How Do You Listen? - August 14, 2012

"Musical selections are made to cater to a target demographic, whether in a dental office, an elevator or a high end restaurant"

Pretty much everyone hears music for a substantial amount of time each day. What is most telling about the listening habits of any particular individual is the amount of attention paid to what is heard, and at what point it actually becomes listening. It is an elementary revelation that hearing is not listening. For our purposes, we will divide music heard into two categories based on the hearer’s engagement; those being passive and active.

The most passive listener is primarily hearing music with very little thought connected to it. He could not recall what just played unless it was a selection with which he had a personal relationship. This is pretty much the arena of the average person in a store with background music playing. If the music is out of the preferred genre of the passive listener, that person will have a very low level of engagement with the musical selection to the point of not even being able to say that music was playing after leaving the store. If the music was in a preferred genre, chances are there was more engagement, particularly if there was some recognition regarding the artist or a historical connection to the song.

The most active listener is going to have a hard time not paying attention to music that is playing, and would most likely walk out of the store able to identify several songs or artists that were presented while inside. This would apply regardless of the genre and whether the listener liked the music, even to the point of identifying ‘some crappy synthesized pan flute and string snoozer’ or a ‘Loudon Wainright wannabe with a three chord boor’. That person would be able to tell you who plays what instruments on songs with which he is familiar, or what collection it came from, who wrote it and what decade. He would be able to develop a frame of reference for music that could not be immediately identified, as in ‘it sounded like Jeff Buckley with a more limited vocal range’.

Most people have a level of listening engagement somewhere in between the above described extremes. But regardless of the attention that a particular patron is paying to a given music selection, most every person has some type of engaged, visceral reaction to a song that they like or to which they have a personal connection. This reaction could be either positive or negative and could chase customers out the door or keep them perusing merchandise

The reason this is important to musicians and venue operators who decide what music is played in a public area or broadcast is quite obvious. Musical selections are made to cater to a target demographic, whether in a dental office, an elevator or a high end restaurant. Rap and punk are unlikely to be played in Macy's, but would be appropriate at Zoomie’s skate shop. This basic differentiation could be refined and used to keep a customer in a shop for an extra ten minutes or extend a bar patron’s visit for another drink or two. It could help a musical act build a set list or add a certain cover song or two based on what type of person they want to draw into a performance. I have frequently stayed in a store longer than I intended because I like the background music or stayed around a lounge an extra set because I like a song two that the band played. But then again, I am a quite active listener and have a wide range of musical preferences.

It is quite surprising to me that merchants frequently put very little effort into the selection of music that is played in their establishments. In the digital era with all of the options available, there is really no excuse for not presenting musical selections that support marketing efforts. Care taken with what music is being presented to customers and patrons could contribute significantly to increased sales and patronage.