When a customer walks into a restaurant — even before Jack White's "Sixteen Saltines" becomes the soundtrack for the sunchoke soup — the music sets the tone for the dining experience, says Bill Chait, the restaurateur behind L.A.'s Short Order, Picca, Sotto, Rivera and Playa, among others. Up until the first appetizer arrives at the table, "it's all visual and aural," he says.
"People consider the music a demonstration of whether this place is for them."
Restaurants are mining their employees' iPods, consulting with DJs and increasingly turning to companies that create tailor-made playlists and position themselves as "music sommeliers" or, to coin audio-branding-speak, creators of a restaurant's "sonic identity."
LISTEN: Audio samples from restaurant playlists
Prescriptive Music, a Woodland Hills-based music branding company that formulates highly customized playlists, says sales have increased 40% in the last year. More than a third of its business is restaurants, says founder Allen Klevens, "and growing." Its clients are as varied as Farmshop in Santa Monica, Cut in Beverly Hills and the Umami Burger chain, as well as the new 35-seat Italian restaurant Gusto on West 3rd Street (think Giusy Ferreri meets Bombay Bicycle Club).
"I wanted music fine-tuned to the roots of my cooking and the space," says Gusto's Vic Casanova — not just a channel such as Muzak's "Italian Rock." (Though even Muzak now offers "micro-genres" and the services of media consultants for "a music experience handcrafted at the track level," according to its website.)
Some are more hands-on than others. "We've been at a standstill with the whole notion of prepackaged playlists," says Joshua Pressman, a former music journalist who curates songs for Short Order, choosing each track himself. "But now it's become cool to be yourself, which is a radical concept in the restaurant industry."
On Pressman's playlist: the Avett Brothers, Junior Kimbrough and Cloud Control. The Idle Race's "Birthday" spurred one patron to tweet his excitement of its inclusion in the playlist, Pressman says. "I never thought anyone else would pick up on the song."
Music has been part of a restaurant-industry transformation. Ever since Mario Batali blasted Led Zeppelin at Babbo in New York and Wolfgang Puck did much the same at Cut, rock-'n'-roll's push into the dining room has paralleled what Manhattan Beach Post's David LeFevre calls "a great focus on casual-izing even serious food."
"When I had a vision of the restaurant, I had a feeling that I really wanted to go for," says LeFevre, who, along with his manager, selects his own music. "The restaurant bustling, people talking, grabbing the last bite of the dish on the table and the Ramones playing over the speakers."
And might customers buy more if the Ramones are playing? The psychographic legacy of Muzak — which originally claimed that people would be more productive when exposed to gradually intensifying music and now brandishes the tagline "stir the senses, stimulate the sales" — still reverberates through the art of the restaurant playlist.
Michael Smith, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Playlist Generation, is quick to refer to studies showing music's effect on customers. "A test titled 'The Influence of Background Music on Restaurant Patrons' showed sales increased 11.6% when up-tempo music was played during lunch," he quotes from Restaurant Management magazine.
About 300 to 500 songs comprise a typical restaurant playlist, says Alix Rumsey, director of music programming at Prescriptive, whose services include paying licensing fees to copyright management groups that have been cracking down on restaurants. And there are often four to five playlists to the day — lunch, happy hour, dinner, late night. You're much more likely to hear the French electronica of Justice at 81 decibels on a Friday night at Cleo in Hollywood than you are on a Tuesday at Cut, which might be rocking the Who at 74 decibels. (Science and/or pseudoscience, by the way, says people drink more to loud music.)
Playlist Generation uses survey questions to determine a client's sonic attributes, which it somehow translates to a "sound," broken down by subgenre (electronica, dream pop), ethnicity (Scandinavian, Jamaican, Japanese), vocal type (female, male), emotional keywords (quirky, sexy, trippy) and eras (2010, 2009, "obscure releases from the '60s and '70s").
Others rely on more direct means of selection. "I go with what I like," says Short Order's Pressman. "My starting point is what I would want to listen to in my living room. Hopefully, it's not anything that would make my grandmother scream."