Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Starbucks/Paul McCartney nexus (Updated)

Tuesday I sat in Starbucks for several hours because I've been editing a Master's thesis by a student from Tsinghua University in Hsinchu. It didn't take me long to notice that Paul McCartney's new album was playing (I had some recollection that he had just come out with a new album). I remember the thought flashing through my head: this is pretty good. Maybe I'll go out and buy it.

I took another sip from my coffee and continued reading. Imagine to yourself a time-lapse photographic movement, a jump forward...time has elapsed. The coffee cup that was once filled with robust steaming brew is now only half full. It suddenly occurs to me that I am stuck in a recurring theme: "I've heard this song before." Yes, the Paul McCartney album had finished and apparently started again from the beginning. And again...and again...and again...on and on and on...from beginning to end and end to beginning and back again. Was I in the movie, Groundhog Day?

I know Starbucks has a habit of doing this; they usually play one CD for days, weeks, even months at a time. The CDs are centrally produced and then sent out to all of the different Starbucks. I have no way of gaging whether or not every Starbucks has the same music playing at any given time, nor do I know if there is any set time-limit for how long a CD can play, or how long before a new cd is distributed. What I do know is that the Christmas season was a little difficult to bear. Moreover, up until that day--Tuesday--the songs on any one CD have always been from a variety of artists. Never just one, so there is generally the feeling that you are hearing a variety of sounds. So I was thinking--this is unusual.

I finally decided to do a Google search: Paul McCartney and Starbucks. I figured they must have signed a deal. I was right. McCartney's new album was released on Tuesday on the "Hear Music label, a joint venture between Starbucks and the Concord Music Group." That's what Allan Kozinn writes in the June 4 International Herald Tribune. He goes on:

"Memory Almost Full" is a change for McCartney, although not primarily in musical ways. It has, after all, hints of everything from the sound of his 1970s band, Wings, to echoes of relatively recent work like "Flaming Pie," from 1997, and McCartney seems to have steadfastly avoided hopping on current pop music trends.

Still, he wanted to shake up his approach to releasing an album. The video made its debut on YouTube. And having been an EMI artist since the Beatles signed with the company in 1962 (apart from a series of American releases on Columbia in the 1980s), he moved to Hear Music, hoping to draw on the eagerness and energy of an upstart label.

"Am I feeling like I've left the family home?" McCartney said, when asked if switching labels was traumatic. "I have left the family home, but it doesn't feel bad. I hate to tell you - the people at EMI sort of understood. The major record labels are having major problems. They're a little puzzled as to what's happening. And I sympathize with them. But as David Kahne said to me about a year ago, the major labels these days are like the dinosaurs sitting around discussing the asteroid."

Although Hear Music has collaborated with other labels on projects ranging from Ray Charles's "Genius Loves Company" to a recent compilation of John Lennon tracks, McCartney is the first artist signed to it directly. To celebrate his album's release, Starbucks is having what it is calling a global listening event: The album will be played around the clock on Tuesday in more than 10,000 Starbucks stores in 29 countries. Based on its high-volume traffic - some 44 million customers a week - the company expects about 6 million people to hear the music that day. Starbucks's channel on XM satellite radio will also be promoting the record heavily, and XM will devote another channel exclusively to McCartney's music on the release day.

So there I was, participating in an early 21st century emerging trend, "a global listening event." A new gimmick or a sudden bifurcation in the trajectory of global capitalism? So far, McCartney is the only artist to sign on with the collaborative label. Will it be a success? Certainly, the fame of the ex-Beatle will give a boost to the incipient trend, and Starbucks is a perfect medium through which to expose coffee-drinking customers--some who sit for hours or come on a daily basis--to new sounds.

But will this attempt to program customers work? Or is it overkill? One thing I can say is that after the first listening I was tempted to buy the album, but after repeated listenings, I was driven to rebel against the not-so-subtle washing of my brain.

Did I mention that I just love the new Paul McCartney album?

Update: Tony Sachs has some interesting thoughts about McCartney and the future of CDs over at The Huffington Post:

Sir Paul's pretty hip. He knows that record companies selling CDs through record stores is so last-decade. He also knows that debuting his video on YouTube is a lot more cool than giving it to MTV, which probably wouldn't have touched it, anyway, and reaches just as many of the young'uns. His innovative marketing strategy has generated a ton of publicity, and he didn't even have to shave his head and flee rehab to get it.

The run-up to the album's release was flawless. But now that Memory Almost Full has been released, latte-drinkers nationwide will find it in their local Starbucks outlets for a whopping $15.99. That's not exactly priced to move, especially when you can find it on Amazon for $9.99. If you want the deluxe edition with extra songs, Starbucks isn't even stocking it.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of numbers Memory Almost Full does in its first week, especially in Starbucks. Because if they can sell a $15.99 CD that can be found in almost any other store for a lot less, then the presumption that the CD is on its last legs will have to be re-thought.

The CD is far from dead. It may not have a clean bill of health, but still accounts for more than 80 percent of music sales. Rather, what's dead is the CD store. And that's a whole 'nuther story. Just because people don't want to go to a store that only sells music doesn't mean they don't want to buy music while also getting a mochaccino from Starbucks, or a flat screen TV from Best Buy, or some ammo from Wal-Mart.