Unwanted music has become an insidiously pervasive nuisance whenever one
ventures outside the home. It is ubiquitous and yet another overbearing
marketing scheme. In the United States, where residents are marketed from cradle
to the grave, annoying tunes bombard shoppers everywhere they go. The
problem is consumers are constantly assailed by music they don’t like or don’t
want. With over $244 billion being spent on advertising and in-store music in
2004, companies rely heavily on music as a marketing tool to be the feel-good
prop customers need to keep shopping. Imagine the average weekend. You get up on a Saturday morning and set off to
take care of some chores. You notice you are low on fuel, so you stop at the
gas station. While you pump, speakers attached to the metal overhang above the
pumps spout Nashville-factory country music. Every so often the wailings at the
pump are interrupted by commercials that invite you to walk inside in and shop.
You think, “Sure, I’ll go in and load up on a box of stale donuts, a couple
of bags of chips, an air freshener for the car and a giant Slurpee.” According
to the Country Music Association,
41,893,000 adults listened to Country Radio stations nationwide every week (2002
data). What’s interesting is that they are probably including the numbers of
individuals who dislike the genre, but are force fed country music at different
As you get back in your vehicle, you realize you need a haircut so you go to a
unisex hair salon. The management, or the employees, have the radio blaring. It
is permanently tuned to that omnipresent soft rock format that one finds in
these businesses. Why they call it rock is a mystery. “There is no backbone!
Where’s the bluesy guitar?” Your mind tries to tune out the songs that are
repeated ad nauseam. Artists like Elton John,
Phil Collins, Shania Twain, The Bee Gees, or Mariah Carey. You smile and engage
in polite chitchat, but what you are really thinking is “Make it stop!” Because you know if you hear “In The Air Tonight” one more time, you’ll throw
up. It’s a shame because at one time Elton John made some good recordings I
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a great album. Phil Collins was one of the
key members of Genesis,
one of the best progressive rock bands from the early 1970s, but that can hardly
matter when your ears are bleeding from hearing “Take A Look At Me Now” and “Sussudio” again and again.
Now that your hair looks nice, you enter the shopping mall to buy some
batteries. Once you cross the threshold, the instrumental earworms of smooth
jazz weave their way into your head. Again, you try to block it out. The format
is so limited and pathetic one would think that it would die out of sheer
boredom. But, no, some people actually like it and, thus, you are condemned to
smooth jazz hell if you shop at the mall. Unfortunately, smooth jazz sneaks into
other places like doctor’s offices, hospitals, elevators (remember
elevator music?), and
many other spaces.
What’s intriguing or perhaps frustrating is that smooth jazz is practically
dominated by a single company,
Broadcast Architecture, another great gatekeeper. They have developed an
incredibly restrictive format, which is the reason why all smooth jazz sounds
the same. The company has partnerships that span 19 countries, 5 continents, and
some of the world’s biggest broadcasters: ABC Radio, Australian Radio Networks,
Bonneville International Corporation, Chrysalis Radio, Clear Channel
Communications, Entercom Communications, FM Japan, Globo Radio / Brasil,
Infinity Broadcasting, Lagardere Active Radio International, New Zealand Radio
Networks, RTL Radio Group, Radio One, SBS, Saga Communications, Sandusky Radio,
Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, and Univision.
The shopping mall has become a cacophony of unwanted music. You can encounter
all types of aggravating tunes. Doowop and 1950s oldies will wrap around you in
the dollar store, while the record dealers will overwhelm your senses with
whatever the major label hit factories are pushing.
Before Kenny G triggers diabetes, you run to your car and turn on the CD player.
You crank up the electronic beats and uilliann pipes of
Celt Sound System and in a fit of revenge, you roll down your window so that
the mall rats will get a taste of something different.
As you drive home, you remember that your spouse asked you to get some milk at
the grocery store. You walk in and, yet again, the soft rock tunes are haunting
the premises. You promise yourself to spare the torture by bringing the Walkman
or iPod next time.
There are times when unexpected music in public places is actually pleasant.
There is a beautiful complex of volcanic caves and pools in the island of
Lanzarote (Canary Islands). As
you walk along a dimly lit natural volcanic pond, local artists have programmed
soothing ambient electronic music. The volume is low and the effect is
hauntingly beautiful. But that is not common. Other examples are ethnic
restaurants. Doesn’t it make sense to play Moroccan music at a Moroccan
restaurant, at a discreet volume? Sure it does.
You can fight back against corporate musical gatekeeping by filing complaints at
the customer service desks or toll-free phone lines. You can also suggest that
if stores want to please customers, maybe they should play something soothing,
like the sounds of brooks, waterfalls, or surf. Some consumers are also starting
guides that list businesses and restaurants that play annoying music. Or you can
simply carry your personal music player.
Read our editorial about unwanted Christmas music: