Music is not a veneer!

50% of shoppers leave stores because of background music

A survey reported recently in the UK Daily Mail (Nov 4) suggested that 50% of shoppers leave stores because of the background music playing. This finding is a welcome antidote to a lot of often poorly-designed research suggesting that music is universally beneficial and so should be deployed absolutely everywhere. That is obviously not true, and yet the thesis sadly seems to have taken root in the minds of many retailers. I suspect that the explosion of mindless music in public places is fuelled less by retailers’ desire to improve the shopping environment than by the music industry’s desperate search for new revenue streams. With sales of ‘product’ collapsing, the music industry is left with just two revenue streams that are still growing: live shows, and royalties from public performance of recorded music. The moguls of music (and their acolytes in the royalty collection agencies) have seized onto background music with the desperate grasp of a drowning man on a piece of wreckage. It seems that their dearest wish is to veneer with music every public space in the world – shops, malls, restaurants, cafés, outdoor spaces, buses, taxis, stations, airports, gyms, community buildings. And so they sponsor one-eyed research to ‘prove’ that we all love music everywhere.

Veneering the world with music is wrong, for two reasons.

1: It’s the wrong direction for the music industry

Omnipresent piped music is not the answer to the music industry’s woes. The future of music lies in a subtler and infinitely more fruitful pursuit: monetising the artist/fan relationship. Tomorrow’s savvy artist will offer a range of opportunities to engage (both virtual and physical), and the fans will choose the level that’s right for them, from a free download of a single track to VIP club membership with privileges at gigs and even personal meetings. This type of thinking is already being explored by artists like Björk, Imogen Heap and Thomas Dolby. In a world where peer sharing is normal behaviour, the basic music track has become a promotional tool, a sweetener to entice us into the real transaction space where we will happily pay premium prices (repeatedly) for exclusive content, added value and a sense of connection. This is not a commodity sell any more: it’s much closer to a membership model.

Imogen Heap is a great example. Her huge Twitter following have been with her blow by blow during the creation of the tracks on her new album, as she tweets her progress in real time, night by night. Now, as each track is released, this ready-made market of hundreds of thousands of fans can and do choose between buying the basic track from a few pence (prices vary for different quality options based on how much compression you want to accept) or the deluxe package, which includes a video, a ‘making of’ video or voice commentary, and possibly an app as well. There’s a web site offering still further levels of engagement – for example an online mixer where aspiring remix gurus can save their own interpretations and enter them in a competition.

Thomas Dolby shows another, equally inventive, approach. His new album A Map Of The Floating City is symbiotically linked with an online role-playing game called the Floating City, where prizes (including music tracks) get unlocked as his army of committed fans (many of them members of his online community the Flat Earth Society) play the game, trading with and meeting each other along the way. The bulletin boards of the FES are highly active, so Dolby needs little in the way of external marketing for tours, appearances and music releases.

Björk‘s Biophilia project explores still more ways to add layers of richness and value to music. Each track on the album is transformed into a separate app for iPad and iPhone, with the full set of 10 heavily discounted. The apps themselves combine stunning visuals with game interaction, score visualisations and even an introduction by David Attenborough. Music becomes just one element of a rich, engaging experience that engages touch, sight and sound in an exploration of nature, music and technology.

Note, in most of this there is no record company required. The traditional record company roles have been disintermediated. Here’s how…

  • Production – modern software makes it possible to record, produce and master great-sounding music without needing months in expensive recording studios, so no massive advance is required these days.
  • Marketing – with effective use of social media, the fans will have a direct relationship with the artist so little or no advertising is needed to reach them; smart viral and guerrilla messaging can ensure that many more get to hear about releases, and if the music is worth its salt, word of mouth and peer review on sites like Amazon will do the rest. The bigger artists will employ their own specialist agencies to handle this, along with their web presences, especially Facebook.
  • Packaging – artists are directly employing freelance designers, photographers and art directors to produce the look and feel they want, without input from record company management.
  • Manufacturing – digital music makes producing a physical product a minority activity; where CD, USB or vinyl is still needed, there are plenty of eager manufacturers who will handle the whole process, saving the artist massive sums if they are paid directly.
  • Distribution – the main transformative factor in this whole new world is that buyers come to the artist and buy digitally. There is no distribution cost for artists like Imogen Heap. If artists choose to use other channels (iTunes, Spotify, Amazon) then the cost of distribution is deducted at sale and there is still a positive cash flow.

Record companies should give up trying to hold onto these traditional functions, apart from at the most commercial, plastic end of the market, where malleable, naive X Factor acts can still be assembled, packaged, managed and sold at a large profit. The smart operators will reinvent themselves as world class experts in financial management, sponsorship negotiation, tour and event management, branding, merchandising and online transaction management. Tomorrow’s music company will be more like a branding agency than a traditional record company. Instead of owning the art (and the artist), it will facilitate, support and optimise, employing smart people to represent the artist and build and exploit his/her/their brand.

The band/brand space is particularly significant in this new world. I predict that consumer brands are going to be the new patrons of music. Centuries ago, the aristocracy and the church sponsored music for their own reasons. In just the same way, household name brands will commission, sponsor and have rights to music in the future. We have already seen tour sponsorship and commissioning of tracks for TV commercials; this is just the beginning.

So background music is not the future of music. In fact it’s quite the opposite: by relegating music to the status of wallpaper it devalues the art and undermines our sacred relationship with something that is an essential part of being human. (There is no human culture without music, and there never has been.) Let’s not desensitise ourselves to the point where we lose our love for it.

2: This is pollution, not decoration

Not only is mindless background music bad for music, it’s bad for business too.

