Music to shop by

This spring we took our first stroll through the Combe Down tunnel, a one kilometre shortcut into the countryside near our home in Bath. A few minutes into the tunnel we started to hear sounds, soon identifiably music and eventually recognisably classical, most probably contemporary. Definitely Michael Nyman, we joked to each other. As we exited into the light it occurred to me that even inside the longest walking and cycling tunnel in Britain you cannot escape piped music.

Piped music. I like all kinds of music but I'm fascinated by softer sounds – easy listening, elevator music, muzak. These are genres long associated with subliminal messaging to make us more productive or to spend our money. But virtually all music can drive behaviour, whether it’s knowingly shuffled together or not. And I know when I want to hear music and when I don’t, which brings me to music played in retail stores. It’s the first thing I notice when I enter. It’s going to influence my impression, determine how long I’ll stay and it might even prevent me entering. Many years ago I remember walking into a London store with my brother-in-law, who happens to be a member of Radiohead, and being greeted by the sound of his band playing on the PA. I forget the song, but I remember Colin saying, 'It must be closing time'.

Room clearing music isn’t uncommon (enough) in retail. I used to frequent a certain wine store because I liked the owners and enjoyed their unstuffy and honest conviviality. This extended to playing hard rock radio in the shop, more New Wave of British Heavy Metal than the Seattle variety. While I've found metalheads invariably the most pleasant and well adjusted people, head-banging rock music provides an unarguably odd ambience in a wine store and incongruous with the majority of retail environments. The wine store is no longer trading.

When you’re passionate about music – and I am – it’s hard not to inflict your tastes and opinion on others – as I am right now – so owning your own store presents a few difficulties. But music is Marmite. I try to be democratic in what we play, consciously dialling-down on obscure and difficult sounds. In our first year we serenaded shoppers with KCRW Eclectic 24 and other internet radio stations. Internet radio offers a wide range of genres, the sound mix is even and it’s all calibrated to avoid playing anything offensive, but stations with algorithm-driven playlists can manufacture long zones of difficult and non-retail-friendly listening. One Saturday in our early days I walked up Broad Street and noticed people scattering out of Magalleria in the distance. Arriving to an empty shop I found Susan behind the counter absorbed in some task and oblivious to the screeching trumpet noise blasting out of the Sonos. The mellow, mood-lifting sounds we try to regulate had strayed into the farthest, wildest, whitest noise realms of free jazz. This is why we now make our own playlists, streamed via Spotify.

More about Spotify in a moment, but back to shop music, and way back. In the early 1980s I opened a fashion boutique on the top floor of a historic colonial building in Christchurch, New Zealand. We sold punk and post-punk inspired clothing we designed and manufactured ourselves. Both the boutique and our label bore the name ‘Candy Skin’, customised from the 1981 song by The Fire Engines (‘Candyskin’). We painted fluorescent pink and yellow stripes on the walls, floor and ceiling in an attempt to invoke a spiral effect. A vast yellow perspex arrow was suspended from the ceiling to point at whoever stood behind the counter. We became a popular hangout and I think we managed to be fairly edgy in that time and place.

But we were unable to play our own music in our own shop. A communal sound system was operated from the ground floor antique shop where the owner (and landlord) flipped cassettes into an old Akai. This worked ok, but when he was away his partner would play the same two cassettes all day – The Bride Stripped Bare by Brian Ferry and some mystery hit compilation by Joni Mitchell. I never asked why or understood how someone could play or listen to music in this way. Often I would go downstairs to change the music. When the intervening cassette played out she would stick one of the regular pair back in the deck. So today I cannot hear Bryan Ferry or Joni Mitchell without thinking about that place.

Even before we opened Magalleria I pondered what we would play. Friends would say, ‘Now you can play cool vinyl all day’. Ultimately there wouldn’t be space for records and a turntable, or even the time. There’s a view that we don’t need music in stores anyway, that refuge from the constant barrage of daily noise is healthier. I’m a bit deaf these days so I take the point, especially in a place where I might want to have a conversation with someone, like a restaurant, cafe or bar. These create their own clatter with cutlery, crockery and flying glass empties hitting the recycling bins, inevitably six feet or so from where I sit or stand. They really don’t require music played over the top. But a small shop can feel like a psychotic space. Without music it’s too quiet or uncomfortably intimate. It’s too easy to hear other people breathing and other bodily sounds; it seems every step, movement or action sounds awkwardly amplified. We like to think of Magalleria as a temple of print, but this doesn’t mean we want everyone whispering inside it.

