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Starbucks' Free Music: Will Customers Get The Vibe?

CNBC.com

For someone used to forking over more than $5 bucks a cup to get her daily dose of caffeine at Starbucks , the idea of getting anything free or affordable at the world's largest coffee retailer is exciting. Starting on October 2nd, Starbucks will actually be GIVING away 1.5 million free songs via Apple's iTunes in order to promote artists like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Paul McCartney. These 60's and 70's icons are some of the first big names to sign on to the coffee giant's fledging music label, Hear Music.

I attended the New York city launch of Joni Mitchell's new album "Shine" last night in Soho. The party, which was held at New York's Violet Ray Gallery, was well-attended by Mitchell fans (including Rosie O'Donnell) eager to see the socially-conscious singer celebrate her first new material in a decade. While Mitchell's lyrical tunes are far from highly-caffeinated, the demographic that appreciates Joni Mitchell's music are undoubtedly the same customers who appreciate a $6 latte and the socially conscious-causes that Starbucks endorses.

It is interesting to see a public company like Starbucks align itself with an artist like Mitchell: her political beliefs and artistic work can, at times, be controversial to say the least. The gallery where the event was held last night also displayed Mitchell's anti-war artwork.

Typically, companies avoid anything that could shakeup shareholders like Mitchell's renderings of President Bush juxtaposed next to skeletons and messages about American troops lacking appropriate supplies when heading into battle. I will say that balancing the irony of corporate partnership with artists whose philosophies are often associated with anti-establishment sentiment is a true marketing gift.

It will be interesting to see how Starbuck's foray into the music business pans out. For years, Starbucks sold compilation disks and albums by various artists alongside their cash registers. Oftentimes they actually played those artists over the music system all in an effort to keep up the authentic 'coffee house' feel of the ever-expanding retail chain. With more than 13,000 stores, it is hard to keep the Seattle coffee house vibe alive. Still doing so is important to Chairman Howard Schultz whose publicized remarks last February made waves after he criticized the coffee behemoth for commoditising itself and losing much of the "romance" once central to its brand.

Anyhow, Starbucks' Hear Music is an attempt to extend the company into a new business area without diluting the brand or extending it overtly beyond its coffee house roots. In that same vein last night, the Joni Mitchell party did not have any overt Starbucks branding or corporate association. While they may have been paying the bills and pocketing profits from the sale of Mitchell's Shine album (which is in Starbucks stores nationwide), the only logo was on the $10 store giftcard in the giftbag.

FYI: Here's a blog about Starbucks (and the music offer) you might find interesting: Starbucksgossip.com

Questions? Comments? retaildetail@cnbc.com

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