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A Musical Look Back at 40

The entertainment team at Starbucks has changed through the decades – but Timothy has been continuously integral to shaping our music offerings from the early days. Most of the compilations we’ve produced over the decades have been his handiwork, including the two-disc anniversary collection 40, available now in stores. Here he recalls the chain of events that led to the creation of Blue Note Blend, the first CD available at Starbucks.

I started at the Pike Place Market Starbucks in September 1987. While I was there, I noticed the music playing overhead.

It was a tape from a company called Audio Environment Inc. The same tape went to all Starbucks stores. I picked up the phone one day and asked around to find out who picked that tape. I found a woman within the company whose plate was already overflowing, and she was quite happy to let me take over.

I stuck with the light classical and instrumental options at first, but the catalog offered more selections. I asked myself: How about vocals? It felt like a beautiful conversation –to have Ella Fitzgerald playing right after Miles Davis. So I started picking tapes that had never been picked before. I tried jazz vocals and then I’d pick a blues tape. Then I’d try a reggae tape. I just started changing the music playing in the stores and people started responding to it.

I’d hear from the baristas: “I had that tape on and some of the customers were dancing in line. They were into it!” People were engaging with the music!

So I was at a company-wide managers’ meeting one day and I asked: “Is anybody getting any questions about the music we’re playing overhead?” I expected everyone to remain quiet, but three or four managers said people were coming to the counter all the time wondering what was playing. Again, I thought: Wow – we’re striking a chord here.

Eventually we were getting people coming up and asking: “Why don’t you compile this on a tape so we can enjoy it at home?” We’d try to explain that it was an AEI tape that wouldn’t play on their home equipment, but the inquiries kept coming.

In the early ‘90s, a guy from Capitol Records called out of the blue. Capitol Records was in the process of reviving the classic Blue Note label at the time. He said: “You know that Starbucks store in Brentwood? I was in there the other day and all I heard was one Blue Note track after another.” I said: “That’s correct. I just sent out a Blue Note tape.” He said: “I can’t even get Tower Records to play Blue Note, but I’m sitting in your store and they’re playing Blue Note in Starbucks! While I was sitting there, one of the customers asked who was playing and the barista checked the tape and said ‘Dexter Gordon.’ This is amazing! We’ve got to do something about this! I said: “As a matter of fact, people want to buy this music.” In harmony, we said: “Why don’t we make a CD?”

The Blue Note Blend CD hit the stores on April Fools Day 1995. One CD and a pound of coffee packaged together, or you could buy them separately. None of us knew what any of this meant at the time. It was a mystery what would happen next – but reports began coming in that stores were selling out. By any standards, the CD sold an astonishing number for a jazz release. And that was the beginning of music at Starbucks.

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