On the Starbucks Channel, Branded Entertainment, and “Quality Rock That Really Rocks”

Three months ago, Edison Media Research’s Larry Rosin suggested that the logical route for HD-2 multicast channels was to co-brand with national sponsors and celebrities. For the last 22 months, the best clue as to what that might sound like has been Starbucks’ co-branded XM Satellite Radio channel: “XM75-Hear Music.” The new channel is a companion to (but not a simulcast of) Starbucks’ in-store music and its burgeoning music retail operation.
Even before its channel launched in October 2004, Starbucks was one of the retailers that had changed the way music was used in the retail environment. Programmers of retail music services had always been willing to dig in the crates for great-sounding songs that wouldn’t have passed radio’s familiarity tests. But Starbucks, the Gap and a handful of others have been aggressive in bringing cutting-edge new music to consumers, to the point where retail has become one more aspect of label marketing, especially on records that won’t be immediately retail friendly. And it was sitting in Starbucks one morning, wondering about some of the songs I was hearing, that prompted me to check out “XM75-Hear Music: The Sound of Starbucks,” now programmed by Seth Neiman, who joined the channel from MusicChoice in May 2005.

Even before its channel launched in October 2004, Starbucks was one of the retailers that had changed the way music was used in the retail environment.

In the three stretches heard this week, XM75-Hear Music occupied an atmospheric music territory somewhere between commercial Triple-A radio and KCRW Santa Monica, Calif., itself a musical adventure brand for many listeners. XM75 is less Classic Rock based than many commercial Triple-As, and has made less of a foray into the adult side of Modern Rock than others. The station’s currents alone are more than 100 titles deep; none getting more than 19 spins a week. On the other hand, there’s still more presence from brand-name Triple-A acts-Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Chris Isaak, Rosanne Cash, Susan Tedeschi, Paul Simon, Keb’ Mo’, Ben Harper-than you’d get from KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” (There’s also plenty of less established acts: Eric Lindell, Gomez, Van Hunt, Corinne Bailey Rae, Gus Black, Sierra Swan, etc.)
Musically, XM75 is very well assembled, as evidenced by the music monitors below. Who else, after all, could go between the Byrds and Dido if not Rosanne Cash-a segue that you wouldn’t expect somebody to come up with by just running Selector and hitting “print.” And this is indeed a channel for the people who ask, “Why do we have to hear Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ over-and-over? Why don’t you ever get to hear ‘Caravan'”? There is noticeable depth here from both old and new albums in a way that is much mourned and rarely found on even the most aggressive commercial Triple-A.
XM75 is also a less produced, less obtrusive marriage of art and commerce than you might expect. The branding is based around “Hear Music,” with only occasional mentions of Starbucks. Triple-A veteran Paul Marszalek can be heard from 5-9 p.m. ET doing some brief backsells that emphasize artist information; (Neiman says that a second shift will be hosted soon). Otherwise, there are only a handful of brief drops, some of them from artists, and very occasional mentions when the CD that you just heard is available at Starbucks. Overall, there’s less content about Starbucks than you heard about Snapple on WFNX Boston during Snapple’s 40-day sponsorship and that was pretty low-key, too.
If I could customize XM75-Hear Music for myself, I’d probably want a little more of the Classic Soul and Blues element that is so prominent at Starbucks retail. In the three stretches monitored, one of those songs popped up roughly once an hour. That’s more than one would hear on a commercial Triple-A, but felt like less than Starbucks plays in-store. Between the implosion of the pop Oldies format and the near disappearance of R&B Oldies as a radio format, it’s one music style that’s becoming harder to get from terrestrial radio (and, in fact, I did find myself punching over to XM’s two Classic Soul channels a few times).
The other thing I found myself wanting was something more, well, caffienated. Triple-A over the years has often been distinguished by a lack of tempo-as if only earnest music can be good music. So how has nobody come up with “Quality Rock That Really Rocks”? Or with a format that has the energy and variety of Top 40, but in a far more adventurous way? The BBC’s Top 40 Radio 1 and Hot AC Radio 2 both touch on that franchise in very different ways, but they’re certainly not continuous music services of the sort that XM75 is. I’ve got a lot of music on my iPod that fits this description, I’d welcome a place to be turned on to new music of this sort. In other words, maybe we need a second option that is more Frappuccino and less soy latte.
XM75: Hear Music, July 19, 2006, 9:25-10:15 a.m. ET
Vincent, “Shape I’m In”
Jewel, “Who Will Save Your Soul”
David Gray, “Long Distance Call”
James Blunt, “In A Little While”
Byrds, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
Rosanne Cash, “Burn Down This Town”
Dido, “White Flag”
Rocco Deluca & the Burden, “Gift”
Dashboard Confessional, “Don’t Wait”
Rufus Wainright, “The One You Love”
Buddy Guy w/John Mayer, “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember”
Sonya Kitchell, “Words”
Sheryl Crow, “My Favorite Mistake”
Susan Tedeschi, “Evidence”
Jill Scott, “A Long Walk”
July 24, 2006, 4:55-5:30 ET
Sheryl Crow, “C’mon C’mon”
Ane Brun & Ron Sexsmith, “Song No. 6″
Belle & Sebastian, “For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea”
KT Tunstall, “Miniature Disasters”
Irma Thomas, “Wish Someone Would Care”
Jackie Greene, “Just As Well”
Seal, “Crazy”
Aimee Mann, “Today’s The Day”
John Mayer, “Waiting On The World To Change”