This latest survey mirrors an NOP poll sponsored in 1998 by the UK’s RNID (now renamed Action on Hearing Loss), which found that roughly one third of people liked public background music, one third didn’t care and one third hated it. Upsetting one third of your customers is a serious decision to take. The research that purports to show that we all love music everywhere is usually sponsored by the record companies or the licensing agencies, who have an obvious agenda, and much of it is methodologically unsound. In my experience, asking people what they think of music in a shop (or even worse, whether they like it) is useless. The people who hate music won’t be in there – they will have gone somewhere else, so the sample is self-selecting and biassed to start with. Then there’s the fact that most people are unconscious of most background music until asked one of these questions, at which moment they start to listen consciously and crystallise an opinion instantly, based on the track currently playing. Much more interesting than what people say is what they do. Do they leave the store sooner, or stay longer? Do they feel more or less stressed in the aural environment? Do they spend more or less money? Do they feel more or less affinity with the brand or the place? These questions can only be answered by testing different sound conditions and measuring these quantities or feelings without mentioning the sound at all. One survey I know of found three in five people turning around at the door of a shop with loud music and not entering at all. Researching those inside the shop would never have revealed this kind of damage.

I suspect that the NOP survey is a fair picture of the real situation. And it shouldn’t surprise us, for four reasons.

First, there is a basic conflict of interest at work. Almost all music is made to be listened to, not ignored. Intention is important with sound, so when this music is used as aural wallpaper there is a battle between the music’s intention (to be listened to) and the intention of most of the people being exposed to it (shopping, talking, thinking and so on). Music is a very dense sound: it calls our attention to it, so it hinders cognition. We all know the feeling of rising stress when we try to think or talk with loud music playing. Music is simply not fit for purpose as background sound – with the sole exception of ambient music, in its original conception by Brian Eno as music that’s specifically designed not to be listened to. The visual equivalent of most current background music would be covering every inch of the walls in reproduction art. Nobody does that because it would be distracting, overwhelming and far too rich; white walls are generally preferred because we don’t have to pay them any attention. Exactly the same holds true for sound: it’s just that we’ve become so used to suppressing our awareness of noise that we don’t notice the craziness of wallpapering all our environments with music.

Second, most retail music is fast-paced pop, which is simply inappropriate for many stores. If you want to speed people up and reduce dwell time, play fast music. I can absolutely understand fast music in McDonald’s – but not in Swarovski, Zara or O2 stores. Anyone selling high value or complex goods or services should be in the business of slowing people down and relaxing them, not speeding them up and generating stress hormones.

Third, music produces strong emotional responses through powerful associations. Two very similar people can have diametrically opposed reactions to a track simply because of its associations for them personally, and this is impossible to predict. Playing popular music is therefore liable to create potent and unpredictable responses, which is not very wise.

Finally, and related to the last point, most retail music is anodyne. Music programmers have to avoid the aural equivalent of over-strong flavours, not to mention any hint of sex, politics, violence or vulgarity (though profanity often slips through when urban music is not carefully listened to) – so we tend to end up with wall-to-wall Abba or formula lounge music. Branded spaces should sound, as well as look, unique: you should be able to close your eyes and know where you are. If music is the same from shop to shop, it becomes meaningless to have it there at all. By contrast, strong music choices can be very effective. Abercrombie & Fitch use their loud and tightly-slected music as a filter, and it works very well: they don’t want me in there and I don’t want me in there either! I dart in to pay for my daughter’s choices when she’s ready.

While carefully chosen music for niche audiences can be very productive, mindless music for all is pollution, not decoration. We all need to demand more from our retailers, transport operators and leisure facilities. If the sound is upsetting you, complain!

Fortunately there are two great alternatives to music in public spaces. Silence can be golden, especially if acoustics are well designed so that the space feels lovely to be in. In the pantheon of precious commodities for the 21st century, peace may well be the new time. Spaces that offer peace and quiet will, I suspect, do very well. Where there is a need for aural wallpaper, then generative sound is an exciting new option. Played live by computer, always evolving, relatively free of associations and most of all designed to be ignored, this is the sonic equivalent of patterned wallpaper. It can incorporate natural sounds like birdsong or water to create ambiances of understated beauty, changing the mood and effect of a space dramatically.

Reclaiming music – and boosting business with sound

So let’s not veneer the world with music. Let’s honour it and listen to it, as it wants us to… and instead of abusing music let’s design sound in our public spaces just as carefully as we design shape, colour and lighting. Here are my four golden rules for creating commercial or public sound:

1 make it congruent with your brand or the values of the organisation (for example, define and use consistently a brand voice)

2 make it appropriate for the situation (for example public announcements must be intelligible; sound on the telephone must work with very restricted frequency response)

3 make sure it adds some real value (and remember, silence is a sound, and can add great value just by giving people a rest from noise)

4 test and test again, using continual research that measures how people feel and what they do in different soundscapes, without asking them what they think of the sound itself.

When you’ve got all that right, there’s one more challenge. If you’re going to create and play well-designed sound, don’t fall at the last hurdle and skimp on the quality of your sound system. This is not a thing to be specified by quantity surveyors or IT/technical departments: you need to make sure that someone with good ears and a passion for your brand is involved.

Last and most important of all, train your staff to listen. This will pay dividends in every aspect of your business, from sales to customer care and team leadership. Even if you only get them to spend six minutes watching my TED talk on listening that would be a great start. Better still, make training in conscious listening skills a part of your induction, and of your ongoing training programme. The returns will be phenomenal, and we’ll take one more step towards a listening world.

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