street, when I lived there. The wife and I would often bike down from Richmond.

    There’s actually a Pete’s right across the street from the closest Starbucks to my house down here in SoCal. It gets real crowded of a weekend morning.

  • Thanks for the kind words about me and your concern for the exposure of my music. I would like you to know, however, that if it wasn’t for Starbucks a lot of people, who might be interested my new record “Possibilities”, wouldn’t even know that it existed. I made the distribution deal with them because they do service all ages and are a new and innovative avenue for the exposure and sale of music. The coffee is good, too.

    Many artist are looking for new ways to let the public know about what they are creating. Starbucks has stepped up to the plate and invested in exposing my record in ways, for me, that have never been attempted by traditional record labels.

  • Shark

    Greg, thanks for providing the format for a writer’s circle-jerk.

    Next time, call me; I’ve got a giant ego, lots to say, and a Food Handler’s Permit!


  • Bennett

    EB – The one on Albany Ave between Oakland and Berkeley. I’m pretty sure Pete’s is a Bay Area phenom as there were none up in seattle when I moved there from the Bay.

    Shark – Jump on in, the water’s fine!

  • Fair point, Herbie (and if it really *is* you, then wow!). That’s the other side of the argument, which we kinda glossed over a bit I guess, that the infrastructure’s there to put CDs in front of people who aren’t necessarily the type of people who would hit the jazz section at HMV or whatever. You only have to look at the audience reached by the Ray Charles compilation they sell to see the amazing potential for broadening people’s musical scope.

  • It’s a similar dynamic to authors who get distributed by Oprah, or Wal Mart even, I think. There’s a certain compromise for all artists selling to a mass audience, I suppose.

    Have I mentioned that “Rocket” blew my mind as a kid, and I’ve never been the same since?

  • uao

    I see nothing wrong with it at all.

    Music consumption isn’t what it once was; no longer are we reliant on a single format or single distribution channel to get music.

    I don’t think it kills record shop sales if the title is a non-record shop title. Other things are killing record-shop titles.

    What Hancock (comment 9) says is pretty much what most artists say who use this means of distribution; it puts them in contact with customers who might not ordinarily browse a CD shop. And his CD will get far more views sitting on that counter than it would in the dusty jazz corner of a megastore.

    I see it is giving the public more music, and more music consuming options.

    And little impulse buys like that can be fun; why not go in for a cappucino and come out with some Herbie Hancock? It’ll expose all sorts of people to his music and his name who may not even have heard of him.

    As for Starbucks itself, I’ve long seen them as evil; they single handedly destroyed the independant coffee shop culture here in Los Angeles and in most every city in the world. I don’t care if their packaging is green or not, that was a blow to my environment.

    But if people go there (I have to now, all my favorite indie coffee houses closed), exposing them to jazz or Dylan is a good thing.

    If they also compensate the musicans more fairly than traditional channels, that’s good, too.

    It’ll help break the Big-4’s monolithic thinking about music distribution issues, yet another good thing.

  • uao

    P.S. I should add, that the indie coffee shops I lament in the reply above were my #3 source for new music in the early 90’s, after radio and record shops. They didn’t sell CD’s, but man, it was a rare L.A. coffee shop that didn’t always have an interesting, offbeat, new thing on the CD player. Those coffee servers were pretty good deejays.

  • I touched a little on how the megastores can bring a much wider audience to a relatively unknown artist. This is, of course, a good thing. From an artists perspective, I can see why they would make deals with Starbucks and the like.

    The question here, is not for the artist, but for the consumer. Should I actually purchase the latest Herbie Hancock cd from Starbucks, or should I go down to my local shop and get it there? For that, we seem to all agree that the local shop is better.

  • Was in a Starbucks over the weekend and saw the highlighted display for Hancock’s Possibilities.

    That was quite possibly him, I thought…

  • This whole pop culture integrity thing is a bitch kitty to navigate. In some ways, I think bands like The Rolling Stones have it right – fuck integrity, give me the cash.

    I shouldn’t buy music that I like or coffee that I like at Starbucks because they are trying to make me feel good by selling me coffee that I like and music that I like all the while making money thereby negating the fact that I liked the coffee and the CD?

    Oversimplifying and being a contrarian? Guilty as charged.

    I know the big box stores are impersonal and a bit shit. But I am listening (at this moment) to a Rilo Kiley CD. I had never heard Rilo Kiley until listening to our beloved Duke’s podcast. I bought the CD at a chain store. Guess what? I still fucking love the music. I can’t tell you where I bought half the eight billion CDs in my collection. I love the music. Maybe I am not making a fuck of sense right now and you’re already scrolling on to the next comment.

    Even the virtuous, independent retailer wants to make money and will try different appeals to get you to give them some of yours. Starbucks just happens to be really good at it. And if the Starbucks experience pisses you off, thank whatever entity you wish that you live in a place where you have some choices.

    Shutting up now and waiting for the flames to heat my arse…

  • DJR: I know and understand where you’re coming from but, were Starbucks to apply their competitive practices to the already hard pressed independent music sector then I’m not too sure we as consumers would ultimately benefit.

    At the minute it’s a relatively niche area they’ve entered into, so I guess it’s okay and will probably expand sales overall rather than just canibalising the market.

    Sure, if your decision boils down to “buy it from Virgin” or “buy it from Starbucks” it’s not going to make a wad of difference which one you plump for.