Monday, May 16, 2005

Starbucks and Springsteen

Starbucks, coffee emporium extraordinaire, has declined to carry the new Springsteen album "Devils and Dust". This Newsweek article suggests that the company declined because of explicit sexual lyrics in the song "Reno". The company public relations flak has said it is due to store space limitations. The Newsweek article compares this flap to a situation with Walmart and Jon Stewart's book:

Still, concern could percolate as the coffeehouse giant continues to expand, especially given the numerous Wal-Mart controversies. Last year, for instance, the re­tail giant cancelled orders for “America (The Book)” by Jon Stewart and other writers from “The Daily Show.” The re­tailer objected to a picture in the book of nine aged bodies with the heads of Supreme Court justices superimposed, cit­ing its belief that “the majority of our cus­tomers would be uncomfortable with it.”

Newsweek cites glowing reviews of the album and suggests that First Amendment activist types will be concerned about censorship issues. Now before I get to comments on this, full disclosure: I don't care for Springsteen; I have never clicked with his music. I have worked for Starbucks, slinging java in cups, and consider them to be one of the best employers I have ever had.

First Amendment rights are not circumvented when a large corporation chooses not to carry a product. Springsteen fans can buy the album in Tower Records or online, Starbucks is not telling it's customers not to purchase the album. Even if the company declined to carry the album based on the explicit lyrics, they made the decision based on what would sell best with thier customer base, and whether the album would support company culture. Starbucks is very big on promoting and maintaining company culture.
When people criticize large companies for not carrying a product, they seem to be concerned that the companies attitude influences thier customers. I am sure that is true to a certain extent, but the larger half of the equation is that customers influence company purchasing choices more. Companies want to make a buck, they are not going to carry a product that will offend a large swath of customers. Springsteen's album will succeed or fail on it's merits, he's hardly an unknown name in need of promotion that would be of value to an obscure artist.

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