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Infernal racket

Okay, enough about Iraq. Something even more unpleasant – the sheer din experienced these days while shopping. I am not talking about the noise caused by the clack of shoes on a floor, or the natural bustle of a busy marketplace. This is all part of the deal and can often create a buzz which is almost pleasant. No – and I sense this is my old age creeping in – what gets on my nerves is the loud pop music din which seems to be a standard feature of shops these days.

Example. At lunchtime today your humble scribe went to a shop in central London to get a new mobile phone. Okay, the staff were no more surly, badly dressed or inarticulate than most, but that was not the problem. The problem was that it was if I had strayed into a particularly bad nightclub by mistake. I could hardly hear myself think as I went through the options of a mobile phone deal. Craziness.

My grouches besides, what motivates the owners of shops to blast out music like this? Is there some philosophy which has worked through the shopping world in the UK – I cannot vouch for other nations – which says that the more loud music we have, the more we will buy? I don’t honestly know about that, but for me, the sheer loudness of some of the music played these days often encourages me to leave a building as soon as possible. I guess I am not the only person to feel this way. Maybe some shrewd shopping entrepreneur could steal a march on his rivals by setting up calm, music-free shops.

If anyone reading this actually works in the retail business and can explain the current fashion for piping loud music in shops, your comments would be most welcome.

23 comments to Infernal racket

  • Pubs, too. And when they have live music they sometimes amplify it so much that you just want to drink up and go somewhere else where you can exchage two words without shouting.

    This isn’t me showing my age. I thought the same when I was eighteen.

  • zack mollusc

    Maybe it is to distract you so that you don’t realise you are being ripped off. Old people are stingier and more cynical so will not buy anyway.

  • I can vouch that it isn’t just in the UK. I walked out of an Ultimate Electronics store in Lewisville, TX a while back because of this problem. They had a home-theater display area that was blaring out some movie as well as a stereo display that was blaring out music. Not only was it loud, but it clashed. All that sound had an almost physical effect on me that left me irritated.

  • Matt W.

    Yes, especially in trendy places the noise levels are horrible, on top of that they usually play vapid current songs from talentless people such as N’Sync and 98 degrees. Ug, you know theres something to be said for mellow jazz, at least in pubic places…

  • Johan

    I worked in a grocery store (in Sweden though, so I can’t speak on behalf of UK grocery stores – but maybe the idea is the same…), and we had soft, calm music playing. Like classical, smooth jazz, easy listening…and the list goes on. The idea was that the music would calm everyone down, make the customers feel good and by doing so, they wouldn’t rush past allt the super duper mega low prices on items we had to offer. The volume wasn’t high at all, and to some extent it worked. I could watch customers stroll around with a smile on their face and look at items they were probably not going to buy in the first place, taking their time and just enjoying being there.

    It may sound too good to be true, but it worked…

    Now, when it comes to having music blasting loudly and with the latest popmusic………well………..

  • It’s obviously a sign of great age. Young people today are used to multitasking and can divide their attention between two or three types of media. They can ‘screen out’ the muzak and focus on their purchase.

    Perhaps shops should concentrate on their core markets and pipe music appropriate to their audiences.

    Next: Bruce Hornsby and the Range.
    House of Fraser: Val Doonican or Montovani.
    Tesco’s: Anything by The Jam

  • Hm. Multiple protracted occurrences of Hm.

    Noise in commercial spaces is a perennial complaint of mine, but it’s noise of a specific kind that really gets to me: semantic noise, the sort that bids for your attention by hinting at meaning or significance. Remember the animated, personalized ads in Spielberg’s movie Minority Report and you’ll have my vision of Hell.

    Muzak? It’s designed to soothe without distracting. Does it help to move goods? Possibly. But after a few years, you learn not to hear it, as at least one other commenter has already stated. Inasmuch as it does help to blanket the more random, unintegrated noises, I’ve often wondered whether it was a service to customers.

    Now Playing: Spock’s Beard, “The Great Nothing.”

