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Is Your Overhead Music Underwhelming Your Customers?

Customer Experience

Longfellow wrote that “music is the universal language of mankind,” but most retailers and restaurateurs use it for a more practical reason: to increase profits. It’s a good strategy, because studies show that retail customers are more inclined to linger in a store if they’re enjoying the music.  Diners also spend more in bars and restaurants when music creates the proper ambiance.

Unfortunately, many business people don’t give proper thought to either the business or legal implications of overhead music.  It’s not as simple as sliding a couple of your favorite CDs into the player.

A Business Should Sound As Good As It LooksIs Your Overhead Music Underwhelming Your Customers? image OverheadMusicNoise

There’s an entire industry devoted retail/restaurant design and layout.  Every color choice is scrutinized, and the placement of every table is minutely studied.  So it’s surprising to find that many of these same business owners who care so much about how the business looks seem to pay little attention to it sounds.

And yet the sound of a business can define it.  Zagat reported that restaurant noise is the second most common complaint of diners (24%).  Teen-oriented retailer Abercrombie & Fitch uses sight, sound, and even smell to attract younger customers, and (some say) to deter those in older demographics.

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While people often complain about loud music, the owners of may establishment defend the din as creating an atmosphere of excitement and energy.  Studies show that it may also encourage them to spend more, according to Psychology Today. “Shoppers make more impulsive purchases when they’re overstimulated. Loud volume leads to sensory overload, which weakens self-control.”  Another survey found that people drink more alcohol when the background music is loud.

What all this tells us – if we have any hearing left! – is that music really does affect mood and behavior.  In fact, the background music industry was born after research showed that shoppers lingered and made more purchases when listening to music with slower tempos.

One Sound Does Not Fit All

In the beginning…. There was “elevator music.”  That was the derisive term many people used for the bland background sound that, according to music historian Joseph Lanza, “was intended to be comforting, unobtrusive, and inoffensive.”  The original purpose was to cover any ambient noises that might annoy customers: clanging cash registers, rattling air conditioning units, or anything that distracted people from the task at hand.

But the music that keeps shoppers happy at the grocery store doesn’t necessarily work for patrons at a smooth jazz supper club. And it would likely be coma-inducing to the crowd at an after-work singles bar.

That’s why attention to audience preferences is critical because the mood your overhead music creates may not be the mood your customers want to have.  Restaurant review sites contain numerous complaints from diners who compliment the food, but vow not to return due to the cacophony.  The reservations service, OpenTable, recently began allowing reviewers to rate the sound level in restaurants, and many establishments are taking note of complaints.

Bars and restaurants can increase profits if they mute the music long enough to listen to customers.  A 2003 study by Stephanie Wilson calculated how music affected the eating and drinking habits of patrons at a particular restaurant.  It found that upbeat music kept diners in the restaurant longer and made them spend more money.  “This also defends the study that if a consumer is comfortable in his/her setting (in which music clearly is a big factor), they stay longer and spend more money on dessert or alcoholic beverages.”

This realization has led other retailers & restaurants to reconsider their overhead music choices and many have sought the advice of consultants.  For instance, at OnHoldCompany, we’ve worked with numerous clients to develop business-appropriate overhead music that caters to the target demographic – and is properly licensed for performance.

The “Perfect” Music Should Also Be Legal

It surprises many business owners to learn that the CDs they bought legally are only licensed for personal use and shouldn’t be played in a commercial setting.  It can be a costly discovery.  In 2011, a Raleigh, NC restaurant closed after it was sued by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) for playing four copyrighted songs.  It was ordered to pay $30,450 in damages for the infraction, which sounds like a lot, but could have been worse.  In a recent suit against a dozen bars and restaurants, BMI alleges that the owners have failed to pay appropriate licensing fees and asserts that it “could” recover as much as $150,000 in damages per song.

Even songs like the standard “Happy Birthday” chorus that erupts frequently in casual dining restaurants isn’t safe from licensing fees – at least not at this time.  As CNN reported, the company that purports to hold the copyright to the song is being challenged in court.  “Good Morning To You Productions, which is a making a documentary film about the song, filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to have the song returned to the public domain.” Until that case is decided though, Warner/Chappell Music claims the right to charge $1500 or more for public use of the song.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to please your customers and keep your music legal. There are many fully licensed overhead music packages that you can customize to your customer base. The advantage of those services is that they offer expert advice on music selections along with the proper licenses.

Appropriate overhead music can help grow your business and build customer loyalty, but it must be suitable for your target audience and music you’re legally entitled to play.  “Musical Mayhem” would be a great name for a rock band, but it should never be your marketing strategy.

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