The brave new world of the (back­ground) mu­sic busi­ness

Once de­rided, the suc­ces­sors to muzak have grown more so­phis­ti­cated – and in­flu­en­tial – than any of us re­alise.

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - By Jake Hu­lyer

Not long ago, Rob Wood found him­self at He­ston Blu­men­thal’s house, in south-west Lon­don, where he was be­ing per­suaded to eat a flower. They were sup­posed to have been dis­cussing the TV chef’s lat­est project, test­ing mu­sic’s ef­fects on the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, for which he had hired Wood to pick the songs. In­stead, he was re­count­ing a re­cent trip to south-east Asia. The flow­ers on his kitchen ta­ble, he said, were from that same trip: he was try­ing to cap­ture their flavour for a dish. Wood smelled the flow­ers. Blu­men­thal, in­creas­ingly an­i­mated, urged him to take a bite; he wanted the mu­sic to cap­ture and com­ple­ment the flower’s ex­otic qual­i­ties. Un­der duress, Wood had a lit­tle nib­ble.

Wood is the founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor of Mu­sic Concierge, a com­pany that chooses back­ground mu­sic for busi­nesses. His clients in­clude iconic fash­ion brands, such as Har­vey Ni­chols and Mul­berry, and lux­ury Lon­don ho­tels, such as the Con­naught and the Savoy. Some clients hire Wood be­cause they want to in­flu­ence in­di­vid­u­als’ be­hav­iour. When the foot­ball club Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur was look­ing for mu­sic for its new train­ing ground com­plex, Wood was asked to pro­vide playlists for a holis­tic pro­gramme cov­er­ing ev­ery as­pect of Spurs’ play­ers’ psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal well­be­ing. Oth­ers seek to cre­ate a cer­tain at­mos­phere, such as the restau­rant Ger­man Gym­na­sium, for which he sourced par­tic­u­lar bell sounds that evoked Mit­teleu­ro­pean cafe cul­ture. For an­other client – a late night, al­co­hol-free burger bar in Kuwait, which de­liv­ers food on a con­veyor belt – Wood had to con­jure the vibe of a 1980s New York block party, choos­ing early hip-hop by Grand­mas­ter Flash and lesser-known tracks by James Brown.

Mu­sic, even when you are barely aware of it, can be sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful. Over re­cent decades, re­searchers have found that it can af­fect how much time we think has passed while wait­ing in a queue, how co-op­er­a­tive shop­pers are with sales staff, and even how sweet or bit­ter food tastes. One study found that shop­pers’ pref­er­ence for French or Ger­man wine shifted ac­cord­ing to which of the re­spec­tive coun­tries’ tra­di­tional mu­sic was play­ing from a nearby set of speak­ers.

The back­ground mu­sic in­dus­try – also known as mu­sic de­sign, mu­sic con­sul­tancy or some­thing of­fered as part of a broader pack­age of “ex­pe­ri­en­tial de­sign” or “sen­sory mar­ket­ing” – is con­stantly de­cid­ing what we hear as we go about our ev­ery­day busi­ness. The big­gest player in the in­dus­try, Mood Me­dia, was founded in 2004 and now sup­plies mu­sic to 560,000 lo­ca­tions across the world, from Sains­bury’s to KFC.

The core of a mu­sic con­sul­tant’s work is cre­at­ing dis­tinct, co­he­sive mu­si­cal iden­ti­ties for brands. That can mean al­ly­ing the brand with a par­tic­u­lar her­itage, such as the restau­rant Dishoom, where food and in­te­ri­ors pay post­mod­ern homage to colo­nial-era

In­dia, and where Wood’s playlist fea­tures a genre known as “ex­ot­ica”, an Amer­i­can-

born, 1950s style, which re­fracts world mu­sic in­flu­ences through a west­ern lens. At other times, it can be find­ing a fresh an­gle, such as Kenyan restau­rant group Nyama Mama, which caters to a young, cos­mopoli­tan clien­tele and where, rather than just global, Amer­i­can-dom­i­nated pop, artists from Nairobi are also played.

