Change the record – how to manage background music

12 June 2009
Change the record – how to manage background music

Few things can empty a room quicker than the wrong sort of music - but get your music policy right and it can add an edge to your brand and even boost business. Rosie Birkett reports.

We've all been there: the service is great, the food superb, but there's just one problem - the restaurant is playing the pan pipes version of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On at full volume. Well, perhaps we haven't all had that experience, but there's a chance that most of us have fallen victim to a misjudged music selection at some point - usually resulting in the desire to make a hasty exit.

My abhorrence for this sort of thing was cemented when I was a waitress for a hotel group that used to play a CD of 1970s and 1980s hits on repeat. Even now, if I hear The Boomtown Rats' I Don't Like Mondays it sends me into a cold sweat.

So when should an operator use music, and how? Used correctly, music can enhance the vibe and ambience of an operation, and even make people want to stay for longer.

"Music plays an important role in hotels and restaurants and if it's the wrong choice it can be really desperate," says music consultant Paul Dimmock, from Sunflower Music, which creates bespoke music packages for restaurants and hotels worldwide.

"I've met with Corinthia Hotels, which is opening a London property soon. It's going to have a spa and we're doing seven systems in that spa only - that's how much people are investing in it."

While there's no doubt that the right sort of music can make the customer experience more pleasant, is there any evidence to suggest it can drive sales?

"Definitely," says Dimmock. "The reason you do it in a bar or restaurant is to enhance the experience and increase sales. Putting music into a hotel reception area can't increase revenue in an obvious way, but if, for example, somebody is querying a bill and things are getting heated, it's good to have a calming influence in the background.

"It's more than a background filler, though - it's a major part of the business and it's all part of building a brand image. It's equally important to be non-offensive in a restaurant as it is to create the right atmosphere in a bar, which can increase sales."

Dimmock uses an example from his time as a professional DJ to illustrate how music can influence customers' actions.

"During my career as a DJ, there would be about 5,000 people on the dance floor at a club in Spain and about 500 in the bar. That looks fantastic, but in terms of business that's not what it's all about. If they were dancing they weren't buying drinks, so I'd play a particular song and lose 30% of the dance floor, which looked like I'd made a mistake, but I'd done it to make them buy a drink.

"I'd do the same thing every hour or so - so with a club that size you're talking about £1,000 every 30 minutes."


For Noel Hunwick, co-owner of Inamo, a tech-focused restaurant in London's Soho, which plays a combination of instrumental, vocal and electronica, music was a big consideration when opening last year.

Hunwick identifies a dual purpose for what he considers to be a successful music policy.

"A good selection of music is something that should be an almost imperceptible enhancement to the general customer experience, while at the same time being noticeable to a diner who appreciates music and wants to hear something new and interesting," he says.

Music is, of course, a subjective thing, so how can you ensure you're providing a good selection?

Dimmock advises working with the existing identity of your business. "We look at every aspect of the business and hand-pick tracks accordingly - so it's tailored towards the target customer and the brand image. It will depend on the style of a particular room, the time of day and the clientele," he explains.

Dimmock credits the increased emphasis on hotel music specifically to the renaissance of the hotel bar as a fashionable nightspot.

For boutique hotel chain Malmaison, music underpins its appeal, as chief executive Robert Cook explains.

"Music has always been a part of what we do, and while it's not the reason that people come to us, we think it can make them stay longer."

Indeed, Malmaison's emphasis on music has resulted in an extra revenue stream through the development of commercial albums.

"People liked our music so much we've done three albums," Cook says. "A couple have been for charity and the others have just been retail opportunities for the clients that like our music."

For Cook, music is a part of the brand's identity. "It's part of the Malmaison DNA," he says. "As a boutique hotel we've always tried to do things differently and our music policy reflects that - we were influenced by what Paul Oakenfold and Buddha Bar were doing when we were setting up."

Mint Leaf Indian restaurants group general manager Gerard McCann has a similar outlook.

"There's no doubt that music is important," he says. "I understand that for some formal or Michelin-starred restaurants it's not appropriate, but for us, although we are fine dining, we're more laid back and it's part of our offering and experience.

"When people come for a drink before they dine, they want to be entertained - then they'll go through to the restaurant where there's a calmer music policy, and it gives a nice atmosphere to the restaurant. If we didn't do it [there] would be a missing link," McCann says.


Of course, playing music isn't to everyone's taste, and although Heston Blumenthal integrates a soundscape into his "Sound of the Sea" course at the Fat Duck, music is never played during service at the restaurant.

Arbutus general manager David Durack says: "We believe that our customers create their own atmosphere."

And Alain Roux, head chef of the Waterside Inn, adds: "We'll play music for private functions if clients request it, but the restaurant doesn't need it. Music is a personal choice and the atmosphere, scenery and setting is good enough - with music it would be too much."

But for restaurant consultant Guy Holmes, of Captivate Restaurants, music is a must: "Music helps create an ambience," he says.

"For high-end places, opera and classical is a good option and it's important to fit the music to the brand. A lot of places avoid playing music because they're bewildered by what to choose, but it's really important - especially for places that sit people close together."

However, as McCann adds, it shouldn't just be a case of letting the staff play their favourite albums. "You don't want your staff doing it because they'll play what they want to hear," he says.

"Laptops are the way forward because the DJ can program it so there are different playlists to suit different times of day."

For many operators, investing in a state-of-the-art music system and music licences might seem extravagant given the current climate, but for Dimmock, there couldn't be a better time.

"Because of the recession more hoteliers are thinking about how they can keep people in house for longer and ensuring your music is spot on is a good place to start."


Hospitality operators need three licences to play music, to ensure they are within copyright law.

You are legally required to get a PPL licence and a PRS For Music licence that provide authorisation from the copyright owner on a blanket basis, so you don't need to obtain permission from thousands of copyright owners separately.

The third is a ProDub (professional dubbing) licence that the hospitality operator is also liable for. This covers the break in copyright law that DJs or performers make when they copy vinyl on to an iPod or CD, for example.

All operators should also ensure that any performers they book have a professional dubbing licence that allows them to copy music.


PPL PRS for Music
Sunflower Music

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