Sunday, June 28, 2009

Music in pubs

Why is there music everywhere? Over the last few years it's become almost ubiquitous. Almost every shop, almost every café, almost every pub. Music used to be one of the great pleasures of life, but it's turning into a curse.

As a human being, I like music. In fact I've a startlingly good memory for the lyrics of songs that I like. But if there's music loud enough to hear well it takes over my whole mind. I literally can't read, or think, or even hold a conversation if the music is loud enough to get my attention. Even if it's music I like. If I like it I just give up and concentrate on it instead. If I don't give up and try to think about something anyway then I get my train of thought repeatedly broken and it's torture.

As a result I've taken to carrying earplugs most of the time. I can see that working behind a bar is the sort of job where it would be good to have something to listen to, so I can see why the staff put it on, but why do the pubs and cafés and shops have the (presumably expensive) equipment fitted in the first place? And then pay the Performing Rights Society subscription?

What's most infuriating is when I walk into a quiet, empty café or boozer, sit down and start to read my paper or do the crossword, and then someone turns the music on. As if it wasn't something they would listen to themselves, but felt they had to do if there were customers present.

However I've also noticed that a completely empty pub or cafe can feel lonely if it's echo-prone. Quiet background music then can actually help if you're with friends and have gone there to talk, because it makes you feel more comfortable and less likely to be overheard.

Likewise an evening in the pub is always improved by quiet jazz in the background. It's a prerequisite that it's too quiet to be noticed, but you can see that it lifts everyone's mood, and makes people talk louder. Once it gets loud enough to hear, it kills the conversation and people start to look bored.

I have heard a conspiracy theory that certain pubs turn the music up loud exactly so that conversation becomes difficult. People who aren't talking drink more, partly because they're bored and lonely. But I think that's only going to be the case if it's very loud. And most places have it on at a perfectly reasonable volume.

So is it me?

One day, when I lived in London, I was standing on a Tube platform, reading an advert on the other side. The text was so small that I was having trouble. There was no way to stand closer. I thought to myself that it was strange that someone would spend (quite a lot) of money on an advert in the underground, and then cram so much on it that you couldn't read it.

Of course, as soon as you put it like that, the answer is obvious. No one would do such a thing. To most people, the text would have to be legible. There had to be something wrong with me instead. Now that I came to think of it, in my college years I'd always sat near the front in lectures. Partly because it's easier to hear and ask questions, but also so that I could read the blackboard. I always used to wonder why people would bother to turn up and sit at the back where they couldn't see.

Sure enough, in an opticians that afternoon, it turned out that I was slightly short sighted. In a way that makes more difference in low light. He gave me contact lenses, which disappointingly made no real difference inside. But he told me to go out into the Tottenham Court Road. It was night time, and I was bowled over by the view of London lights at night which I'd never seen clearly before. But the real shock was when I looked up at the Post Office Tower, a very tall building several hundred metres away. In what had previously been a lit circle in the sky, I saw a man walk across a room and turn a light off. I hadn't had the slightest idea that human distance vision was that good. Although apparently I'd had perfect vision at the age of ten, I'd lost it so slowly that I'd never noticed.

And so I wonder. Is it me that's weird with this music thing?

It really drives me up the wall. And yet people must think about this. Publicans must read articles in trade magazines that tell them what to play and how loud, in order to increase custom. But there are many pubs in Cambridge that I avoid just because they'll occasionally turn it up too loud. And for my lunchtime reading and crossword-doing forays, I'll seek out the ones I know are usually silent, and take earplugs just in case.

Even worse are bookshops. Cambridge has three large bookshops, of which the second most virtuous, and the one with the best café, is Waterstones. I don't go there much anymore, because they have a store-wide speaker system, and a habit of turning it up until I can't read. Once upon a time, even before they put their excellent café in, it was my favourite, but the music has completely spoiled it for me.

The other day I was in there, and I spotted a hardback book of Richard Dawkins' selection of the best science writing. A book could not be more precisely calculated to appeal to me unless it was a novel about Jesuits in space. I took it down and started to read. I was entranced. I could feel the money leaving my pocket as I read. And then about half way through the first article, which was very good, they turned on the speakers. About ten minutes later I realised that I'd just made five attempts to read the paragraph I'd been on, and it had made no sense. And I was inexplicably furiously angry. So I put (pretty much threw, actually) this precious book back on the shelves and stormed out. Once I'd stopped trying to read, I recognised the song, which was 'Rose for my Rose', a Motown classic that's one of my favourites.

So thanks Waterstone's. You've saved me £20, since on quiet reflection I can wait for the paperback. And lost yourself £30, since I'll buy that paperback from Heffer's, which is my current favourite bookshop, and which never has music on.