One day this sum­mer, Wood and his team were work­ing on mu­sic for a new ho­tel, the Dixon, which is due to open in a con­verted court­house near Lon­don’s Tower Bridge in De­cem­ber. Wood’s brief was for dis­tinct playlists for dif­fer­ent ar­eas: the lobby, the bar, the restau­rant and the gym. Aside from the gym, where the mu­sic – sprightly, up­lift­ing club tracks – would re­main con­sis­tent at all hours, the playlists were to be di­vided into dif­fer­ent “day parts”, the choices tai­lored to ei­ther four or five dif­fer­ent time pe­ri­ods.

In an of­fice in Shored­itch, the ho­tel man­ager and its own­ers, with the cre­ative agency work­ing on the ho­tel’s brand­ing, walked Wood and his team through ev­ery de­tail of the project: the build ma­te­ri­als, the his­tory, the av­er­age sum – £23 – they an­tic­i­pated cus­tomers would spend in the restau­rant. They spoke about em­pha­sis­ing the cul­ture of the lo­cal area, and showed slides that in­cluded phrases such as “where your en­rich­ment be­gins” and “au­then­tic­ity in ev­ery de­tail”. (Au­then­tic­ity is a word that comes up of­ten in these kind of meet­ings.) The ho­tel would be mar­keted as “pre­mium four star”, they ex­plained, de­signed to ap­peal to “the dis­cern­ing ex­ec­u­tive” and af­flu­ent mil­len­ni­als.

Af­ter the meet­ing, there was a trip to the half-fin­ished build­ing site, where the own­ers pointed out ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures and Wood, who stayed mostly quiet, ap­peared to be look­ing for clues. Much of Wood’s job in­volves tak­ing ab­stract sug­ges­tions – a hand­ful of ad­jec­tives, a scat­ter­ing of ref­er­ence points, a cor­po­rate slo­gan – and turn­ing them into mu­sic. No small amount of in­tu­ition is also re­quired. It is com­mon, he says, for clients to speak about be­ing bold or cre­ative. Part of his job is work­ing out what they re­ally want, whether he should de­liver some­thing that will pre­cisely match ex­pec­ta­tions or pleas­ingly up­end them.

The fol­low­ing month, Wood showed me the sam­ple playlists his team had come up with. The ho­tel’s bar was to be in the old court­room it­self, a high-ceilinged room with wooden fur­ni­ture. The aim with the mu­sic there, Wood told me, was to cre­ate a sense of lofti­ness with­out sound­ing staid. “They want her­itage but they don’t want it to be tra­di­tional,” he said, play­ing me a gen­tle, swing­ing jazz track. The way he ex­plained his process of­ten seemed im­pre­cise, but so, too, was the ef­fect he was try­ing to achieve: a re­fined sense of the past that could not be pinned down to any spe­cific pe­riod.

For most peo­ple, back­ground mu­sic means muzak. In the 1920s, Ge­orge Owen Squier, a for­mer US army of­fi­cer who went on to earn a doc­tor­ate in elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing, de­vel­oped a new way to trans­mit au­dio through wires. His idea led to the cre­ation of a com­pany named Wired Mu­sic, which en­abled busi­nesses to broad­cast mu­sic in of­fices and com­mer­cial premises. In 1934, in homage to the wildly suc­cess­ful cam­era com­pany Ko­dak, Wired Ra­dio was renamed Muzak.

In its early days, Muzak sold it­self on the ba­sis that it could make work­places more pro­duc­tive. Its pro­gramme for of­fices and fac­to­ries was struc­tured around “Stim­u­lus Pro­gres­sion”, a sys­tem in­vented in the 1940s, where in­stru­men­tal clas­si­cal record­ings were played in 15-minute se­quences, al­ter­nated with si­lence, the mu­sic grad­u­ally in­creas­ing in in­ten­sity. In 1956, a re­port com­mis­sioned by Muzak claimed, some­what im­plau­si­bly, that its pro­gramme had pro­duced an 18.6% in­crease in pro­duc­tion and a 37% de­crease in the num­ber of er­rors made by of­fice em­ploy­ees at the Mis­sis­sippi Power & Light Com­pany, whose job was to en­ter me­ter read­ings into the com­pany’s billing sys­tem.

