Christopher Coplan
Jun 6, 2016 · 9 min read
Some people at the mall, apparently.

Saunter into just about any restaurant or store, be it a national chain or hip local spot, and you’ll be greeted by song. Stores use this piped music as just another tool to get you to open your wallet and buy clothes, books, stereo equipment, a nice venison meal or an over-sized caramel frappe.

For the most part, people don’t pay attention to the music, and it’s just background noise in the endless consumer experience that is modern life. It’s as much a consideration as the kind of lighting or the difference between “You’re welcome” and “It’s my pleasure”.

Unless you happen to live in the U.K., apparently. Per The Telegraph, two groups — Pipedown and Action on Hearing Loss — are launching a campaign against piped music across Britain. Music would be removed outright from cafes and restaurants, while pubs would use noise-dampening measures like curtains. The news comes shortly after Marks & Spencer — a popular clothing and home store — announced it’s cutting music out of 300 U.K. stores.

In explaining the aims of its campaign, Action on Hearing Loss spokesperson Gorki Duhra described music as more annoyance than a mood setter (via The Times):

For some people, it can be irritating. But when it leads to you getting the wrong order or not being able to have a conversation and you’re missing the main bit of the joke because you just can’t hear it, you feel left out. Background music makes it harder to pick up a particular voice. We would ask [restaurants] not to play any.

Given the general apathy most people have toward music in these public venues, plus our love of material goods, music’s absence wouldn’t exactly be the end of consumerism as we know it. Even still, there are huge implications involved in this campaign, and music in public places isn’t just trying to get you buy more useless junk. (Though it’s so totally all about that.)

Music’s role in the large-scale gathering of people is important, and this campaign exemplifies that. It also proves just how much this particular format needs to be thoroughly reconsidered.

There’s at least some validity to the arguments of Pipedown and Co. Those people with some degree of hearing loss — 48 million Americans and 9 million U.K. residents — definitely struggle with even the most gentle buzz of music. Certainly steps should be taken to better protect this population.

While the American Society of Interior Designer went as far as to suggest removing music sources in a space, it’s not the only solution. Lowered ceilings and sound absorbent carpets are designed to help those with hearing loss. They’re mostly just stop-gaps, because I have little faith that most businesses will stop paying music outright.

Piped music is a hugely valuable tool for your average business owner or company, one with a lower comparative cost and plenty of applications. It’s got far too much value to be simply denied completely.

In their book “The Social and Applied Psychology of Music” , researchers Adrian North and David Hargreaves outlined just a few of the ways in which music affects workers in general:

  • Music positively influence an employee’s morale: One study found that playing favorable music boosts employees’ mood ratings by 20%.
  • Employees don’t even have to like the music: In a study focused on Wall Street traders, people performed better when faced with music they were neutral toward or disliked. They actually lost money while hearing music they generally liked.
  • Music makes you invulnerable: OK, not really. However, several studies have found that music can keep people distracted from feelings of fatigue. Like the folks who stand all day selling you iPods or bringing you that fifth peach Mimosa.

In case you thought that you were somehow immune to the affect of retail music, think again. There’s plenty of hard data demonstrating how music lures in consumers like a siren calling out to a bunch of smelly pirates. For instance, in the ‘90s, wine stores found that classical music greatly increased sales and made people buy more expensive items.

North and Hargreaves noted that music will influence many subtle elements of a customer’s retail experience, including:

  • Making people wait for longer periods.
  • It can also alter someone’s perception of how long they’ve been waiting.
  • It’s not just wine, either, and music can make people opt for pricier options or products. Generally, classical does the trick.
  • You can actually experience a pied piper situation, and be lured into a store/restaurant by certain sounds.
  • Low tempo music makes retailer shoppers and restaurant goers buy more and stay around for longer.
  • Loud music, meanwhile, increased customer turnover by up to 10%, without changing the quantity or volume of purchased goods.
Buy more stuff!

When presented with this kind of manipulation, some people might have an immediate reaction and demand for the immediate end of pipe music. (Perhaps complete with dramatic turntable scratch.) It would certainly shift the scope of power in the rigged coliseum that we call retail. Still, there is at least some disagreement between consumers about whether or not music is really all that terrible in this setting, despite the complaints of Pipedown and other advocacy groups.

A few years back, Which? magazine, a branch of the U.K.’s Consumers’ Association, released a survey asking for thoughts on public music. Across some 1,500 comments, there was a clear thread of total rage and disdain. People generally thought music was too loud and overwhelming, and it ruined Mexican dinners and afternoon tea alike. One man even said it may have worsened his own tinnitus. Another wanted shops to post a “music played here sign” just to let consumers have a choice.

Not everyone is such a massive Grinch, though. In 2009, the independent research company Entertainment Media Research Ltd. ran its own survey, asking consumers their thoughts on Christmas music. A whopping 95% of shoppers explained that they loved hearing Xmas ballads as they bought juicers or belt sanders. In fact, of this group, nearly half of all people said they chose shops based on if they played jingles. Also of note: 53% of respondents said they sung along in store.

So how can so many people dump on the idea of music in the stores only to seek it out so enthusiastically? Because it’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, dammit! And by that I mean it’s Christmas music, which most people love (at least when contextually appropriate). That, I would suggest, is the whole point: People want to hear music that they love or can get behind, regardless of the effect of any other kinds of music. Or, perhaps, in spite of how it jumpstarts our baser instincts as a retail animal.

