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Starbucks shocks by being too mainstream

Starbucks, mainstream? That's hard to believe.

Yesterday's New York Times story about Starbucks losing credibility among music fans has attracted a lot of commentary. The gist of the story: Starbucks went too mainstream by stocking artists like Alicia Keys and James Blunt, so its customers figure they might as well shop at Wal-Mart, which stocks the same CDs at lower prices. The record industry, which once looked to Starbucks as a potential savior, is having second thoughts.

The best music I ever heard from Starbucks was a compilation of the Rolling Stones' favorite songs.

Why is anybody surprised? Look at their history in the coffee business. Espresso used to be a niche product that was hard to produce properly and varied widely in quality. Starbucks' great triumph was turning it into a assembly line product (push-button espresso machines!) with much better margins (sugar and milk!), then packaging it in a non-threatening imitation of cafe culture. The ambience in Starbucks has always been carefully calculated to soothe and comfort rather than challenge or provoke. And I have it on good authority that one big key to their success was getting Pepsi to distribute their bottled coffee drinks to convenience stores nationwide. It was only a matter of time before their music, like their beverages, aimed squarely for the lowest common denominator.

Go to a true Seattle coffee house and you might not feel as comfortable with the black-painted walls and ugly art and urban-weirdo clients. But the coffee will almost certainly be stronger, and you'll probably hear more interesting music as well--personally, I have Seattle baristas to thank for introducing me to '70s soul act MFSB, Seattle dance combo United State of Electronica (yes, "State"), and Yann Tiersen's beautiful soundtrack to the movie Amelie. The best music I ever heard from Starbucks was a compilation of the Rolling Stones' favorite songs--a solid set, but nothing too surprising or new.