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Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Starbucks says music a good blend

SURPRISE HIT The coffee store chain has sold more copies of Ray Charles' album than traditional music outlets in the US and plans to expand its music offerings

THE GUARDIAN , LOS ANGELES

David Stugart uses a self-service screen as he prepares a personalized CD at a Starbucks Hear Music Media Bar in Seattle in this file photo from October.

PHOTO: AFP

It is one of the surprise hits of the year, restoring a legendary artist to the top of the charts after a break of more than 40 years.

Last week it received the US music industry's ultimate accolade, nominations for Grammy awards in the two big categories, album of the year and record of the year.

But the success of the album of Ray Charles duets, Genius Loves Company, is due not only to the artist's death this year, or the release of a Hollywood biopic, or even the quality of the record.

In part, it is thanks to a chain of cafes that figured that its customers, befuddled by large record stores, might like to browse some music as they sip their lattes.

Released at the end of August, the album has to date sold just over 1.3 million copies in the US and approaching 60,000 in the UK.

The retailer that has sold the most copies in the US is not any of the music chains. It is not even Wal-Mart. Instead, the coffee chain Starbucks leads the way, selling 350,000 copies.

"There's a void," Starbucks president of music and entertainment Ken Lombard said. "Once you realize that the music industry is in a state of turmoil in terms of retail distribution, it's a natural fit."

The feat has other music retailers scratching their heads. With CD sales in precipitous decline and traditional record shops under siege from Internet-based music retailers, the emergence of Starbucks as a force in CD sales signals yet another shift in a volatile and fragile market.

But the HMVs and Virgin Megastores shouldn't panic just yet. The experience with the Ray Charles CD is that the coffee chain has helped uncover a new consumer.

"It taps an enormous adult audience that is being underserved," said Glen Barros, president of Concord Records, the jazz label behind the Ray Charles CD. "Music traditionally focuses on the youth market. But as you become older and develop other priorities, you can become disconnected from music. It can be a daunting experience to go into a large record store. What Starbucks has done is to say, we'll help select and present titles for you."

But it doesn't stop there. Starbucks also co-produced the record with Concord. While it has been selling compilations of favorite tracks chosen by well-known artists for some time, being involved in an original recording from its inception was a new departure.

Starbucks' involvement in music production started when it bought Hear Music, a small label specializing in compilation CDs in 1999.

This year, Hear Music has released 16 compilation CDs, chosen by artists such as Willie Nelson. More original CDs are set to follow, particularly given the success of the Ray Charles recording.

"We're looking to do more deals," Lombard said.

Starbucks also has ambitious plans for selling music. Alongside the small racks of own brand compilations available in most Starbucks, the company plans to extend its Hear Music media bars in its cafes, where coffee-sipping musos can download tracks from a catalogue of 200,000 songs on to a blank CD.

Beyond that, next year sees the launch of a national chain of Hear Music stores, based on a prototype in Santa Monica, near Los Angeles.

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