Son­i­cally, muzak set the tem­plate for back­ground mu­sic that would per­sist for decades: or­ches­tral in­stru­men­tals which ref­er­enced clas­si­cal and, later, pop­u­lar mu­sic. Over time, the name would be­come a term of de­ri­sion, syn­ony­mous with a kind of dated easy-lis­ten­ing mu­sic in­fu­ri­at­ingly drift­ing through ev­ery pub­lic space. “It’s just a kind of am­ni­otic fluid that sur­rounds us,” said com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor

Gary Gumpert in a 1990 doc­u­men­tary. “It never star­tles us, it is never too loud, it is never too silent; it’s al­ways there.” It was a balm to sooth awk­ward si­lences, gen­tle en­cour­age­ment to­ward a bright­ened mood. An in­di­ca­tion of the pop­u­lar­ity it once en­joyed is the ra­dio sta­tions – with names like Easy Lis­ten­ing and Beau­ti­ful Mu­sic – which brought the for­mat into peo­ple’s homes.

Al­though the back­ground mu­sic in­dus­try has ex­isted for al­most a cen­tury, it has con­stantly been re­shaped by changes in the way mu­sic is dis­trib­uted. For decades, the in­dus­try’s abil­ity to de­liver mu­sic in a non-stop for­mat was as im­por­tant to clients as the mu­sic it­self. Each of the back­ground mu­sic com­pa­nies de­vel­oped its own tech­nol­ogy for dis­tribut­ing the mu­sic sup­plied to busi­nesses. For Muzak, it was the trans­mis­sion through wires it had patented decades ear­lier; for fel­low US-based com­pany 3M, it was a bulky car­tridge for­mat, sent through the post and then played through a de­vice also of its own de­sign.

In the 1970s, the in­tro­duc­tion of af­ford­able multi-deck tape play­ers – com­pared to the fid­dly steps in­volved in put­ting on a vinyl record, or un­re­li­able multi-record chang­ers – sud­denly made it easy for busi­nesses to choose and play mu­sic con­tin­u­ously. “You couldn’t con­trol the mar­ket any longer,” re­called Peter Stan­d­ley, who worked at a ma­jor UK back­ground mu­sic com­pany, Red­i­tune, dur­ing that pe­riod.

Tech­nol­ogy also helped shift the con­sen­sus about what back­ground mu­sic could be. With cas­sette play­ers at home and in cars, peo­ple be­came ac­cus­tomed to lis­ten­ing to what­ever they wanted, wher­ever they were. As early as the late 1960s, com­pa­nies such as Yesco in the US had started li­cens­ing orig­i­nal mu­sic from record la­bels, us­ing the pop­u­lar songs of the mo­ment, rather than easy lis­ten­ing ar­range­ments which paid ref­er­ence to them. Over time, this be­came the norm, in­clud­ing at Muzak, which even­tu­ally merged with Yesco. (More re­cently, Muzak was ac­quired by Mood Me­dia, and in 2013, its brand name was re­tired.)

By the time the CD was in­vented, in 1982, back­ground mu­sic was be­com­ing more nu­anced. The CD was the first dig­i­tal for­mat for mu­sic and, by the late 1990s, it had en­abled back­ground mu­sic com­pa­nies to develop dig­i­tal li­braries – be­fore the likes of iTunes in the early 2000s – where tracks could be or­gan­ised by highly spe­cific fil­ters. “If you wanted noth­ing but love songs that were slow tempo, sung by women, that had a sax­o­phone solo, we could cre­ate a playlist us­ing our data­base,” said Sean Hor­ton, a for­mer mu­sic con­sul­tant for PlayNet­work. But that was just a taste of the new world of in­fi­nite choice that was to come.

There are two main ways psy­chol­o­gists think about the ef­fects that mu­sic can have on us. The first is phys­i­cal. Nu­mer­ous stud­ies have con­firmed our com­mon sense as­sump­tion that we of­ten sub­con­sciously match what we are do­ing to what we hear. In 1985, for in­stance, one study found that din­ers chewed at a faster pace when higher-tempo mu­sic was played. (Re­searchers mea­sured this ac­cord­ing to the de­light­fully named met­ric, bites­per-minute.) In­ter­est­ingly, they noted, din­ers did not fin­ish their meals faster, sug­gest­ing that they had ac­tu­ally been tak­ing smaller bites.

