Kenny G. No artist's name makes the hair on my neck stand up straighter. As someone who got involved with the music business in the 90s from a love of jazz and during the "jazz renaissance" of that decade Kenny was, in my opinion, the epitome of everything wrong with music. The saccharine sounds. The Michael Bolton connection. The complete lack of soul. Sure, the guy had chops up the ying-yang, but to what end? The coup de grace was when he paired himself with the disembodied voice of the deceased scion of jazz music: Louis Armstrong, for a "duet" on "What a Wonderful World."
I'm a pretty inclusive music consumer and listener. I listen to all kinds of music, even the occassional smooth jazz record. But I draw the line with Kenny G. Today, Starbucks Entertainment announced an exclusive release with the above-mentioned Mr. G.
When I worked at Universal Music Special Markets I really wanted to work on the Starbucks account. They had always approached music with a very sure-handed and opinionated curatorial sensibility. Certain music worked for their brand. Certain music didn't. I distnctly remember one of the first meetings I attended with someone from Starbucks in 1999. We had someone from Verve Music Group in on the meeting. That person tried to pitch Starbucks on doing a smooth jazz CD as part of the company's branded CD compilations for the coming year. They Starbucks employee looked at our Verve guy like he had two heads.
Smooth jazz was not what Starbucks was about. They emphasized artistic quality and warmth, intimacy and collaboration. They did instrumental jazz compilations, singer-songwriter collections, blues, Brazilian music, world music, even some classical and opera. The music for the brand had a point of view.
Starbucks never did too much advertising. Their advertising was their product and their stores, and the environment created in those stores. The couches and the ability to sit and enjoy your latte were part of that environment, but the music playing in the in-store bed was what you felt, what made you feel like sitting and staying at Starbucks, that being there was worth the price of that latte. And the music on the Starbucks CDs and the music being piped in were synched up. When you bought one of those CDs you could take a little piece of the Starbucks brand experience home with you.
Even as Starbucks purchased Hear Music and became more ambitious, the artistic specificity remained in their brand point of view. They launched the "Artist's Choice" series of CDs, where musicians would create compilations based on their artistic taste. And they chose artists that furthered the Starbucks brand's image as tastemaker: Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Yo-Yo Ma, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and many others (not all the titles are in print anymore). Even on their "Opus collection" single-artist greatest hits packages they were able to delve into some very significant artist catalogs that were normally difficult to license: John Lennon, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra, and The Doors, to name a few. For this they should be recognized and applauded.
Starbucks also became a more significant account for selling frontline records, records which not many other accounts were carrying. They championed artists who were releasing good records rather than just carrying the latest record the labels wanted them to flog.
After the groundbreaking partnership with Concord Records which was responsible for the Ray Charles mega-hit Genius Loves Company the company was sitting even prettier. But, after the massive, Grammy-winning triumph of Ray Charles that curator's sense of knowing what was right for the brand diminished.
Starbucks is a huge brand, with a massive retail footprint. At some point earlier this decade the company decided that the exclusiveness of the type of music Hear Music was producing and buying needed to diversify to account for a wider, more diverse customer base that crossed many different age cohorts.
So there is no longer a "Starbucks sound" per se. Starbucks can't do deals with Kenny G AND Joni Mitchell and expect there to be continued trust in the brand's musical taste or sensibility among its customers. Similarly, on the frontline side the Starbucks Entertainment team is now stocking more big hits and well-known artists: Led Zeppelin, Alicia Keys, Wyclef Jean are current highlighted titles. And the titles released by Starbucks by Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor haven't excited customers as much as they've generated PR buzz.
Starbucks has always aimed to be the "third place" in people's lives, other than home and work. But, more so than they realize, Starbucks' music initiative, from its beginnings, has helped give the brand the respect it needs to keep people trusting in their brand experience. I mean, even the baristas can't be excited at the prospect of having to have Kenny G music piped into the stores.
Starbucks needs to reclaim their musical mojo - not just take on projects because they can. If the gentleman from Starbucks I know who delivered that "no smooth jazz" edict to Verve back in 1999 is still working at the company I can hardly imagine how disappointed he is in this choice by the company he's worked at for so long and done so much for in developing their music business.