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Mike Ragogna Headshot

Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow

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When it was announced that 600 Starbucks outlets were closing, the music business shared the hit: less stores, less counter and display space, less product, less revenue. The once promising future of selling lattes and light music became clouded, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time for labels. Sure, the loss of sales will have a predictable impact on the bottom line since the scenario is the equivalent of yet another important chain of stores disappearing. But a potential misinterpretation might be that non "record stores" can't sell CDs or download cards profitably through associated products which then casts a pall on similar future efforts.

Obviously, the reverse is true. Casting the net broader, riskier and more aggressively could supply the payday the music industry desperately needs as it examines how to associate music even more with lifestyles. I mean, come on, your Banana Republic experience shouldn't be complete without Coldplay's Viva La Vida. Buying a Coke? That new Gwen Stefani CD you've been checking out by the register is only $9.98. "Sir, would you like to buy Toby Keith's 35 Biggest Hits CD with that air filter?" Actually, you have to wonder why labels weren't swarming around non-traditional outlets for business opportunities after their first taste of the Starbucks profits. It seems like there should be at least ten similar deals already in place.

Now, while everyone was staring at one hand letting go of 600 coffee shops, no one noticed the other one dropping its cleverly-crafted imprint, Hear Music. Starbucks' label for original recordings will be shuttered and with it, the latest safe house for artists such as Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King (by the way, check out author Sheila Weller's book Girls Like Us which is a bio about the trio). Apparently, though these and similar label mates are national treasures, their wealth of talent and combined sales weren't contributing enough to the company's bottom line.

It seems that the philosophy behind Hear's roster-building included big advances for big names. They seduced Paul McCartney away from Capitol by supposedly giving him something akin to a small nation's annual income. But he was a Beatle and Starbucks was SO successful at the time, who could blame them for possibly thinking, as Zero Mostel once yelled out the window in a scene from The Producers, "When you got it, flaunt it!"

And flaunt it they did, but mainly aesthetically. Hear's great taste in musical icons and their latest achievements gave us Joni Mitchell's Shine, not only her best album since the '90s, but also her highest charting record in years; Carole King's The Living Room Tour that supplied an experience as intimate as flirting with the chai-sipper by the prep counter; Paul McCartney's enjoyable Memory Almost Full; And you've got to love a label whose roster features the eternally linked James Taylor and Carly Simon whose albums One Man Band and This Kind Of Love respectively sound energetic and fresh, like the kind of music they made when this caliber of recording was the goal of most artists.

Whatever did it -- the combination of overspending, the economy crashing, overall belt-tightening, a refocus on the business of coffee -- Hear will no longer be, well, here, after its current CD release. The recently issued Life, Death, Love And Freedom by John Mellencamp looks like it will be the label's final outing, and you've got to wonder the fate of its swan song. Most likely, Concord Records, home of Starbucks' recent Sergio Mendes CDs Timeless and Encanto, will inherit the album and marketing duties for its lifespan. Also, Concord probably will absorb Hear Music into its profound and rich catalog that includes Creedence Clearwater Revival, Miles Davis, Vince Guraldi (including A Charlie Brown Christmas) and John Coltrane, so if that occurs, the label's assets will be in equally classy company. And Starbucks still will sell music. It just won't be the same.

Hear Music sold a heck of a lot of CDs, just not enough to make the cut. It's legacy will include it being the Petri dish that proved classic artists, some even deemed unprofitable by the major labels, still experience healthy sales when marketed efficiently and targeted dynamically. These days, with few exceptions, that's something unheard of.