  • Harry

    Cranky old farts.

  • Val Curry

    It’s true that the music in almost all the stores is unbearable but what my husband and I find even worse is that noise (aka music) in restaurants….. it’s almost impossible to find a restaurant without loud annoying music….. we have walked out of several because you can’t even hear yourself think nevermind enjoy your meal and some conversation… and believe me, nobody cared about losing our business either. Boggles the mind!

  • Julian Morrison

    I think the plan is to frazzle your forebrain with noise filtration tasks and weaken your rational volition. Thus you are made more vulneable to the gadget/ornamentaion/munchies craving monkey brain and its complete inability to comprehend “running out of money”.

  • There are two possibilities.

    1) The music is determined by company policy. In this case, loads of customer research and demographic targetting went into it, and what they had on is what the most important market segment for that business wants to hear.

    2) The music is played by employees. In which case, it’s whatever they feel like working to, although usually they only let them play the mellower stuff. I used to play Alice in Chains Unplugged or Moby, which alternated with country or whatever my coworkers put on.

  • Me

    It’s loud, and it’s shit, and it costs them my business (restaurants and retail).

    Try going to a kiddie movie in a theater: Hell Incarnate.

  • A tale of two stores: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

    At my bank — a branch of one of the “big, souless corporate megabanks” — they play music at reasonable volume. The music is chosen by the employees: each day, a different employee gets to pick. The results have been remarkable. Sometimes I will go in and hear Hawaiian music; other times, modern pop; sometimes classical; other times Icelandic new wave; occasionally the Beatles; one time, 40s big-band swing. The selection is really quite eclectic. I haven’t always liked everything I heard, but I have to give the bank points for giving the employees an outlet to be more than automatons, and the customers an exposure to a broader selection of music than they are likely to find at any other business, much less a bastion of “the establishment.”

    At my (chain) drug store, and at one of the (chain) supermarkets we frequent, they play satellite radio feeds that are “personalized” for the stores (chains) in question. These are like regular pop radio stations, excluding news and including in-house ADS! So, while you are shopping, you may hear a tune you like, but right in the middle, it is interrupted by an ad for some product that the store wants to push. THAT kind of thing is objectionable in the extreme, and I am hearing more and more of it at different places of business as time goes on.

  • Liberty Belle

    What has surprised me about this thread is the placid acceptance by some posters of bullying obtrusions into their consciousness for the purpose of commercial exploitation. Some people have discussed the choices of “music”, as though that were the point. The point, in my view, is that audio violence is aggressive and a means of establishing control over the customer.

    In the judgement of most commercial establishments, consumers are empty-headed morons who have to have their brains filled up with what the establishment thinks will motivate them to buy. Given some of the comments above, they are correct.

    I do not patronise establishments that force unwelcome noise on me. In a bar, a pianist noodling the keys is relaxing. Loud rock causes me to turn on my heel and escape. I go out for a drink or a meal to talk to my companions, not to have my brain cells blasted with the primitive tastes of a 19 year old bartender. If I had a taste for loud rock, I could listen to it at home. I find having other people’s taste imposed on me by force intolerable. One can close one’s eyes to a sight one would rather not see, but the only way to avoid audio aggression is to stay well clear of establishments that practise it. I’ve been walking out of these places since I was in my early twenties.

  • John Anderson

    Think it’s hard on you as a customer? I worked in a large store for a while, one of their sportswear departments, and suffered through nine plays per day, for thirty-one days, of the same selection of basketball highlights.

    But that was better than teen-girl’s in the next room: a shorter tape, so they got to hear Britney do three songs 12 times a day for over a month…

    And of course, we can’t walk out if we want to eat that month.

