7/24/2018 0 Comments
So Ryuichi Sakamoto has made an unintentionally well publicised stand against inappropriate background music or BGM in one of his favourite restaurants and I can only applaud him. Actually he has gone a lot further than that, actually replacing the offending playlist with one of his and enlisted helper Ryu Takahashi's own devising - even taking over the job on an ongoing basis.
I would suggest reading the original New York Times article as it is a great story which raises lots of interesting points. Obviously if you have taken any interest in everyday BGM on your travels then you know how easily it can go wrong. In fact it goes wrong so often that wrong is almost the new right. Poor selections, Christmas music, inappropriate volume. The wrongness is so ubiquitous you rarely question it as you feel like it is you that must be wrong. Well you're not wrong - start questioning!
My first exposure of the BGM industry workings was a few years back and a newly relocated company in my old city was hiring playlist designers to program the music going out to some of the world's biggest brands. As I had worked in music for many years in various capacities the local recruiter invited me for an interview and I was given a trial along with a couple of part time DJs and a singer in a covers band. During this trial I had to program a certain amount of new songs for one of the worlds largest fast food outlets to a brief specification which for the sake of argument said "upbeat, commercial pop music for the 15-30 market with no swearing that hasn't been programmed on the clients playlist before".
Now I've always had esoteric music inclinations and had no idea what was happening in the pop world so I checked the Billboard Top 100 and a couple of the most unashamedly commercial, dopamine stimulating, pop playlists on Deezer I could find and loaded the client's playlist with all this music that I'd only ever heard for a few seconds when I was hurriedly auditioning it. In my defence, being a long time DJ, I did actually try and quickly sequence the music so it came across in a slightly more cohesive fashion. The song quota was just met within my 4 hour deadline, promptly given the once over and a nod by the European musical director and then sent to another office for final approval before delivery to almost 20,000 outlets. Job done. By a BGM novice in half a day!
So a quick glimpse into the major league BGM world there but they aren't solely responsible for the mess we're in. Certainly part of the problem lies with the larger brands being serviced and their fear of going out on a musical limb by daring to sound a bit different to their competitors. Consequently the percentages are played, pop music or banal indie/pop/rock/lounge/country/EDM/urban music supplied by the major labels decided upon, the safe option big name BGM companies are hired again, who incidentally also happen to be programming their rivals playlists. Not much differentiation there then. Who is who on the high street or hotel world if you close your eyes?
Now many BGM companies and even myself if truth be told will talk a good game. How an inspired musical selection carefully crafted to enhance the brand's image and emotionally engage with your customer base will increase your bottom line blah blah - the spiel goes on much longer but I'll spare you. The sad fact is that there is a lot of truth in it. Music can make people happy or sad, it can relax or energise people, it can cause people to cry and make people dance all night long. Music is a wonderful and powerful thing. It can certainly enhance and differentiate your brand - when used properly.
Except more often than not the delivery rarely lives up to the 3 two hour sales pitches, fawning brand interrogation and test playlists listened to by a marketing manager who thinks they are cool because they went to Watergate once and know who Joss Stone and Lemon Jelly are.
The BMG industry have some of the best sales teams in the game but they also have a lot of middle managers and a team of excel obsessed cost cutters. They want thousands of customers serviced by a small team of underpaid playlist designers who consequently they will never retain for any great length of time. It's never going to be a creative or musical happy ending. There is no space for love in organisations like that and let's face it equally in most of the companies that are playing those playlists - large global operations whose main goal is to post improved earnings at all costs every 3 months so. let's be honest, it's probably a good match. Soulless commercial pop music for shareholder driven conglomerates stuck in their tri-monthly Groundhog Day and their largely undiscerning, easily pleased customers. It's a win win. Except...
Where it is not a win win is with smaller cutting edge, creatively overachieving or quality obsessed brands and businesses, certainly the finer end of dining as the NY Times article highlights. These brands need the actual playlist designer to have intimate knowledge of their company, their values, their reason for being. Someone who has slept in the ocean side hotel's bed, eaten the 7 course tasting menu in the sky restaurant and is wearing that organic Egyptian cotton, unknown artist designed fair trade t-shirt and who consequently has a clear understanding of how to musically represent or even better enhance that brand. Someone who can genuinely connect with the customers of that brand perhaps because they are a customer or at least someone with a great deal of respect and intimate knowledge of that brand. A meeting of minds if you will with no degrees of management separation. Certainly not a playlist designer sitting in a far flung office cubicle that have never even visited an outlet and who are working from a two sentence "brand essence" summary, looking at the clock and the contractual agreement rather than thinking about music to make the brand sparkle.
What smaller brands and even some larger brands should actually be doing is hiring someone who cares as much about music as they care about their product. Someone like Ryuichi Sakamoto who was almost as invested in Kajitsu as the staff. Someone who wants to compliment a brands ethos with quality, carefully considered, lovingly curated music and yet who has enough sensitivity and marketing awareness to gently swaddle the brand with a genuinely heartfelt musical selection and maybe even delight, surprise or lavish the ears of a brand's customer as much as their eyes or taste buds are being spoilt by the brands offerings.
If that is what you want then I strongly suggest you look much further down the BGM food chain or even outside the industry if you are looking for that perfect brand soundtrack. Sure it might involve you having to think a bit about how to soundtrack your brand - maybe get the people that know your company the best - your employees, to pitch some objective ideas of people that they would think might do a good job, maybe a blogger or online magazine, maybe a musician, maybe a local promoter or your local independent record store? Most of these groups would welcome a regular steady income on the side of their main musical endeavours I am sure.
Music delivery is not an issue these days with Soundtrack Your Brand, basically Spotify for business, now widely available to use. Their website will also hold your hand through the legalities and science behind BGM and voila your brand has a genuinely unique, differentiating soundtrack.
Just don't hire your DJ friend unless you want to sound like a club.
Talking of music here's a playlist I compiled recently entitled View From a Bhutanese Hotel which even if you are not in Bhutan shouldn't give you indigestion whilst eating and will simultaneously stimulate your auditory receptacles :