The Reason Starbucks Got Into The Music Business

Step into your local Starbucks and you're likely to be greeted with the gentle sounds of whirring coffee machines, the tap of laptop keys, and, most noticeably, a signature soundtrack of soothing tunes drifting out from the speakers. While the global chain is synonymous with coffee, music has always been an important part of the Starbucks experience.

For the Seattle-based company, music has served as much more than just background noise — it's also been a way to expand the Starbucks brand and ensure an immersive experience of coffeehouse culture. When the first Starbucks cafe opened on Pike Place in 1971, the scene was accompanied by a cassette tape of classical music. Early on in the growth of Starbucks, a record store owner — Timothy Jones — became a Starbucks manager and started experimenting with his own mixes within his store. 

By the early 1990s, he was responsible for curating custom playlists for Starbucks stores across the country. When customers began asking to purchase the music played in the cafe, it gave Jones an idea. Thus beginning Starbucks' foray into the music business.

Serving up CDs with coffee

In 1994, Starbucks started selling CDs with its brews. A holiday album from saxophonist Kenny G, an early investor in the company who actually helped inspire the now-iconic Starbucks frappuccino, became the first CD to hit Starbucks counters nationwide.

The next year, Starbucks released its first compilation album, called "Blue Note Blend," in collaboration with the legendary label Blue Note Records. The album featured a jazzy collection of tunes from artists including Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.

The response from customers was overwhelming. Starbucks sold 50,000 copies of the "Blue Note Blend" CD in just a few weeks. The success of the project provided the catalyst for even more Starbucks-exclusive albums. What followed was a series of "Starbucks Blends," which were genre-spanning compilation albums spotlighting everything from Lilith Fair to "Starbucks' favorite divas." 

The CDs became as much of a Starbucks staple as the coffee. Clearly, something had hit a chord with customers.

Launching its own record label

According to longtime Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, "Music was a natural evolution because we had been playing music in our stores for almost 30 years." The company revved up its musical efforts in 1999 when it acquired Hear Music, an experiential retailer that encouraged customers to create their own mix CDs on-site. Starbucks integrated coffee bars into the already present Hear Music locations, a move that Schultz described as "a complementary component to the existing Starbucks stores."

After previously teaming up with Concord Records to produce a celebrated album with Ray Charles, Starbucks announced the launch of its Hear Music record label in 2007, in partnership with Concord. Considering the fact that Paul McCartney was the first artist to sign on with the label, it was a pretty big deal from the start. And though the label went on to work with other big names such as Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon, Starbucks' involvement was short-lived – in 2008, its entertainment division handed over Hear Music's operations to Concord Records. 

Starbucks has since stopped selling physical CDs in stores but has continued its mission to provide customers with curated music through a digital streaming partnership with Spotify, which the company announced in 2016. After all, there's nothing like a good playlist to help set the mood for coffee and conversation.