London-based Music Concierge founder Rob Wood considers how the soundscape of a restaurant or bar can hold the key to commercial survival.
A couple of years ago, I was in Manhattan meeting a client face to face for the first time. He’d brought in some great business to the company and I wanted to take him out somewhere special as a thank you. I’d heard about a new opening on the Lower East Side – a Turkish dining concept that was generating a bit of buzz – it seemed the ideal choice. We stepped inside and took it all in, mentally ticking off the boxes on the ‘will we have a good evening here?’ checklist. The interiors were well judged: Turkish decorative references with a sophisticated contemporary twist; the menu looked original and exciting; the maitre d’ welcomed us with polished professional warmth. And then we heard the music ...
The restaurant’s speakers were battering the diners with a tidal wave of tacky house music, the kind of thing you’d expect to hear blaring out of a 4x4 convertible driving through South Beach by some topless perma-tan. It had clearly been chosen in the hope of giving the place a touch of youthful kudos, something to get the cool kids in, but you only had to look around at the grimacing clientele to see that the cool kids weren’t biting. No one, not even the edgiest, trendiest millennial, wants their supposedly upscale dining experience hijacked by incessant and over loud invitations to ‘get their wiggle on’.
The music choice was inappropriate for the brand, incompatible with the needs of the customer and damaging to the atmosphere of the venue. The fact that every other aspect of the restaurant clicked together so well only made this oversight more obvious. Barely able to hear each other, we ate fast, got the hell out of there and made a beeline for the Dead Rabbit, the hotlist-topping Irish bar with a spot-on understanding of how music makes an atmosphere work.
When you’re setting up a bar or restaurant, if you’re to have any hope of success, music cannot be an afterthought. One question that people often ask me is:
Do restaurants really need music?
Their view is that music can get in the way of conversation, that all any restaurant really needs is the buzz of people chatting, the clink of glasses, the sound of laughter. That’s true, of course, but you have to lead them to that moment somehow. At the beginning of service, when people are still trickling in and the ambience is muted, or at the end, when the laughter is subsiding and the tempo slows, how else can you keep the atmosphere alive beyond the fringes of those golden hours but through music?
In a bar or restaurant setting, music can play any combination of three roles. First, it sets the pace, its rhythms and energy affecting how diners behave. A soundtrack of easy-going relaxed music tells people to take their time, order another coffee in a café or enjoy another course when fine dining. This was the approach that legendary London restaurant The Ivy took when it decided to break the silence and introduce music for the first time. A no-reservations, queues-round-the-block, street-food joint, however, would more likely keep turnover steady with something more urgent and upbeat.
Second, music tells the story. It is the aural expression of the venue’s brand identity, interwoven with the food, the theme, the decor and the style of service. It works with all of these elements to underline the venue’s points of difference, helping it stand out from the competition. London's Indian restaurant, Dishoom, is a great example of how an expertly judged music selection can encapsulate the essence of the brand. Here, the restaurant’s thematic union of 1930s Bombay café culture and contemporary quirk is underlined by its playfully retro cross-cultural soundtrack.
Another good example is Mr Fogg’s, a ‘secret’ Mayfair cocktail bar underpinned by eccentric Victoriana. Here, the playlist takes inspiration from Phileas Fogg’s fictional travels around the colonies, resulting in an offbeat signature sound that ties the atmosphere together and gives momentum to the taxidermy-filled room. Both these venues successfully use music to draw out elements of their brand story.
Music as a restaurant's storytelling component
In each, music isn’t just a practical means of keeping the atmosphere buzzing, it plays a key role in giving the whole sensory experience a sense of theatre and story.
A venue’s music makes a statement about the kind of place it is and the kind of customer it is intended for. If you run a hipster craft-beer bar in the city’s creative quarter, a downtown rockabilly dive bar or any venue with a distinct target audience (which means, more or less, any venue), the music you play has to reach out to them, it has to come from a place of passion to underline your credentials and demonstrate your authenticity. Those places that get it right, such as upmarket but down-to-earth bar-restaurant Merchant’s Tavern in London's Shoreditch, which won the affection of its creative East London neighbourhood thanks in no small part to its record collection, can quickly build up a loyal in-the-know clientele that buys into the brand because it believes its message. Those that don’t, as with my NYC Turkish experience, rarely get return visits.
What are the pitfalls to avoid?
But even when an F&B outlet gets its playlists on point, there are pitfalls to avoid. Acoustics is an often neglected area. Any sound selection has to fit the acoustic profile of the space – something that should be considered as early as possible when embarking on new builds or refurbs – preferably through a professional acoustic assessment. One of the other mistakes we see frequently at Music Concierge is brands that devote time, effort and resources into developing a compelling and coherent music identity, and then sabotage the whole process by attempting to deliver it through sub-standard audio systems. You might have the most brilliant soundtrack ever crafted, but if you’re pumping it through shoddy ceiling speakers, the on-going ambience of your restaurant or bar won’t be as good as it could be. It might be tempting to economize on sound-system procurement, to dream big and then value-manage down to keep stakeholders happy, but the customer experience – and ultimately, the bottom line – will suffer for it.
It’s worth noting that in London, and also in Tokyo and NYC, we are starting to detect an emerging micro-trend where music savvy F&B innovators such as Brilliant Corners, Merchants Tavern and Spiritland are investing in audiophile-level sound systems as a core element of their offering – Londoners are loving that as you might imagine! The quality of music curation today is also more critical than ever. The restaurant and bar market is more competitive than it ever has been before. Today’s customers are looking for individuality, personality and authenticity, and across the world, more establishments are springing up that recognize that, and many of them are using music as their weapon of choice.
What about hotels?
Hotels around the world are also waking up to the shift. Increasingly, destination restaurants and signature bars are emerging from the shadow of the hotel that houses them and opening up to the wider locale, introducing separate entrances, independent websites and distinctive branding. More and more often, a hotel will parachute in a third party to occupy its restaurant to broaden its appeal beyond its own guests. What were once closed spaces with no real market impact are becoming the direct competitors of standalone bars and restaurants. It’s getting tougher out there.
In this landscape, venues have to stand out to survive, and that means paying attention to every customer touch point down to the smallest detail. Design, lighting, temperature, service culture, and of course food and drink itself all contribute to shaping the atmosphere, but music – chosen with care and delivered with quality – is what ties them all together helping keep the customer in their chair. Choose music badly or deliver it poorly, and you’ll send them out the door. Get it right, and the results will be music to your ears… and your bottom line.
10 Steps to make your restaurant or hotel stand out with sound
1) Match the music to the brand: Tailor your playlists to tell the story of the venue or concept.
2) Match the music to the experience: Develop a soundtrack that works with the style of dining/drinking on offer.
3) Inspire the audience: Select tracks that will delight and surprise your target clientele.
4) Curate the music around the time of day: Use tempo and rhythm to underpin the service patterns throughout the day.
5) Use music creatively! Music is a wonderful art form. Avoid the obvious, the generic, the clichéd.
6) Get an acoustics assessment: Avoid dead patches, loud patches or sound bouncing off hard surfaces.
7) Invest in a premium sound system: Don’t cut corners on delivery, bad tech and poorly thought through speaker coverage means bad audio.
8) Don’t let the interior designer dictate where speakers go: Non experts risk messing up the resulting audio experience.
9) Put a music-management process in place: Don’t leave it to chance, make sure your staff are monitoring and controlling the volume and playlist correctly.
10) Refresh your playlists regularly: Keep loyal customers engaged and staff motivated by ensuring playlists are updated and on-brief.