Soothing music to get you in the mood for . . . shopping
‘A lot of convenience retailers like us to keep it fairly upbeat and vibrant most of the time’
Some in-store music suppliers include cover versions of well-known songs as part of their packages. File photograph: Getty
“You know Chvrches?” asks Brian, who is unloading freshly baked pastries on to the display table in a suburban branch of an Irish supermarket chain. “They do a version of Get Out. I went to Beatyard in Dún Laoghaire during the summer and when Chvrches played it live, I was just like, ‘no!’ It reminds me of work and I can’t listen to it.”
The “they” Brian is referring to are the people behind the songs we hear piped into supermarkets and high street clothing shops. While background music, or muzak as it’s been known as since roughly 1922, isn’t a new concept, the modern shift in music consumption means that music is now marketed by moods, moods that can be packaged and sold.
A brief scroll through Spotify or Apple Music shows playlists designed for cooking, jogging, crying, relaxing, studying and playlists to play video games to so, of course, there’s music to shop to. While you may not think that your mood is being tended to while you’re picking up a loaf of Brennan’s finest pan on a Sunday morning, it’s very likely that professionals have been hired in to do that.
One such company is Mood Media, a London-based provider of in-store media, specialising in music, visuals (digital menus, video walls and satellite TV screens) and scent. With a team of music designers – their term, not ours – curating bespoke playlists that suit the needs of clients like Boots, Calvin Klein, Hilton and Tommy Hilfiger, they know how music affects our shopping experience, down to the genre, tempo and decade from which it hails.
“We find that slow music is not particularly enjoyed in certain convenience retailers because it feels like it brings down the pace of the shopping experience,” says Paul Hillyer, the head of creative at Mood Media. “So a lot of convenience retailers like us to keep quite a – not a crazy tempo – but they like it to be fairly upbeat and fairly vibrant most of the time.”
When it comes to buying in playlists from service providers, some clients opt for the lower cost packages
Hillyer outlines a typical rollout of playlists that match the “bends and flexes” of customers throughout the day in a supermarket. The morning is usually dedicated to “catalogue and timeless artists” like Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie for the slightly older customer. As you roll towards the “school, post-afternoon audience”, the customers will be split evenly between a younger and older demographic. That’s when you’ll hear the likes of Ed Sheeran and George Ezra, because they “sonically fit well with the timeless playlist”.
In other words, inoffensive and easy listening music takes hold until the evening time, when vibrant and current pop from “your Taylor Swifts and your Katy Perrys” will be the soundtrack for shoppers picking out a bottle of sauvignon blanc and a frozen pizza for dinner. However, when it comes to buying in playlists from service providers, some clients opt for the lower cost packages and this is where the covers come into play.
Linda, who works at the deli counter in the same supermarket as Brian, is not a fan of the playlists in general. “I think it’s crap. We listen to it all day so it’s all repeats,” she says, pointing out that she’s lucky that the speakers are on the customers’ side of the counter and not her own. The repetition, particularly around Christmas time, is a pain for most people working in retail but, as Brian points out, some of the covers are just bad: “There’s a cover of Rhythm is a Dancer and it’s a slow version with some man singing it and it’s awful.”
In this supermarket, the covers are mostly niche-pop songs that are more cult than commercial success. A selection of covers from one afternoon spent there includes Britney Spears’s 2011 single I Wanna Go, which peaked at number 41 in the Irish charts, Will Young’s underrated 2011 synth-pop single Jealousy, Girls Aloud’s 2012 comeback single Something New and, quite jarringly, instead of the five, familiar voices of the boy band One Direction singing Story of My Life, a much older, male singer takes care of the vocals.
“I’d rather the original,” says Linda. “If you’re singing along with it, you notice it’s a cover when it doesn’t go the way it should.” Do you notice when new songs are added to the catalogue? “Oh, yeah,” she says. “Myself and one of the other girls at the butcher’s counter, we’d be roaring ‘they’ve changed it! It’s a new one!’ And when you start to sing along, you realise it’s a crap version.”
Hillyer explains that recording covers is a very small part of what they do in Mood Media but they do so to “refresh” songs they have already obtained the rights to. “The difference, I suppose, with original artist music is they don’t make ’80s music anymore. That is it. In that decade, they only made X number of ’80s hits,” explains Hillyer. “Whereas what we can do is, we can look at it and go ‘okay, we need a refresh on ’90s or ’00s’ or whatever it may be and we can then go in, re-record all those versions as required and then start playing those out.”
It’s quite often that you take a really contemporary pop hit and turn it into a jazz piece
Working with various composers, singers and producers, they record these songs in their own in-house studios. “A lot of clients, when we speak to them, they quite often say ‘actually, we don’t want to play the original because everybody knows it and it’s a little bit tired. Can you do something different with it?” he says. “In that case, it’s quite often that you take a really contemporary pop hit and turn it into a jazz piece or a singer-songwriter or acoustic piece.”
All businesses – from pubs to clubs, barbers to bookies, supermarkets to football stadiums – are required by law to pay a licence fee if they play music. In Ireland, this annual licence, the Dual Music Licence, is obtained from the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO), the official body that ensures music creators are paid fairly for use of their work. Whether their songs are performed live, broadcast on radio, TV, streamed online or played in a shoe shop, artists should earn royalties.
However, in an effort to reduce song clearance fees with record labels, some in-store music suppliers include cover versions of well-known songs as part of their packages but, even at that, the business buying those playlists still needs to pay the licence fee. “IMRO controls the musical work copyright of songs – ie the actual music of a song – and in this regard, IMRO represents the authors and publishers of songs,” explains Keith Johnson, IMRO’s director of marketing. “This means that no matter who covers a song, the author of a song – regardless of who it is performed or recorded by – is entitled to music royalties when that song is performed in public.”
He adds: “We have encountered a number of situations in recent times where some retailers who have installed non-copyright music, or are using so called ‘sound alike’ tracks, have quickly returned to using copyright music due to requests from staff members and customers who prefer to hear chart hits and contemporary songs.”
In the dentist’s waiting room, you expect to hear classical music to calm any pre-drilling jitters
Mood is everything when it comes to music, it always has been. But when you’ve to set the mood for people in a public space, the risks you take in private, like playing Nine Inch Nails on your headphones in the gym, don’t cut it. To maintain the right mood in public, you play it safe. So in the dentist’s waiting room, you expect to hear classical music to calm any pre-drilling jitters and in a trendy hairdressers, you’ll hear up-beat music that commands you to feel good about yourself, even if you’re not so sure about this new length. So how do you set the mood for people doing their weekly shop? Dodgy covers at a low cost aside, you try and make the music as unremarkable as possible.
“If you walk into an environment and it feels comfortable and it’s inviting, and you’re enjoying the experience, then absolutely we’ve done what we’ve intended to do. We’re very much a passive listening experience,” says Hillyer. “We’re all about making sure that your experience in site is as good as can it can possibly be around audio and music. So if you don’t really notice us, then we’ve done our job.”