A fair question to ask about any service or product is: Who’s asked for it? From whom, in other words, comes the demand that will give the supplier a viable business?
As Christmas approaches and ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ are once again heard on endless loops in shops, restaurants, and pubs, here are questions not asked often enough: Who in restaurants, shops, and pubs anywhere on this planet has ever — since 1954, when Muzak was first recognised as a registered trademark — asked for piped music? Who, on entering a department store or a café and hearing no background music, has pleaded for it to be supplied, backing up their request with the threat to leave without spending a cent if it isn’t?
It’s not unreasonable to suspect that has never, ever, happened. That very few customers ask for it to be turned off or played at a lower volume is not evidence of its popularity. According to opinion polls, a majority of consumers say they don’t want it. Some organisations have heard the message they have been sent not only by customers but also employees doomed to hour upon hour of trying not hear Cliff Richard singing ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. Gatwick Airport, Britain’s second busiest, has pulled the plug on piped music in its terminals. Marks & Spencer has turned it off, and a number of supermarket chains are testing what they call quiet hours. An off-licence owner in Yorkshire has not had the courage to call time on unwanted music, but says she will, for the sake of staff morale, ban Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ and Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’.
The JD Weatherspoon pub chain, which is expanding in Ireland, sees its business succeeding well enough without it. “Good conversation,” says founder Tim Martin, “and drink and food is the key to a popular pub, as is the chance to have a pint and read the newspaper in peace.”
Marketing analysts and psychologists argue about the claims for background music, chiefly that it helps to keep people in stores for longer and spending more in restaurants and bars. It doesn’t enchant the actress Joanna Lumley. “I have left shops,” she says, “unable to purchase the object of my desire, because of hellish piped music.” Nigella Lawson has complained about the thump of loud music in restaurants. Yet the industry, however, thrives; one of the largest piped music suppliers was sold in 2011 for a reported $345m (€312m) to Mood Media, which pumps the stuff to 560,000 locations across the world. It pledges to “elevate your customer experience… with professionally designed background music” in restaurants, hotels, department stores, and — yes — hospitals and dental surgeries where, in fairness, Brahms, Bach (the JS one), and Beethoven might help to calm the nerves of patients while not doing much for those whose tastes run to Cliff Richard or Slade. It’s time for customers who do not find their experience elevated by unwanted music to fight back. There are campaigns, struggling against the din, for freedom from piped music in England, Scotland, and the US. We should have one, too.