8 replies
  1. Pete Tauriello
    Pete Tauriello says:

    Thanks for lending more gravitas to something I have felt for some time. Does AAA always have to be so tranquil or “earnest” as you like to say. I sware, there’s a “PD” chair for you in New York somewhere. The downfall of commerical radio is, in part, the value placed in researched music. I have never believed that audiences can tell you what they want. I do, however, believe that Dr. Tom Turicci’s old skin response methods used back at WCFL were a good indicator. As he used to indicate, “belly buttons always tell the truth.” Galvanic skin response testing is a methodology I’m still willing to have some faith in. Let’s get something like this on FM in market one!

  2. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    Sean – “Quality Rock that Really Rocks” Puhleeeeze get out of the business…do your research…better yet, get out on the streets where you probably haven’t been for years…and find someone that describes their station with that phrase. This is what’s wrong, not right with radio – satellite – iPod – podcasts – Internet – HD2 (if it really exists) – and any other form of quote unquote entertainment. Nuff said.

  3. Joe Greenlight
    Joe Greenlight says:

    I fail to hear much difference formatically between HearMusic and XM Cafe. There’s times when XM Cafe and The Loft both sound the same to me, and since all three are gold-based, I question the need for three very similar channels, unless both HearMusic and Loft get considerably more current. Or there’s more future sponsor tie-ins coming.

  4. Seth Neiman
    Seth Neiman says:

    Mr. Gillispie,
    Just to be clear, XM 75 does not use that tag line.
    Seth Neiman
    Starbucks – Hear Music XM 75.

  5. David Martin
    David Martin says:

    Kudos Sean on yet another thoughtful writing. My sense is AAA, as executed by most, nears its best used by date and by its own hand. Clearly, what’s needed is the kind of fresh passion about the music that Seth Neiman brings. No amount of “true to the music” liners or sweepers can replace a genuine love for and dedication to sharing the very best music no matter it be new or a gem from the library. Cooking logs for hours, fussing over every tune to craft a great hour, constantly searching for new titles while putting others in the icebox, the process itself is becoming a lost art. My notion is far too many programmers are allowing their music to be programmed exactly as you have suggested…run the program and hit print. Fortunately, the most effective and immediate remedy is obvious.

  6. Dan Lucas
    Dan Lucas says:

    I don’t see that close similarity between Cafe and Hear Music. Hear Music is far more inclusive of soul/R&B. Cafe would never play the Blackeyed Peas/Sergio Mendes track, and I don’t hear Cafe playing India.Arie or Van Hunt or Jamiroquai either. The format itself is good, very diverse. I would however like to hear a more uptempo version not afraid to throw in more power/indiepop and louder sounds, even conscious hiphop and more upbeat electronica.
    It’s in my labs, if anyone is interested in running it on HD2. ;)

  7. Dave Clay
    Dave Clay says:

    Who died and made Greg Gillispie king? I notice that he is constantly posting on all programming sites, is that how you drum up business?. Anyway, I used Quality Rock and it worked, Greg. So there.


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