It began with an album called Blue Note Blend.
On April Fools’ Day 1995, a compilation of jazz classics began appearing at Starbucks® stores. Available for purchase on its own or bundled with a pound of Blue Note Blend coffee, it was an immediate success. The album eventually sold more than 75,000 copies, a notable achievement in the jazz world.
An Instant Hit
Holly Hinton, then a barista at Starbucks University Village store, recalls restocking CDs at a steady clip to keep up with demand.
“Blue Note Blend struck a geyser with our customers,” said Hinton, who’s still involved in Starbucks music program two decades later, now as entertainment brand manager. “They wanted to take home the great music they were hearing in our stores.”
Not only did Blue Note Blend represent Starbucks first foray into music, it was also the first coffee sold in graphic rollstock packaging.
“Before Blue Note, we had only sold our coffee in plain bags with a stamp,” said Hinton. “Suddenly our stores were awash with these bright blue packages, and it was a magical transformation. We picked up some blue restaurant votives, and at night we’d turn the overhead lights down, light the candles and make it feel like a jazz club.”
The Evolution of Starbucks Music
The original Blue Note Blend spurred follow-ups that appeared in 1996 and 2000. Starbucks also created an event in Seattle called Hot Java Cool Jazz. Each year since, Starbucks has invited high school jazz bands to perform, and helped raise $400,000 for local music school programs.
Meanwhile a broader music program took shape, guided by Timothy Jones, a 20-year veteran of the record business who’d joined Starbucks in 1987 as a barista at the Pike Place Market store. Over time Jones took on overhead music programming at the stores, eventually hitting on the idea of creating albums to sell alongside coffee.
Since the release of the first Blue Note Blend 20 years ago, the Starbucks entertainment team has hand-picked 250 original CDs, spanning nearly every musical genre and geography. It has spotlighted the extraordinary careers of legendary artists like John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt. Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma the Rolling Stones and Ray Charles are among the legends who identified their favorite recordings for the Artist Choice series. Seasonal CDs have celebrated everything from Valentine’s Day to summer road trips to holiday festivities.
Starbucks also became a champion of emerging artists, giving boosts to the likes of John Legend, Madeleine Peyroux and Fleet Foxes early in their recording careers. In a 2010 New Yorker profile, multi-platinum superstar Taylor Swift recalled the satisfaction she felt when her Speak Now album appeared at Starbucks. “I was so stoked about it, because it’s been one of my goals,” said the singer-songwriter. “I always go into Starbucks, and I wished that they would sell my album.”
Blue Note Blend 2015
As Starbucks continues to move ahead in an ever-evolving entertainment landscape, it’s circled back to its Blue Note roots. An entirely new version of Blue Note Blend will be featured at Starbucks stores beginning February 10.
The 15-song album spans the history of Blue Note Records, dating from Sidney Bechet’s classic 1939 recording of “Summertime” to the 21st century, when the likes of Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson brought the label a fresh wave of acclaim and previously unimagined commercial success. The heart of the collection, however, highlights the work of jazz titans like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock—artists who’ve been core to Starbucks in-store play and CD offerings from the beginning.
“Blue Note Records is revered as one of those rare labels with an unmistakable identity,” said Steven Stolder, a 10-year Starbucks partner who produced the retrospective. “The people who piloted Blue Note through its ‘50s and ‘60s ascent set a high bar. It’s remarkable that the label today meets the challenge of maintaining and building on that legacy.”
“I approached this album with the same mission that’s defined hundreds of Starbucks compilations, to make accessible and inviting music that might initially seem a little out of reach,” said Stolder. “Blue Note’s greatest artists made music that’s historically important, but it’s also exciting and entertaining. It’s music to be revered and enjoyed.”
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