The sec­ond ap­proach fo­cuses on the as­so­ci­a­tions that mu­sic can trig­ger and how con­text, such as the en­vi­ron­ment we are in, af­fects those as­so­ci­a­tions. One 1998 study found that din­ers in a cafe­te­ria were will­ing to spend more money when clas­si­cal mu­sic was played in the back­ground than when there was no mu­sic at all. One ex­pla­na­tion, re­searchers sug­gested, was that din­ers as­so­ci­ated clas­si­cal mu­sic with qual­ity. (In an in­dict­ment of the changed for­tunes of easy lis­ten­ing mu­sic, it elicited a worse re­sponse from din­ers than si­lence.) Re­searchers also use the re­lated con­cept of “mu­si­cal fit” to un­der­stand why peo­ple re­spond to par­tic­u­lar mu­sic dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on the set­ting.

Wood and his team need to take both of these ap­proaches into ac­count. When the client is a re­tailer, three words come up time and again: high dwell time. Clients want to keep cus­tomers brows­ing for as long as pos­si­ble. For one high-end de­part­ment store, Wood’s job was to calm down a busy, hec­tic en­vi­ron­ment. De­ploy­ing del­i­cate con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal and “in­ti­mate vo­cals”, he aimed to make the store a more pleas­ant place to spend time, while also com­ple­ment­ing the up­mar­ket feel of the build­ing. Some jobs re­quire the op­po­site ap­proach, how­ever. Many ho­tels do not have ca­pac­ity to seat all of their guests for break­fast, which means they want to turn ta­bles quickly. In those cases, Wood pro­vides a brisk sound­track, rather than the more se­date, leisurely sounds you might ex­pect.

One ques­tion all mu­sic con­sul­tants face is just how un­ob­tru­sive their se­lec­tions should be. It is a choice that is some­times de­scribed as be­tween “fore­ground” or “back­ground” mu­sic. An­dreas Lif­f­gar­den, of Spo­ti­fy­backed back­ground mu­sic sup­plier Sound­track Your Brand, drew an anal­ogy be­tween the fore­ground ap­proach and the way cer­tain fash­ion la­bels refuse to pan­der to their clien­tele’s tastes. “You might not like red trousers,” he said, “but I don’t give a fuck about that, be­cause red trousers is in vogue in 2018, right?”

For bet­ter or worse, most clients are not look­ing for the mu­si­cal equiv­a­lent of red trousers. Paul Hil­lyer, head of me­dia at Mood Me­dia’s UK busi­ness, de­scribed the ap­proach his com­pany of­ten takes as “cra­dle to grave”, the least of­fen­sive to the widest spec­trum of peo­ple.

One of their clients is Fuller’s Brew­ery, which plays mu­sic in most of its 400 or so pubs in the UK. An­drew Durn, whose role at Fuller’s in­volves li­ais­ing with Mood Me­dia, de­scribed its sound as be­ing roughly like Ra­dio 2, cater­ing to an older, com­fort­able crowd. “What we don’t want,” he told me, “is cus­tomers walk­ing in, lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic and say­ing: ‘What’s that all about?’”

It is the stren­u­ously in­of­fen­sive na­ture of this kind of back­ground mu­sic that riles up some of the in­dus­try’s fiercest crit­ics. One group, Pipedown, have cam­paigned “for free­dom from un­wanted mu­sic in pub­lic places” since 1992, when its founder, Nigel Rodgers, was spurred to ac­tion by a par­tic­u­larly ir­ri­tat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in a South Kens­ing­ton restau­rant. “Do you hate un­wanted piped back­ground mu­sic?” reads the call to arms on the group’s web­site. “Do you de­test the way you can’t es­cape it? (in pubs, restau­rants and ho­tels; on the plane, train or bus; down the phone; ru­in­ing de­cent tele­vi­sion pro­grammes;

adding to the over­all lev­els of noise pol­lu­tion in pub­lic places).” The group, which counts Stephen Fry and Joanna Lum­ley among its celebrity sup­port­ers, claims some credit for the de­ci­sion Marks & Spencer took in 2016 to stop us­ing mu­sic in its stores. “You’re not go­ing for a spe­cial sort of at­mos­phere, you’re just go­ing to do your shop­ping,” Rodgers said.

