Fresh-faced 25-year-old string bean Céu is a no-name singer in her home country of Brazil, as well as in ours. Yet this week, her self-titled debut CD appears on the racks of 7,500 stores in North America, including 375 in the Bay Area. Her national tour with a five-piece band stops April 13 at the Independent in San Francisco. The major label making this young samba singer's dreams come true? Starbucks.
Yes, the Antichrist of Globalization is betting that its 44 million customers want some sweet, melodic samba. And since its average customer is female, over thirty, affluent, and amped on boutique caffeine I'm betting Starbucks is right. Chicks love world music. It's weird. Céu's shot of decaf offers downtempo congas, maracas, bongos, and shakers laced with DJ scratches and digital delays. Two standout tracks a cover of Bob Marley's "Concrete Jungle" and the folksy "Valsa Pra Biu Roque" are rip-ready for uptown brunch mixtapes. Most world-music artists would kill a family of sloths for Céu's sudden exposure, and she knows it.
"I think [Starbucks] helps because in the American market, it's not easy for people that don't speak English," says Céu, pronounced "say-eww." "It's weird, though. This is a major way for me to go into America and here in Brazil, I'm indie."
She's so indie, her debut is actually a reissue of a two-year-old release that began in New York. In 1998 Céu sublet her apartment to City of God film composer Antonio Pinto. "I was kind of poor," she says. "Really poor. And I needed someone to rent my apartment. We started a friendship."
Too poor to afford Starbucks coffee, yet eager to cut a CD, Céu and Pinto met with Beto Villares, composer for City of God's TV spinoff City of Men. Villares gave Céu work, then helped record and release the album, made from 2003 to 2005 in twenty different locations, she says. "It was a crazy way to work. We didn't have the money. But by the end of the album it was a nice time, the perfect time to get my music mature the way I wanted."
San Francisco world music label Six Degrees discovered her, then got in bed with Starbucks. Now Céu is going note-for-note next to Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company, Starbucks' top seller at 5.5 million units and eight Grammys. Those aren't tiny numbers, and a little digging reveals nontraditional retailers shipping gobs of vanilla music both good and bad since at least 1994.
That year, Victoria's Secret put out a classical music compilation that middle-aged women sent to the top of the classical charts with four million copies sold. Launched the same year, San Francisco's Rock River Music now makes millions of dollars developing such "lifestyle compilations" for brands like Banana Republic and Ford. Rock River's biggest client, Pottery Barn, has sold 95 different compilations and made $40 million.
Rock River vice president Jon Melrod says nontraditional retailers can be better for music than the top three retailers: Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Target. Those three control 40 percent of the domestic retail music market. Wal-Mart censors. Best Buy sells CDs as loss leaders for $8.99 intentionally losing money to entice people into their stores. This undercuts local record stores, Melrod notes. Pottery Barn's CDs go for a noble $17 and actually sell. "The traditional side of the business has taken hit after hit," he says. "So there's plenty of room for players like Starbucks to fill the void."
Young British soul phenom Amy Winehouse just went on sale at Nordstrom's 165 store locations alongside Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake. Winehouse may be signed to a big label, but the UK crossover could still use a push. Risqué yet retro, her R&B timbre will score her points with desperate older housewives. Conversely, Winehouse's sold-out April 26 show at the überhip Popscene venue will be stocked with those housewives' kids.
So, what happens when Nordstrom and Starbucks and Old Navy all try to sell the same five hit CDs? Nordstrom's biggest sellers are Marvin Gaye and Tony Bennett. It's shaping up to be the trusted old farts like Paul McCartney (signed to Starbucks, worth three-quarters of a billion dollars) alongside no-names like Céu (indie, never had a caramel macchiato).
Melrod believes new channels will emerge for the bands in the middle. "The middle is being created in new spaces where artists can get to the public, whether it's MySpace or ringtones or whatever."
Meanwhile, brands like Pottery Barn have become the curators, Melrod says: "Say you are in your thirties or forties and you can't spend hours at Tower anymore. You go and buy our Pottery Barn dinner series, for example. If you put on those three CDs in the box set you could run high-quality, known music for your dinner party. You trust that brand to assist you in that choice."
Laugh all you want, audiophiles. You're in the minority and your market share shrinks by the day. America's future trends toward music buyers who are overworked, risk-averse and graying at the temples. But hey, MILFs need new music too.