Behind Starbucks Music with ‘One of the Quiet Shapers of American Culture’

It’s as much part of Starbucks as the sound of steaming milk. Beyond the conversations and coffee orders, is the ever-present background music.

There was a time when Starbucks stores played one set of classical songs every few hours, every day, for a month. But for almost the past 20 years now Starbucks has been curating its own musical compilations and selling CDs. The man behind Starbucks music, Timothy Jones, is retiring from the company.

“I just find music and lyrics, kind of life changing,” he said.

His contributions have been life-changing for the culture of Starbucks stores. The New York Times once referred to him as “one of the quiet shapers of American culture.”

Jones fell in love with music at an early age and thought as a teenager he might have a career with a band. As with most musicians that didn’t happen, so he opened a store in Seattle called Urban Renewal Records and developed a following of customers who liked his musical recommendations. As the record industry started to change though in the 1980s, he needed a change too.

Starbucks struck a chord with Jones.

“I didn’t know much about Starbucks except I bought a pound of French Roast there and felt like I’d really gone underground, like ‘oooh, whole bean, French Roast’ wow. They’d opened up a University Way store right across from my record shop so that sort of became my back-in-10-minutes living room,” Jones said. “They were like family. There was something so different going on at Starbucks, knowing your name, knowing your drink. We’d always pick up the conversation where we left off the day before and there was something so rewarding about that experience that when I did close my record shop I tiptoed across the street not as a customer but as someone seeking employment.”

This was in 1987, when Starbucks only had seven coffee shops.

“Starbucks had opened maybe a store every two years back at that time,” he said. “In applying I thought my chances were slim.”

Jones was hired, and eventually managed the Starbucks across from his old record shop. In those days Starbucks music came in the form of a four hour cassette tape all the stores received once a month. He wanted to be the person who picked that music, and he talked his way into that responsibility too. Without asking for permission, he started adding some twists to the classical music mix tape.

“I didn’t see anything wrong with this, but I wasn’t sure,” he said, reflecting on those days with a smile. “I kinda waited for Howard to bounce through the door one day and go, what are you doing? I’m in the store and hearing Ella Fitzgerald and you’re picking Miles Davis and this is kinda out there, but it didn’t happen. So we picked a Reggae tape and we picked a blues tape and with each one I thought, I don’t know how much longer they’re gonna let me do this because I’m definitely stepping outside the footprint.”

Within months, customers started noticing the music in Starbucks stores and began asking if there was a CD collection of the songs and instrumentals they could purchase.

“So upon hearing people asking ‘why don’t you sell the music you play,’ I started cultivating this idea that maybe we could sell a CD in the store,” said Jones.

That idea led to Starbucks first compilation CD, “Blue Note Blend” a jazz collection that included Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

“This was ‘95, we had about 500 stores at that point,” Jones recalled. “Within a matter of two to three weeks we had sold 50,000 CDs and people were kind of loving it. Howard came by my desk at one point and said what are we going to do next? All of a sudden we were off and running with a CD every couple of months maybe.”

The Starbucks Entertainment group now turns out CDs every few weeks, and even though Timothy Jones has retired, they will continue to handpick music to complement the handcrafted beverages in Starbucks stores.

“This tree really has deep roots in the brand and in the Starbucks culture,” he said. “Like serving up aged Sumatra, or a Kenya Coffee or Sulawesi, there’s so much music out there.”

In the years Jones has been involved with Starbucks, the entertainment division has also worked with Concord Music Group to form a new record label – Hear Music. Paul McCartney was the first artist signed in 2007.  It’s also offering digital “pick of the week” music to customers.

Starbucks connection to music goes beyond the four walls of its stores. For over ten years, the company has also supported music and arts programs for youth in its hometown of Seattle, through a long-standing partnership with the Seattle Theatre Group. For instance, on Friday, April 25, jazz fans in Seattle will be treated to a night of great music at the Paramount Theatre at the annual Hot Java Cool Jazz show – an annual showcase of some of the best young bands from Ballard, Bothell, Garfield, Mountlake Terrace and Roosevelt High Schools. Tickets are available here.  Since 1995, Starbucks Hot Java Cool Jazz has raised more than $350,000 for local school music programs.

What started with adding a few songs to cassette tapes has since growth into a continuing legacy of great collaboration and music. The beat goes on.

Music for this feature by Jason Shaw 

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