One of Pipedown’s bold­est claims is that there is “no gen­uine ev­i­dence” that back­ground mu­sic in­creases sales. Opin­ions vary on this ques­tion, al­though most ex­perts do not share Pipedown’s hard­line po­si­tion. Adrian North, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Curtin Univer­sity in Perth, ar­gues that small pur­chases are where it is most pos­si­ble to in­flu­ence con­sumers. He con­ducted the 1997 study that found that shop­pers were more likely to choose ei­ther French or Ger­man wine, de­pend­ing on which of the re­spec­tive coun­tries’ mu­sic they heard, some­thing he con­trasted with a de­ci­sion like buy­ing a car. “I would be as­ton­ished,” he said,

“if some­one chose a Re­nault over a Volk­swa­gen just be­cause you play French mu­sic in a show­room.”

Oth­ers ar­gue that it makes more sense to think about the in­flu­ence of back­ground mu­sic in terms of sub­tle, long-term ben­e­fits, rather than im­me­di­ate im­pact on sales. Rhonda Hadi, mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor at Ox­ford Univer­sity’s Saïd Busi­ness School, be­lieves com­pa­nies that pro­vide an ex­pe­ri­ence, such as flights or ac­com­mo­da­tion, can reap the great­est re­wards. “The ser­vice it­self is so in­tan­gi­ble,” she said, “that peo­ple rely on any cues they can to gauge the qual­ity of the ser­vice that they’ve re­ceived.”

Hadi says that con­sumers value this holis­tic ap­proach more than they used to. Younger con­sumers, she said, tend to value au­then­tic­ity, which the mar­ket­ing in­dus­try in­ter­prets as a pref­er­ence for “con­gru­ence”, the idea that ev­ery­thing should fit with the brand and the story they tell about them­selves. While it might not al­ter some­one’s de­ci­sion about which car to buy, the right mu­sic, in a par­tic­u­lar car show­room, might co­a­lesce with a pack­age of other de­tails to make some­one feel good about the hefty sum of money they are about to part with.

One af­ter­noon in July, two Mu­sic Concierge staff – mu­sic con­sul­tant Da­mon Martin and ac­count man­ager Mor­gan Mack­in­tosh – vis­ited Mul­berry’s Kens­ing­ton of­fice. They were there to present a sam­ple set of playlists for the re­design of the Bri­tish brand’s flag­ship Re­gent Street store. Around the ta­ble were Baron Os­una, Mul­berry’s head of im­age, and Bradley Tay­lor, head of visual mer­chan­dis­ing and store de­sign. Mack­in­tosh turned her lap­top around to dis­play a Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tion, which she clicked through as Martin talked.

Mu­sic Concierge’s brief had been to find mu­sic that would match the con­cept for the store’s new de­sign, “Bri­tish Bru­tal­ism”, as well as Mul­berry’s “brand pil­lars”: Bri­tish­ness; qual­ity; life­style; ac­ces­si­bil­ity; real. The plans for the store in­volved con­crete struc­tures planted in the cen­tre of the shop, along with glazed green tiles and Wind­sor chairs. Phrases used to de­scribe the new de­sign in­cluded “Bri­tish na­ture”, “dec­o­ra­tive ges­tures”, and “hon­est ma­te­ri­als”.

One of the steers from Mul­berry was that it wanted the stores to feel more like a gallery space. In the past, Mul­berry had sig­nalled “Bri­tish­ness” in its stores by play­ing artists such as the Cure and Joy Di­vi­sion, but for this new de­sign, Martin sug­gested slightly more avant­garde Bri­tish artists, such as Brian Eno and Four Tet. (Speak­ing in a nearby cafe af­ter­wards, Martin re­called dif­fer­ent ver­sions of “Bri­tish­ness” he had come up with for other clients, like Noël Cow­ard for a her­itage ho­tel, or young gui­tar bands for a high street re­tailer.)

