In one form or another, music has been part of Starbucks’ corporate DNA for decades. It might seem odd for a multinational company that makes $20 billion a year slinging coffee, but Starbucks has long made music a central part of the experience of customers who walk into each of its 24,000 stores around the world. In 1999, Starbucks acquired a Bay Area music store called Hear Music and launched its own Hear Music-branded coffeehouses and, later, a record label. Throughout the 2000s, Starbucks stores everywhere sold CDs, launching a label of its own that put out music by artists as famous as Paul McCartney and as grungy as Sonic Youth. Long before Tidal or Apple Music, Starbucks was using exclusive releases to lure people into its stores.
But as the market for recorded music goes, so goes Starbucks. In 2015, Starbucks announced it would stop selling CDs as it became obvious that the broader, years-long decline in sales would not reverse itself. A year later, Starbucks partnered with Spotify for the music it now pipes through its stores. It’s also integrating the streaming music service into its mobile app, letting customers see what’s playing and save it for later.
One thing hasn’t changed: Starbucks still employs in-house music curators. Self-described ‘music nerds’ David Legry and Holly Hinton have been with the company for about 20 years, hand-selecting songs for compilation CDs and, more recently, Spotify playlists. Fast Company talked with Legry and Hinton about their unique jobs, and how their music discovery habits have changed over the years.
So tell me how you guys came to be involved in the music curation at Starbucks. What are your backgrounds? How did you wind up with these jobs?
Hinton: I feel like we’re being outed, because we have the best jobs in the company. I came from being a barista, really. Starbucks is the job that I got in college because I looked at the amount of money I was spending on consuming coffee. At one point, Timothy Jones was doing music full-time at HQ here and said, ‘I’m going to hire somebody to do music programming full-time. I think you should apply for the job.’ And I thought, that’s such an amazing, weird, wonderful job. And so I applied for it. That might be 20 years ago now.
Legry: I came out of the independent record stores. I worked at Music Millenium in Portland, Oregon, during the formative years of the mid-’90s. Then I came to the Bay Area and got a job as a manager for Hear Music, which was a brick-and-mortar record store. At one point, Howard Schultz came into one of those stores and liked our concept, which was heavy on listening stations. At the time, I was writing paragraphs of descriptions for each of the CDs that were on these kiosks. He wanted to buy our company and bring us in and have us be part of the small team that was doing the CD compilations for Starbucks. This was in 1999. I came up with 12 people, of which I’m that last one, and I joined with Holly and others on a small but mighty team putting CD compilations together. I started writing liner notes for the compilations and contributing to music and all that sort of stuff.
Over the last couple of years, as we moved away from the physical CD, I was asked to take on overseeing the overhead music programming [in Starbucks stores], so I eagerly jumped in there. I didn’t know how much I wanted to do that until I started doing it. And that’s why I’ve been doing it for the last couple of years.
What does a typical week look like? What kind of stuff do you guys do?
Hinton: Both David and I are crazy, voracious content consumers, so I think we’re both looking at blogs and listening to music a lot in a given week. David more so than me. I do a lot of communication with our artist and label partners and set up some of those meetings and have a lot of internal discussions as we roll out various music programs. We get to talk a lot to our friends at Spotify as well.
Legry: I look forward to getting into work every day just so I can listen to music and discover stuff that I immediately want to share with people. I pretty much wear headphones all day, in between meetings and talking to Holly about, ‘Have you heard the latest from Birdy?’ or what have you. It’s constantly absorbing all these different sounds. Just being able to have this platform to share with everyone is something I’m continually amazed by.
Curating in-store music for Starbucks is quite a different thing from building a playlist for your next party or recommending music to a friend. What kind of factors come into play here? How do you prioritize and select the right songs?
Hinton: It’s really personal. A lot of what we program is what we would consider those recommendations that we have for friends. We want our customers to walk in and have a ‘What’s that song?’ moment. We want them to hear interesting, cool music that they might not hear when they turn the radio on. It’s music that we think is cool and would sound beautiful in the coffee shop. It’s the music that we’d want to hear on Sunday morning when we’re reading the paper and drinking coffee. It’s friend-to-friend personal. And we’re lucky to be able to be a part of that.
The company has such a long heritage of music being part of its brand and really embracing that eclectic programming style. From pop to alt-country, we program a lot of different stuff, but it’s always that sort of more interesting ‘other’ music. We’re always trying to figure out how we can jam all of our favorite new songs into updating playlists. Of course, our shiny new machine in the Starbucks and Spotify partnership allows us to put every single song that you hear in a Starbucks store accessible via a Spotify playlist.
How do you break all this music down and segment it? Do you have different playlists for different times of day? Different regions?
