Decaf latte and a CD to go: Starbucks takes music buying into the digital age

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The Independent US

A new kind of record store opened in Los Angeles yesterday, one that promises to fuse the digital technology of home CD-burning with the West Coast passion for drinking espresso coffee at every opportunity. At the Hear Music Coffeehouse in Santa Monica, customers won't see wall-to-wall banks of CD racks as in a normal music shop. Instead, most of the space is taken up with 70 computer terminals where customers are invited to browse at will through more than 20,000 albums - about 150,000 tracks in all.

A new kind of record store opened in Los Angeles yesterday, one that promises to fuse the digital technology of home CD-burning with the West Coast passion for drinking espresso coffee at every opportunity. At the Hear Music Coffeehouse in Santa Monica, customers won't see wall-to-wall banks of CD racks as in a normal music shop. Instead, most of the space is taken up with 70 computer terminals where customers are invited to browse at will through more than 20,000 albums - about 150,000 tracks in all.

They can then compile their own CD, with or without the help of the instore music experts, and have it burned to take home. The service costs $6.99 for the first five songs and an extra dollar for every track after that.

The concept, part of a new wave of ideas for selling - as opposed to pirating - digital music, is a joint venture between Starbucks, the international coffee chain, and Hewlett Packard, which is providing the computer technology. Naturally, the grande decaf lattes will flow as freely as the music - not least because the time it takes to burn a CD is, the owners calculate, almost exactly how long it takes to drink a cup of coffee.

The Santa Monica store is the first of its kind but it could be the harbinger of future stores. Starbucks is committed to introducing the CD-burning service in 2,500 of its US stores over the next two years, with 10 similar stores opening in Seattle, the home city of the Starbucks chain, in the next few months. Virgin Megastores has similar plans in the pipeline and other music chains are expected to adopt the idea.

The retailers are essentially following in the footsteps of Apple's highly successful iTunes online music service, which has sold 50 million songs over the internet in the 11 months since its launch.

The digitisation of music has created problems in the recording industry because of concerns about piracy and song-swapping services such as Napster and its successors. But it is also, slowly, turning into an opportunity to change the way music is produced and sold.

The chief executive of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, has been working on integrating the internet with his coffee service for some time and has already installed wireless equipment at several hundred of his outlets.

The beach town of Santa Monica is an obvious starting point for the new service. Even before it was bought by Starbucks, the Hear Music store was known for its discerning music collection and its policy of allowing customers to listen to anything they wanted.

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