“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee: Short, tall, lite, dark, caf, decaf…lowfat, non-fat, et cetera. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self. Tall…Decaf…Cappuccino!”
—- Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail
Feeling like a life-sized prune from the constant and seemingly torrential down pouring of rain that has ferociously graced the Emerald City, I enter my local Ballard Starbucks, all of which is no bigger than my 500-square-foot studio condo with the Rolling Stones rocking out in the background, conversations galore flowing back and forth and with enough stampeding action through the doorway to make even people-watching seem like a fulltime job, I keep pondering to myself how this miniature cubicle of a Starbucks can constantly succeed, pack the crowds and gain even more speed-racer momentum on the much smaller coffeehouse competition? I have found that combined with their stranglehold on the coffee industry and in true Starbucks fashion, which mind you could be deemed ‘go big or not at all,’ has been their entrance and more precisely their impact within the music industry. Like many in the entertainment and sport business who decide to accomplish two professions at once, Starbucks has become another fixture in the ‘two sport profession.’
For that reason, it may be possible, when devoted coffee drinkers of the Seattle-based coffee connoisseur order their usual combinations; they may as well soon hear “Would you like Alanis Morissette, Coldplay, Ray Charles or the Rolling Stones with your double tall venti peppermint latte?” Starbucks, who have proudly made drinking coffee much more complicated for the entire world with their hundreds of arrangements of sizes, blends and syrups, finally have made the lives of the indecisive much more difficult. The coffeehouse behemoth, who started out selling one cup of coffee at a time back in the early 1980’s have now, twenty three years later, begun to sell one CD at a time. In many ways, one could say that the largest coffee company in the world has drifted more and more into the media age and that according to an article from Mediabistro.com, “Is rapidly becoming a media company that just happens to sell beverages.” On the other hand, according to Michelangelo Matos of the Seattle Weekly, “Its perfectly logical that Starbucks is the biggest comer in music retail…For one thing, there are more of them than there are most music chains.”
Now, that does not suggest that we will be seeing the Starbucks mermaid in any scantily clad bustier and g-string outfit, grinding on the leg of what would be deemed a perfect specimen of a man, in her own music video on MTV or TRL anytime soon, but the sounds of ka-ching have already been heard resonating in the ears of much of the popularized world for a number of years now. With the foundation of their own independent CD label, Hear Music, Starbucks is the first to have developed a way to combine both coffee and music without the use of live instruments that was ever so prominent back in the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, especially since the beginning of a tall, grande and venti size which practically has made ordering only black or cream nearly obsolete. Coffee music (or coffee AND music) has indisputably become a 21st century phenomenon. As a result, the coffee goliath has attained the ability to figure out a way for customers, myself included, to proudly, excitedly and more importantly, impulsively not only sip on their $3.00 hot chocolate but at the same time be able to burn and buy an entire CD from their numerous media bars, where one can download an eclectic collection of digital Mp3 songs of their choosing all in one fluid motion with their rapid borage of musical merchandise. Mr. Matos similarly reacted, “And when the rest of Starbucks’ customers wanted to know who sang the song that was playing while the barista prepared their vanilla lattes, the clerk only had to point to the CDs standing in front of the register. Point-of-sale impact: immediate…By catering exclusively to impulse shoppers, Starbucks created the most successful cross-marking venture to hit the music business since MTV.” In the immortal words of the men in those Guinness commercials, “Brilliant!”
Starbucks has not only become an icon in business but within the realm of popular culture a force in the music industry as well. Therefore, together with the 9,500 or so stores worldwide ranging from: North Pole, Alaska, a small town where it is literally Christmas 365 days a year to Moscow, Russia; and with forty-five coffeehouses with media bars in Seattle and Austin, Texas; it seems only fitting that Starbucks, with its metaphorical fangs already dug deep in the meaty coffee industry, expand into music. With their record label prominently expanding, specializing in various compilations, and mixes compiled by numerous artists like; Coldplay, Dave Mathews Band, The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, and Ray Charles; artists who keep churning out multiple five figure albums, Hear Music has ample prosperity. Plus, if the results from this past Grammy Award show is any indication, with Ray Charles’ final album, Genius Loves Company, sweeping all categories, I can only imagine what their next move, not only in music, but all media will be.
As someone who confesses to not like the taste of coffee (hence the hot chocolate references) but who can confidently admit to truly being an addict of, in the words of Starbucksgossip.com, “America’s favorite drug dealer”, and is all but one more relapse in introducing myself at a twelve-step meeting for anonymous Starbucks devotees; it is still quite surprising that the colossal franchise can still provide its customers with a sense of community and a small town feel. While I have shown much love and announced my own addiction to the mermaid label, I have no intention to scale Howard Shultz’s home anytime soon. My admiration stems from, not only the scrumptious concoction of my usual peppermint hot chocolate, but also the atmosphere and ambiance of what Starbucks brings to drinking coffee. While many stores may seem crowded with: people, with merchandise galore in lieu of standing room and almost no seating unless, either you come at the break of dawn or you bring your own lawn chairs; conversely, how I view the coffee king of Seattle is as the Central Perk of the real world. I understand that many may not share in my viewpoint, but what I have come to realize in being a regular customer is that, while numerous people are minding their own business, hovering over and rocking out to the silent humming of their laptops – like myself at the moment – and even if a number of their coffeehouses could be confused as another Sam Goody, the type of environment that they offer, once again, provides customers with a feeling of community and relaxation. As Howard Shultz, the CEO of Starbucks, so eloquently stated in his book, Pour Your Heart Into It, “We try to create, in our stores, an oasis, a little neighborhood spot where you can take a break, listen to jazz, and ponder universal or personal or ever whimsical questions over a cup of coffee.” In that sense, one could view a Starbucks as their home away from home, be able to take a break and converse with friends, family and or co-workers. Talking about life, love and the pursuit of happiness; and along with employees that know the names of the regulars that peruse the delicatessen counter with the soothing sounds of smooth jazz, classical and modern rock in the background, they have become the place where everyone knows your name, the Cheers of the 21st century.
With that said, I doubt that it will be possible for one to see live soap-box speeches, literary debates, poetic auteurs or Bob Dylan or Joan Baez singing acoustically without a WI-FI connection but with the progression that Starbucks has made I would say nothing is impossible. Even with its: progressive powerhouse mentality, their own record label and radio station on XM Satellite, media and downloading bars in more coffeehouses than there are music chains; the impact Starbucks has left digitally, musically and more importantly, culturally still resonates as they dispense considerate, complex and progressive culture one CD and one cup of coffee at a time.