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How Your Bar’s Music Can Make or Break Your Business Model

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(illustration: Maddy Peters)

The right playlist is like secret sauce to a bar. Done right, it makes guests stay later, order more and come often. A bad playlist? Well, it can leave guests feeling awkward, unwelcome or, worse, sleepy. “Choosing the wrong music or having it played at the wrong volume will diminish the experience as much as having the lights turned all the way up or the food not tasting good,” says Josh Tilden, the owner of Chicago’s Pacific Standard Time and formerly of Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group. 

A musical misstep can range from a poorly placed ballad on a rowdy Friday night to speakers cranked up to 11 when guests are looking for a quiet catch-up cocktail. It can be that new LCD Soundsystem album your bartenders love is putting your late-night drinkers to sleep. Or heaven forbid, someone decided to actually play “Closing Time” at last call. All can lessen a guest’s experience.

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“Music is one of the most important pieces for a bar or restaurant,” says Gabriel Orta, the co-founder of Bar Lab and co-owner of Broken Shaker. “It sets the tone for the experience you want to provide for your guests.” Simon Kim, the owner of New York City’s Undercote, agrees: “It’s the only element in the restaurant that brings a whole sense of togetherness. Without the appropriate music, you’re going to miss out on having a cohesive space.”

Think of it as a DJ would. The perfect playlist—one that complements the bar’s identity and promotes an atmosphere of conviviality—heightens the guests’ experience, causing them to laugh a little louder and sip a little more.

“Music is the only element in the restaurant that brings a whole sense of togetherness.”—Simon Kim

1. Stick to Your Concept

A playlist of much-loved classics and well-known hits will have folks humming along, but does it match your concept? “It’s not a question of whether a song or soundtrack is good but whether it suits the moment,” says Jared Dietch, a music consultant who was tapped to curate the soundtrack at Hudson Yards’ Wild Ink. “I’ve heard some of my favorite songs played in the wrong places, and it doesn’t feel right, even though it’s a great song.”

For Kim, familiarity works at the subterranean Undercote. In a space as transportive as Undercote, Kim always ensures there’s a recognizable aspect in the music. “You’re tasting many different spirits and absorbing the company of the people around you, plus the dim lighting and the greenery of the live terrarium walls. … You need to make sure there’s a sensory balance.” The playlist there spans genres, but everything is classic and recognizable. “Everyone connects through the familiarity of what’s playing through the speakers; it creates a comfortable environment.”

Sometimes what music to play is evident. Island tunes make sense for a Tiki bar, and peppering in songs from the 1930s fits the ethos of a speakeasy. But if the concept isn’t as clear cut, Adam Weisblatt of Last Word Hospitality (including Bavel and Avalon Hotel) recommends getting creative. “I always try to imagine our venues as a scene in a Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson film,” he says. “What types of songs would make that sense of entry feel on-point? And then you know what direction to take.”

Andrew Nichols, of Baltimore’s Elk Room, says the road to a good bar soundtrack starts with asking questions. “Think about the nature of the drinks,” he says. “Are they classic or modern? What kind of ingredients do they use? Can you find music that’s congruent to them? We mix modern techniques with more antique decor, so to mimic this, we look for modern compositions that sample older tracks.”

Regardless of what you choose, keep the lyrics in mind. “Lyrics that have extreme profanity or out-of-place lyrics are typically not well received,” says Kim. “You need to know your audience and the environment you created.”

“You always want to adjust the volume based on how the night progresses and how busy the bar gets.”—Gabriel Orta

2. Consider the Timing

Curating the right mix of tunes to match a space’s vibe is essential, but so is tweaking the playlist as the night goes on. Kim likes to start things off on a high note. “It sets a tone for the staff. I like to play positive, upbeat music to get their night started right. It’s important that they’re in a good headspace before the start of service, and music can help do that. As the night progresses, we dim the lights and adjust the music together. You never want a bright room with loud music or vice versa.”

At the height of the night, pivot the music to reflect the energy. “Music and rhythms affect our biorhythm and have been doing so since early civilization,” says psychologist Dr. Nikola Djordjevic. “Drums were used to rile up troops for war, whereas flutes and string instruments were used for more pleasurable ends. Faster music equates to people dancing and moving faster.” Kim recommends starting with tunes that clock in at 60 bpm (beats per minute), then working up to 120 as the night unfolds. 

The volume, too, should adjust in cadence with the energy of the room. “You always want to adjust based on how the night progresses and how busy the bar gets,” says Orta. “On slower nights, people want to have conversations, and you need to be aware of that.” Kim agrees: “My biggest pet peeve is loud music in a low-energy room.” So on more raucous nights at Broken Shaker, Orta bumps up the volume as the energy rises, encouraging guests to loosen up. “We start with slower tunes at the beginning. Then we slowly bring the energy up and up as the night progresses, then drop it down to a chiller pace at the end to let everyone know we’re closing.”

Tilden uses the volume of the crowd to determine the sound level, making sure to always keep the volume a notch above the noise of the crowd. “I don’t think this would be something that we could ever automate, but you get the feeling of the right volume,” he says. 

When closing time rolls around, “we play what I call a commercial version of a lullaby,” says Kim, “The old way of turning on the lights at bar close is not the way I believe guests should be treated. There are better, more gracious ways of letting guests know it’s time to head home safely. It’s a subtle art that soft low-bpm music can assist with.”

3. Keep It Legal

Slipping on a Spotify playlist can feel like the simplest way to set the sounds, but proceed with caution. “Make sure you pay the licensing fees with a company like ASCAP or BMI,” says Orta. Under the U.S. Copyright Act, restaurants are required to have a license to stream music. Meaning, plugging in your iPod (or dropping the needle on your old records) won’t suffice; all your music must be licensed. “Support the arts,” says Tilden. “Pay your licensing fees.”

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