Hinton: We have a variety of different playlists that are playing in stores right now. There’s our genre playlists, which can be a classical music set, a jazz set. We have some other different things like the French playlist. We have seasonal things, like this summer it will be Summer Fun Pop Soul Music or whatever we think we would be playing in our own homes during the summer. At Christmastime, we make about eight different playlists, like fun cocktail Christmas songs or great pop Christmas songs. During the last few months, we have a favorite love songs playlist. We had a really great Black History Month playlist that was up. So there’s lot of occasional stuff, and then there are the genre playlists that we update every couple weeks.
Legry: We have an early-morning playlist that Holly put together, which is pretty much classical music. Day-parting definitely goes into our thinking about playlisting.
The regional thing is a bit different. All of our different regions around the world take cues from the U.S. stores and then will take programming from there and build those out to various markets. For the most part, every region is slightly customized, but they hopefully have that same vibe that we want our customers not just in the U.S. but worldwide to really respond to. We want to make them feel like ‘Oh, I know this place!’ No matter where they are, it always has a similar sound, even if it’s slightly customized.
How does your own personal music discovery work? Where do you find new stuff? How has that changed over the last 20 years?
Hinton: We’re nerds. I love the TuneIn radio app. I listen to radio stations from around the world. I have several favorites. I have favorite blogs that I go to. David is the same way. Both of us have been heavy Spotify consumers for about five years. There you can go careening around hallways of music and get on this weird ’70s songwriter jag or find out what music was playing in Paris in the ’60s. I love Spotify as a consumer in that regard and I find a ton of music on Spotify.
Legry: Originally, I was reading every music magazine I could get my hands on when I was younger. Also crate digging. I would go to record stores all the time and go, oh that’s a cool cover. I’ll just pull it out. Now I pay attention to the global viral charts every week, because I think that’s fascinating. There’s so much stuff out there that isn’t just major label-type stuff. It’s opened me up to new avenues of discovery that I had no idea about. I can see what the top 50 songs are that are virally striking a chord in Portugal, for instance. That’s amazing. I also use SoundCloud.
Hinton: Because we’ve been doing this for such a long time, we have some terrific old friends and colleagues that are always tipping us off to new music. Some great management companies that are like, ‘You’ve got to hear this great gal.’ and they send us music. Or the Red Hot people. They’re friends of ours. They sent us music for that Day of the Dead project, which is incredible. It really is pretty organic. And we’re always digging around ourselves because we can’t help it.
I imagine some lesser-known artists see new levels of exposure from being played in Starbucks. Do you ever get feedback about that?
Hinton: In the Starbucks app we have a most-saved and most-loved functionality. And right now, artists that are in our discovery set are all over our most-saved and most-loved functions. It’s so cool to see these things light up.
We add songs and they start playing all over the world, literally. A great example is Alabama Shakes, which is a band that we fell in love with early on. We’ve played their music from day one. We got really fun notes that were like, ‘Hey, the band wants you to know that somebody emailed them because they were in a Starbucks in London and they heard their song.’ Those are great moments for us. It’s like, we’re getting that music out there. And it’s the kind of music that might not necessarily find its way to Top 40 radio anytime soon, but we’re putting it out on our airwaves.
How do you guys see this evolving? I assume the Spotify-Starbucks integration is generating some new data, which could be beneficial to artists and labels, not to mention your future music programming efforts.
Hinton: Before it was: Here’s four CDs. Here’s four hours of the kind of music that we program in our stores. But a very small percentage of what we programmed was actually accessible to our customers. Now every single playlist that we we play in our stores is accessible to our customers. I’ve never been more excited about our opportunity to be impactful for musicians and those artists that we love.
Something that’s super interesting to imagine is Starbucks charts. At the end of a given month or year, the songs that were most-loved, the artists that were the most favorited and shared out. The most loved and saved charts right now are Lester Young and Leon Bridges and India Arie. It’s such a great portrait of the music programming that we do. It’s eclectic, it’s interesting, it’s across genres. We’re definitely imagining where we can go with these things and how to share that back to our customers. That’s really fascinating for us to think about.
You can always lead with great programming and great intuition, and then the data backs you up. I love that little bit of wisdom from our partners at Spotify.
What music are you obsessed with right now?
Legry: I’ve always been a soul and R&B fan. I’ve also always been fascinated by sounds from around the world. Baloji is one artist I would call out. Born in the Congo, but lives in Belgium right now. He’s got a great video called Capture.
Hinton: I am really specific about vinyl. My collection is classical and vintage soul. I think I have 30 Nina Simone records. That Day of the Dead thing. I’ve also been immersed in A Tribe Called Quest for the last 24 hours. We’re all over. It’s fun.