'Branding' Musical Tastes with Compilation CDs

Starbucks, Pottery Barn and other retailers have been releasing mood and holiday-themed compilation CDs. Musician and writer David Was explains why releasing records this way proves almost risk-free, and he muses on how matching tunes with commercial brands is changing our collective taste in music.

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DAVID WAS:

Try walking out of a specialty store or coffee shop today without having purchased a lifestyle-matching music CD and you might just get stopped by security.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's musician and writer David Was on a popular and profitable part of the music business: the samplers of tunes sold by retail chain stores.

WAS: Were you really thinking of buying that bottle of rum without this mambo compilation, ma'am?

You, sir, I'm afraid that yoga mat will be useless to you without these here Ravi Shankar ragas. Oh, OK, you can go now.

(Soundbite of raga)

WAS: Everybody's getting into the act: The Gap, Starbucks, Old Navy, Pottery Barn, even Lane Bryant. They're like mother birds predigesting the confusing culture for us and serving it up in bite-size pieces. Actually, behind the corporate curtain sits a panel of savvy music and marketing mandarins ever culling the pop charts and record catalogs to dream up soundtracks that'll jibe with your carefully tracked habits as a consumer. You are, so it follows, what you buy.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Now he's sitting on a fast train...

WAS: And don't kid yourself that it ain't paying off. While the retail record world has been smothered by the download avalanche, the carefully aimed and cross-marketed music compilation has been a quiet profit center for the last 15 years, starting with Victoria's Secret and their swooning orchestral CDs that have sold better than 10 million units to date. Not everything is plunging over there.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Give her love. Love. Give her love. Love. Yes, sir, crazy love.

WAS: Starbucks is the other big store, as far as numbers go. They have their own label and retail outlet called Hear Music, which sold three million copies of Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company," a third of which were probably bought with a two-and-a-half gainer latte and a cinnamon bun. They also get folks like Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson to produce compilations of their favorite songs. And coming soon, a download bar where you can roll your own.

(Soundbite of "Cry Me a River"

Ms. DIANE SCHUUR: Now you say you're lonely. You cry the whole night through.

WAS: The variations are endless. Williams-Sonoma may entice you to buy a Latin music sampler to go with the tortilla press. Or picking up some of those Pottery Barn martini glasses? How 'bout some Dino.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DEAN MARTIN: (Singing in Italian)

WAS: Speaking of which, the past masters of lounge music, Pink Martini, are the kings of the compilation and have helped establish the feeling of being a patron of Nordstrom and the Buddha Bar and Fashionable. And, no, those aren't sleigh bells you're hearing; it's just another Christmas collection. Everybody does one of those: It's the law.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Bells will be ringing the glad, glad news.

WAS: But it isn't all about aging boomers getting cozy with the kitsch of yesterday's swinging sounds. Youth-oriented burger chains are combining the beats with the beef, like McDonald's recent offer of a free download with a Big Mac meal. Target has an exclusive EP from Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas. But whatever your age, they have your number. It certainly won't be long till you're able to buy a Lawrence Welk CD at your cardiologist's office.

(Soundbite of champagne bottle popping and Welk theme music)

WAS: And it doesn't stop there. Not if marketing gurus like Billy Strauss have their way. His Rock River Communications is booking 10 million bucks per annum for making what amounts to high-ticket party tapes for patrons of swank companies like the W Hotel Chain and Volkswagen. Strauss says he's creating albums for people who don't have two hours to go hang out at Tower Records or who wouldn't know what to look for if they found themselves there.

(Soundbite of Welk theme music)

WAS: In a world with too little time to actually develop individual taste, just consider him your personal shopper, as he combs through the racks of singers and songs in search of the perfect chord: the sound of your two hands shopping.

BRAND: That's DAY TO DAY contributor David Was. He's half of the musical duo Was (Not Was).

(Soundbite of Welk theme music)

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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