How else would you explain so many people wearing headphones when they go shopping or out to eat. It’s become so common that people have even raised issues about it’s decency with NPR, which has to be a huge indicator of a situation’s influence. I’m certainly reliant on my headphones any time I head to the grocery store or out to grab a coffee, and the idea of not having my music available to me at all times is rather frightening. Even if there wasn’t mild anxiety involved, why would I expose my ears to someone else’s music when I have literally every song available via the two to three services I’m currently subscribed.

I can choose how I want a dinner or retail experience to go. I can buy new flip-flops while listening to Poison The Well. Or eat at some taco shop while enjoying FKA twigs. Knowing how some music might effect my decisions or behaviors, I can change my playlist not just to hear what I want but to influence myself only as I see fit. This power isn’t really something people normally consider, and headphones have always just felt natural given society’s savvy with all things technological.

This level of customization is like a brave new world when it comes to the sometimes stressful, decidedly alien experience of shifting into consumer mode. Don’t believe me? Just go buy new underwear and tell me it won’t always be slightly weird. Now go buy some listening to your favorite album. Still weird but totally fun.

On the other hand, wearing headphones anytime we’re outside is shutting ourselves off from the communal experience of piped music. I always take my headphones off at a record store because I never know what I’ll hear, and some of it’s quite good (you know, given the situation). Still, the same might apply elsewhere, and just cause I’m in a Panera or an Express doesn’t mean I can’t find some new tune to fall in love with. It’s all about being open to something you didn’t expect, which is the heart of why I love music.

Plus, there’s something kind of romantic about being presented with songs that I might not have wanted to hear. As a personal rule, music is the one area where things can be uncomfortable and unpredictable and I’m OK. (Case in point: I went to Walgreen’s the other day and they were out of my favorite jerky. I stomped all the way home.) Sure, stores play these songs to illicit a reaction, but they don’t think about how they might effect you otherwise.

Could the right song turn a coffee shop into a massive theater?

How playing that Rihanna song might make you think back to your summer road trip. Or that Carrie Underwood ballad will unearth some old heartache. One of those is maybe more preferable, but it’d be worth the gamble regardless. A lot of our music consumption is tailored to our ever-changing whims and desires. It’s enjoyable to be confronted with sounds and emotions you weren’t expecting. It makes you think about why you hate that DMX song or that you might actually be crazy for Demi Lovato.

To some degree, retailers and restaurant owners have recognized the importance of more “people-friendly” playlists. The other day I went to both Dunkin Donuts and Sonic. (Don’t judge; I know I’m a trash person.) Both locations have their own radio stations, complete with annoying DJs, that play a wide array of music. It’s mostly Top 40 stuff, but it’s varied enough to be different from the classical or muzak selections some stores spin incessantly.

However, these are a prime example of retailers confusing personality with personalization. Just because it sounds more human doesn’t mean it isn’t any more grating or annoying. It’s not always going to give people the music that it wants, and when it does, it’s packaged just like any other really awful radio station.

As NPR can attest, even interesting and engaging radio is losing young listeners in droves. So what’s keeping people engaged for the 5 minutes they’re in a DD ordering an, ugh, frozen hot chocolate?

Not that the other options are all that more effective, like streaming playlists from Pandora or Spotify. This is not a condemnation of these services; randomized music playlists can be fun and effective in the right setting. Except that shopping for t-shirts or eating chicken parmigiana isn’t on that list. Just as much as a random song can be beneficial for eliciting key emotions, there has to be some element of design or curation involved.

It’s the reason real radio works: We may not know what’s coming but we trust in the person behind the speakers to make a sound decision. Just look at stations like Seattle’s KEXP or even Apple’s Beats 1, who emphasize a sense of choice in their musical selections. If it’s all based on random, meaningless algorithms, then people are less likely to be engaged. Personality has nothing to do with stupid jokes or the latest hit jams; it’s a breadth of music that shows genuine signs of life.

That might be just part of the solution, to make public music listening as personable of an experience as possible, and less like an exercise in manipulation as possible (event though that’s what it is.) It’s also got to be about allowing people to opt out if need be.

That means personalizing the process beyond simply song choice. It’s about creating a kind of ebb and flow with the music. Drawing people in as need be with certain tunes, and then pulling back a little with different jams once those walking wallets are inside.

Music also doesn’t have to play the whole time, and creating breaks can generally improve its drawing power. It certainly makes it less overwhelming and puts the focus back on interactions with the world and people, which seems to be the complaints of the Pipedown’s of the world.

It would be a real shame to go into a local mall and not hear the random noise stew of, say, Taking Back Sunday from Hot Topic and Charli XCX from Victoria’s Secret. Music makes all of life better, and that includes shopping, which isn’t just buying shit but how we engage in these hugely important personal interactions. But if it’s overwhelming to so many, then it just doesn’t seem nearly as worth it.

Like all things in life, balance and continued analysis are key. It’s not as unimportant as so many might think. It’s not enough to care about your own music consumption, but those tunes we all share from time to time. Like churros from the food court, folks.

Here’s a playlist of songs I regularly listen to while out and about. Bump it the next time you go out for an ice cream cone or shoe shopping.

Christopher Coplan

Written by

Writer out of Chicago. Former news editor for Consequence of Sound. Music, sociology, marketing, wrestling, and all things data.


Rants, musings and insights from one music writer.

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