Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Here’s where we differ

Trip voices two primary concerns about the potential rise of Starbucks as a music retailer: (1) ultimately, it will limit choice; and (2) soccer moms and yuppies in training might buy a sub-par McCartney album in alarming numbers.

On the second point, inasmuch as those seem to be the target audiences for Jason Mraz records, how much more harm can be done? And as for the first point, fear not. Your choices will not wilt like my NCAA pool hopes.

It’s a matter of economics. Think about the maximum growth that Starbucks could realistically experience over the next twenty years. Now multiply it by ten. Even at that size, Starbucks wouldn’t have the market power to materially limit choices. Sure, they can limit your access to certain recordings inside their store – just as a Ford dealer can refuse to sell you a BMW – but the vast number of ways to discover music (terrestrial radio, satellite, file sharing, etc.) combined with the ease of purchasing it elsewhere (iTunes, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Wal-Mart to name but a few) means that they’ll have miniscule power to affect what you buy.

And speaking of Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest music retailer and the one company that could conceivably wield some insidious power, consider this: In 1996, it limited its customers’ choices by refusing to stock Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album. Nonetheless, the record sold four million copies at a time before consumers had radically empowering purchasing options like iTunes and Amazon. People who are going to limit themselves to buying discs available at Starbucks probably weren’t going to buy much music anyway.

The explosion of consumer choice over the past ten years is only going to grow as technology destroys barriers to entry in the market. Lily Allen may be the first myspace superstar, but she certainly won’t be the last, and bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are designing the template for DIY on a large scale. And I guarantee that the next few years will bring new and better ways of delivering music that we haven’t even imagined yet.

Over the next decade, here’s what you’ll notice about Starbucks’ impact on your ability to get the music you want: Nothing.

With that, I promise never again to think about Starbucks’ impact on the recording industry. I had hoped never to give it this much thought in the first place.

And can you believe he called me “disingenuous?” That super-cool CD burn I planned to make for him tomorrow? Well let’s just say I might put it off until the weekend. That’ll show him.

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