Despite two high-profile departures from its music division, Starbucks Entertainment president Ken Lombard says business will not be affected. However, some in the industry aren't so sure.

Despite two high-profile departures from its music division, Starbucks Entertainment president Ken Lombard says business will not be affected. However, some in the industry aren't so sure.

Don MacKinnon, Starbucks' VP of music and entertainment, resigned Feb. 27. In addition to MacKinnon, who leaves April 14, Starbucks director of artists and repertoire Brenda Walker left the company the week of Feb. 20.

MacKinnon joined the company in 1999 when the coffee retailer purchased his Hear Music chain. He was a key liaison between labels and Starbucks.

"First and foremost, we have a very talented team of people on our content development team. We expect this [transition] to be seamless," Lombard says. "What we were doing with labels, artists and management was, frankly, bigger than any one person."

However, a source intimately familiar with Starbucks' deals, says MacKinnon was the "nuts and bolts guy" with whom the labels worked most closely.

"Without Don there, it remains to be seen if they can deliver on the original promise of being about the artist, the music and the consumer. For the artist community, the connection was Don, not Ken."

Lombard says MacKinnon and Walker's departures are "not related."

However, the source says "there was a big disconnect between what Don and Brenda were seeing themselves as, which is 'we're all about the music and the artists,' and being trapped in a culture that was all about dollars and cents...Starbucks is at the crossroads in trying to decide what to do with the business. Maybe the way Don envisioned it can't work."

Starbucks' music profile has increased dramatically since Lombard's arrival in 2004 through such projects as the Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company" project. It has also expanded into children's music with a DVD from the Laurie Berkner Band, as well as the the movie business through a deal with Lions Gate to carry the family drama "Akeelah and the Bee," when it is released on DVD (Billboard, Feb. 11).

To further enhance its entertainment ties, Starbucks will move up to eight staffers on its content team from its Seattle base to a new Los Angeles office as early as summer.
The move says Lombard will allow the content team to "discover new artists, but maintain contacts with labels." There are no plans to open a New York office.

A search is underway for MacKinnon's replacement. In the interim, the content team, who had reported to MacKinnon, will report to Geoff Cottrill, who joined the company in August 2005 as VP of marketing and product management.

Lombard says Starbucks' strategy does not include dropping any of the programs MacKinnon put in place, many of which focused on smaller, tastemaker artists, but he stresses that growth is key. "We're being very strategic about broadening our scope to include an ever widening and appealing array of entertainment for our customers...It's not to exclusion of unique music opportunities that may be about a new artist, but it's also not the exclusion of Top 40 artists."

Despite MacKinnon's departure, Starbucks will continue to use the Hear Music logo, Lombard says. "Our branding approach, 'Hear Music: the Sound of Starbucks' will go forward," he says.
MacKinnon declined to comment. Walker could not be reached by press time.


Ed Christman provided assistance on this story.