  • Tony H

    Re Liberty Belle’s comment above, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in principle with retailers playing background music, presumably for the same reasons as some dairy farmers play classical music to cows. It’s just that the crass, philistine bean-counters who decide on most in-store music and the way it’s played lack both taste and judgement. They instinctively go for the lowest common denominator, and buy junk cover version “music” played by Z-grade session musicians, because it’s the cheapest deal they can find.
    People with sense, such as the proprietor of my favourite bookshop, assess their clientele intelligently: he plays old swing music, bebop, MJQ, Getz etc, with a clever smattering of newer & more interesting pop/rock. It might not make people actually buy more stuff immediately, but it makes being there a better experience for us and good business for him.
    Oh, and young Harry (above) should have his bottom spanked – or possibly have his personal stereo stuffed up it.

  • Dave Farrell

    It’s getting louder and crappier, is my observation here in Cape Town. And there’s nowhere to hide. The one-day cricket season at Newlands has lost me as a spectator due to endless deafening blasts of short bits of Chris Rea, Queen, and other stadium-related anthems, every time a four is hit or a wicket falls or the bowler takes any time getting back to the end of his run-up. The players, each of whom marches out to the middle to his own selected “theme”, reveal they are musical cretins.
    The last straw was when a company put on EVERY SEAT one of those cardboard flapping devices that make a painful cracking noise, mere applause being insufficiently noisy.

    I have found one weapon against noisy music in shops: asked what I desire, I mouth the words silently, which immediately results in the salesperson getting the point and turning it down.

  • Liberty Belle

    Re Tony H’s comment, I agree. Well chosen subtle background shopping music can encourage a mood which promotes an interest in making a purchase. What is happening in many bars, restaurants, stores now is: You will endure the bullying persuasion we have chosen to enforce or we don’t want you in our store [bar] because you are too difficult. Our marketing experts have determined that your type isn’t easily manipulated and therefore we don’t want you in our space. We, the commercial establishments, rule.


    The other thing is, for live musicians, why does a bar of perhaps 60′ x 60′ need microphones and amplifiers, other than to feed the fantasies of the performers? All that ‘tuning up’, as though they had a public awaiting them in a vast arena. They have a lung problem that they can’t project their voices in a tiny space? They are soooo yesterday.

  • Peter

    One advantage to this situation, in my view, is that I can determine immediately whether I might want to shop in the store or not. If I don’t like the music then odds are I won’t like the stuff they sell either (probably because I’m not part of the correct demographic). If I don’t like the music, I turn and walk.

  • bear, the (one each)

    The Ralphs supermarket chain here in California WAS a good place to shop. Then Kroger’s came in and bought them up and things have gotten horrible.

    The background music (hereinafter called “BM”) is LOUD in most of the stores. Much of it is either those hard-edged strident performances of female “vocalists”, or it is Mariah-Carey-style “wooaaoohhoaaaaaaoaAAOOhhh!!!” wailing.

    Management claims they have no control over the volume.

    The “best” part is up from at the checkout lanes. To add to the din, they have installed flat-screen television sets that play endless loops of advertisements, travel promotionals, recipes. And yes, the sound IS turned up so it clashes with the BM and the TV set in the next lane.

    It is interesting to note that it is in the neighborhoods where those who get their hands dirty for a living that are made subject to this. In the stores where the parking lot is full of Infinitis, Expeditions, Range Rovers, Hummers, Mercs, and other displays of wealth, this sort of thing is not done. The volume is down, the music is actually good, and no TVs.

    I no longer shop at Ralphs.

  • You think retail shops in the US and the UK are bad? I’ve lived in both, and nothing can compare to the pervasive auditory assault of a Tokyo shopping district. Shops there blare their music and their irasshaimase out into the streets. I lived there for a year, and got used to it, but I always looked forward to stepping into a quiet haven, like certain restaurants or side streets.

  • You think retail shops in the US and the UK are bad? I’ve lived in both, and nothing can compare to the pervasive auditory assault of a Tokyo shopping district. Shops there blare their music and their irasshaimase out into the streets. I lived there for a year, and got used to it, but I always looked forward to stepping into a quiet haven, like certain restaurants or side streets.

  • Whoops! I didn’t think I hit the Post botton twice; sorry about that…