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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.

comments (24)

Comment FAQ

    • Mimie7
    • 3/9/2011 8:57 AM

    As usual...AWSOME..for all of us.

    • 3/9/2011 5:08 PM

    Starbucks is my favorite company in the world. Integrity and Class in two words. I have enjoyed being a stockholder since day one. Congratulations on 40 years, keep it up!!!

    • MLF62NY
    • 3/9/2011 5:18 PM


    • ercanales
    • 3/11/2011 11:27 AM

    Congratulations Starbucks on your 40th!!!!. love your coffee.... love your music.

    • 3/14/2011 1:22 PM

    Happy birthday Starbucks!!!

    • 3/14/2011 1:40 PM

    Hi everyone! I'm new here and I'm proud to be part of Starbucks Family!

    • denw304
    • 3/15/2011 11:30 AM

    Awesome music n great coffee -- looking forward to the next 40 :-)

    • tdean79
    • 3/16/2011 12:40 PM

    Happy 40th Birthday Starbucks!

    • BeverlyDK
    • 3/18/2011 12:39 PM

    I almost have to close my eyes when I walk up to the counter. It's always so tempting to all yet another cd to my collection.

    • WheelNZ
    • 3/19/2011 7:49 AM

    Will the 40th anniversary set be available on iTunes?

    • Mercedes-BenzFan
    • 3/19/2011 6:38 PM

    This CD is AWESOME! I brought it today at my Local Starbucks and I love it SO far. I put it on my iPod so I can listen to it when I am out away from my flat. Flat is British for Apartment. HAPPY 40TH BIRTHDAY STARBUCKS!

    • zenlizard99
    • 3/21/2011 8:28 AM

    As always, Starbucks meets and exceeds my expectations. Happy 40th!

    • koalabear1234
    • 3/22/2011 7:38 AM

    Best coffee around & it's great for road trips Always get some while shopping or just to relax a bit.

    • annapolis
    • 3/22/2011 8:14 AM

    been a starbuck-ian for years. my 6am java makes my morning. my baristas know my drink by heart. still wish you had left "Starbucks" in the logo. people who AREN'T starbucks fans, DON'T know the girl image, but DO know the name, so you're not gonna draw new loyalists with the logo.

    • AprilDawnP
    • 3/22/2011 10:08 AM

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!! Love And Hugs To All You Wonderful Starbucks Workers!!!! =o)

    • mrtraska
    • 3/27/2011 11:01 PM

    I find it strange and strangely satisfying that Blue Note Records and jazz, the original American art form, are being reintroduced to a younger generation by the purveyor of that other brain stimulant: blessed caffeine. I'm a writer and swing deejay; I know my little grey cells always function better when music accompanies the java and the green tea to keep my creativity and productivity perking away. Hail, o music lords of Starbucks! Somewhere in the ether, Duke Ellington approves.

    • jwmnatl65
    • 3/29/2011 12:00 PM

    I purchased the original Blue Note CD...I just can't believe that was in 1995!!!

    • djleos
    • 3/31/2011 6:30 PM

    Just kicking back on a beautiful sunny so cal day and listening to the 40th anniversary cd for the first time. And yes I am enjoying my daily cup of Starbucks chai latte too. How to sum up how I am feeling? Perfectly "sublime" immediately comes to mind.

    • giovannileo
    • 4/1/2011 3:19 PM

    Happy BirthdayI Thanks for sharing the music history and the variety of artist. A coworker won me over to white chocolate mochas, and Pikes brew. Now I enjoy breakfast in the cafe while working off site, and downloading the Pick of the Week. Keep it up!

    • MamaCarter
    • 4/4/2011 9:30 AM

    Any chance of a reissue?

    • JimHinCO
    • 4/6/2011 11:40 AM

    I've been introduced to some great music via starbucks. Antigone Rising and your various free downloads have been awesome! Thank you!

    • clsada
    • 4/7/2011 7:22 PM

    Fan for life......

    • MCapote69
    • 4/16/2011 12:11 AM

    Love my cup of Starbucks, Latte or Mocha for me!! :-) And I have always loved the music they play! I need to buy me one of the 40th CD! Happy 40th Birthday Starbucks!

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