But what is going on here? Waterstone's want people to browse, surely? The market for people who buy books on the basis of what their covers look like can't be too big? And the places are set up to encourage it. There are sofas. There are tables. There are cafés. There are systems for collecting all the books left in the cafés at the end of the day and reshelving them.

There has to be research on this. Supermarkets and the like know that if they play French music then they sell more French wine, and German music sells more German wine. The pub and bookshop trades are large and dominated by big chains, to whom these issues are well worth the salaries of a few academics.

And in fact music in supermarkets annoys me too. Over a certain level I find it impossible to concentrate well enough to remember what I set out to buy. Or to remember that if I want Yorkshire puddings I'll need flour and eggs and salt.

There's a certain branch of the Co-op in Cambridge, which has pleasant staff and good food, super-ethical animal welfare policies, is good value for money and is within easy walking distance of my house. Sadly they not only play bad music over a tinny speaker system, but they constantly interrupt it with irritating adverts for themselves, with jingles specially composed to make you want to kill everyone involved with the damned institution. Several times I've found myself wandering desperately around in there, looking for the thing I wanted to buy in the hope that seeing it will make me remember what it was. I will use it if I want one or two things, but for any decent size shopping trip, I've taken to cycling about a mile to get to Tesco's (which is quiet), and then cycling back with four or five bags dangerously hung off my handlebars. For really large shopping trips I have been known to drive, and anyone who's ever tried to park in central Cambridge is probably thinking that I'm insane at this point.

And yet, on the other hand, not all places do this. One of the largest and most cynically profit-focused English pub chains, Wetherspoons, makes a virtue of its no-music policy. It certainly works for me. I wouldn't be seen dead in one if they didn't do this.

I assume they've seen the same research as all the small private landlords. What is going on?


  1. I agree. Loud music is rife and ruins my nightlife

  2. On your 'is it just me' thing, here is a sole datapoint:

    Despite 10 years of piano, I'm an entirely visual person, and I'm generally oblivious to anything auditory - I go for weeks without listening to music without thinking about it, and when there's music playing I barely notice. Similarly, people can talk right at me and if I'm looking at something else, I won't hear them at all. I couldn't tell you a single line of any lyrics of any song I've listened to recently, and I tend to tune out and get pretty bored at concerts, even for bands I love.

    On the flipside, my more musically inclined friends are pretty much the inverse - they get distracted by all conversations around them, visual art is far less interesting to them, and they pick up and start humming along to any faint music, no matter how soft. They also spontaneously start tapping and singing along, which is weird to me.

    I imagine you're in the latter group, and most people are somewhere between us. I also wonder how much being short-sighted for a long time has to do with it (fewer visual distractions leading to a focus on sounds).

  3. There's no end of "lifestyle factors" that become a source of distress when you start comparing your preferences and experience against the average. Food is probably the biggest(and the one we are most likely to willingly suffer, even though diet informs almost everything else we think and feel and plays a huge role in degenerative illness). Vision and hearing would come second and third. And then there are things like socializing, use of time, miscellaneous hygene habits...

    It's irritating when you think that the average is wrong or inferior, but in a lot of cases it's nearly impossible to fight.

  4. In fact it is not you. Most of the people know "accept" it but they complain. Furthermore, it is a proven fact that the time that each customer spends in any given retail store depends on many factors being one of those the sound environment that they are subject to.

    I am not going to make some self advertisement attempt but our company has been working closely with several clients in order to make their sound environment one that relates with their brand, with their clients and most important: that their sound environment is something that actually makes the clients stay at the public space a bit more.

    Our conclusions of 3 years of research and development on this area brought us to one some conclusions that I am happy to share:
    1. Never let your employees hook up a iPOD with the latest stuff they downloaded.
    2. Turn off the music when there are too many people in the store (sales season is one of these times)
    3. Create sound environments that have nothing to do with music per se but but that create a positive feeling.

    Just my 2 cents and kudos for the great post!

  5. I am doing same thing. I avoid places with loud music, or any music when I need to think.

  6. QuarterBit, feel free to post a link!

    I wasn't *just* whining, I'm actually interested in why the default seems so suboptimal when money is at stake and clever people must be thinking about these things.

  7. I have seen people apparently happy sitting under a speaker hammering at them with drums and shouted juvenile lyrics. They must be deaf. Generally even if the music is good it is too loud. No wonder the pubs are going broke. Please bring back the piano sitting in the corner, sometimes somebody who could actually play would sit down at it.

  8. My theory is that most people like background music on because it dispels negative thoughts which otherwise trundle round and around, at just below the level of awareness.