We tried a few streaming services before Spotify but for integration and time saving we’ve stayed with this one. There’s a 2017 article by Liz Pelly in The Baffler magazine that tells you all you need to know about Spotify, and it’s not good. Spotify playlists, she argues, will kill music. Once you’ve been tipped to the power wielded by corporate or major brand playlists (such as Starbuck’s ‘Coffeehouse Pop’ mix) and how independent artists and labels have to ‘pitch’ playlists at Spotify just to get into the game, I think you’ll agree. Pelly also observes that, ‘playlists have spawned a new type of music listener, one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, mood and activities’. I confess that became that listener some time ago. Years of rummaging among the charity shops of London generated an almost unmanageable horde of records. Conversely the more I acquired the less I played, preferring to tape or later burn the best bits off albums I only heard once or twice. I moved from a curatorial mindset into an editorial one, whereby I arranged sounds to accommodate, yes, my ‘emotions, mood and activities’.

Hence today I find myself identifying tunes to stream on evil Spotify that won’t spook, annoy or offend our customers, people who are extremely diverse in terms of their age demographic and the things they’re interested in. Shop music plays all day long, so it needs enough variation to allow staff to withstand it for at least eight hours. Of course no customer lingers in the shop this length of time, or not that I’ve noticed. They generally only stay minutes so will only intersect with a few tunes.

Ideally we try to create gently oscillating sounds modulated around the time of day. I think life goes better with music, but in the retail environment it belongs in the background for people to pick up on only if they want to. With this in mind, instrumentals or near wordless tracks work most effectively. Most songs are fine but can distract so need to be diluted with instrumentals. Foreign language songs are obviously perfect and banged out a lot – you'll hear a lot of 60s French pop any day in Magalleria. Songs containing profanities, overtly sexual content and old misogynistic rock tropes are obviously best avoided. Overt ululation and excessive vocoder are personal killers for me. Retail playlists require a good sprinkling of artists that everybody might recognise or ‘popular hits’ which we load unselfishly, as well as the occasional angular tune to keep the staff awake. It’s okay to swing wildly between genres and, while I like an abrupt change in mood, it’s sensible to keep a similar vibe for long periods so you don’t jolt anyone.

We generally rely on the astounding diversity of electronic music to pull things together: drum & bass, downtempo, jazzy house and hip-hop, dub and ambient sounds all function well in the shop. Trance, bangers and hard, broken or nosebleed techno present obvious difficulties, while euphoric and uplifting house numbers really suit hairdressing salons or businesses that are trying to look busy. We employ a little chamber music but fully blown orchestral doesn’t blend well, being more suited for hushed environments like antiquarian bookshops or clinics of some sort (I always hear it at the dentist). Many businesses are infected by that noxious, soporific strain of easy listening called ‘chill’ that sprung up in the 90s that turns generally decent music into wallpaper because it’s lazily cued without noticeable variety. Today chill mixes strangle playlists everywhere and especially on Spotify, but not in our store.

Fortunately there’s still a significant range of music left once these elements have been removed or censored, but less than you’d think. Despite eschewing classical, brisk strings do provide a useful, uplifting breeze through mood-setting styles from exotica to library music through to soundtracks and even 1970s prog, if not overly pompous. Most of the dominant musical genres, styles and hybrids work at the melodious end of things; it’s odd how mellifluous even the Velvet Underground or the Ramones can sound to modern ears. I feel that everyone should be exposed to the benefits of sunshine or harmony pop at some point in their day, so we’re particularly liberal with this.

Oh, and volume. It’s not good to play loud music in a small shop. Nobody comes in to be deafened. Sometimes the dial inadvertently creeps up but we generally have the volume adjusted to a level where customer conversation is not audible to staff, who don’t need to hear someone giving quiet advice to ‘buy it online’.

As for the music we heard in the Combe Down tunnel, my apologies to Warp artist Mira Calix.

Daniel McCabe

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