A song by Digi­tonal, down­beat and elec­tronic, played tin­nily from Martin’s portable speak­ers. “It’s on the softer side,” he said, “but it has a sense of drama and it builds.” Tay­lor and Os­una lis­tened, nod­ded, and of­fered oc­ca­sional com­ments. “It might feel a bit som­bre,”

Os­una said. “I think we could ap­proach the warmth through play­ful­ness,” replied Martin, pick­ing out a song by Rus­sian artist Kate NV. As­crib­ing it to “real”, the fi­nal brand pil­lar, he said, “There’s a sort of ec­cen­tric­ity to it that of­fers a sense of light­ness.”

The songs pre­sented to Mul­berry were in­tended to con­vey how the full playlists would sound. Once a client is sat­is­fied with Mu­sic Concierge’s con­cept, the team at the of­fice adds flesh to the bones: the playlist de­sign­ers, who are ju­nior to the mu­sic con­sul­tants, search through their in­ter­nal mu­sic li­braries to find songs that will make up the playlists’ full length, which can num­ber be­tween 1,000 and 8,000. The num­ber mostly de­pends on how many dif­fer­ent sec­tions the client wants to di­vide their playlist into, and the num­ber of dif­fer­ent ar­eas at the lo­ca­tion. The cost, per site, can range from about £35 to £250 a month.

Com­pa­nies like Mu­sic Concierge have cap­i­talised on the sweep­ing changes to the world of re­tail in re­cent years. In the face of com­pe­ti­tion from on­line re­tail­ers, many high-street busi­nesses have sought to repack­age shops as a “des­ti­na­tion”: no longer just a func­tional place to buy things, they are pre­sented as an ex­pe­ri­ence. The idea of ex­pe­ri­en­tial mar­ket­ing has also taken hold. The busi­ness aca­demics Bernd Sch­mitt and Alex Si­mon­son cap­tured this idea in a pre­scient book pub­lished in 1997: “In a world in which most con­sumers have their ba­sic needs sat­is­fied,” they wrote, “value is eas­ily pro­vided by sat­is­fy­ing cus­tomers’ ex­pe­ri­en­tial needs – their aes­thetic needs.” Martin Lind­strom’s in­flu­en­tial 2005 book, Brand Sense, built upon these ideas, hail­ing the mar­ket­ing power of sound and scent. He cited Play-Doh, Cray­ola and John­son’s Baby Pow­der as the brands with the most recog­nis­able smells. Un­der­scor­ing mu­sic’s role in con­jur­ing pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tions, he wrote: “Mu­sic makes new mem­o­ries, evokes the past, and in­stan­ta­neously can trans­port you to an­other place.”

Mu­sic Concierge was one of sev­eral com­pa­nies set up in the mid-to-late 2000s, re­spond­ing to these trends, and in par­tic­u­lar a greater com­mer­cial ap­petite for mu­sic care­fully tai­lored to par­tic­u­lar brands. Rob Wood, like many of these com­pa­nies’ founders and em­ploy­ees, had jumped ship from the mu­sic and me­dia in­dus­tries. His tra­jec­tory is some­thing of a para­ble for the way the mu­sic in­dus­try has had to trans­form it­self – both eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally – in re­sponse to the changes wrought by tech­nol­ogy.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from univer­sity in the early 1990s, Wood spent a few years DJing and run­ning an arts list­ings mag­a­zine, even­tu­ally go­ing on to be­come edi­tor of the al­ter­na­tive mu­sic mag­a­zine Jockey Slut in 1999. But, as the in­ter­net be­gan to eat away at the mag­a­zine in­dus­try’s cir­cu­la­tion fig­ures and ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enues, Wood ended up work­ing for an on­line book­ing por­tal for lux­ury ho­tels. Re­view­ing ho­tels for them, he no­ticed how of­ten es­tab­lish­ments would be play­ing mu­sic that seemed jar­ring. “They were just put­ting on what I’d call Cafe del Bula Bar,” he told me. “Cliched mu­sic, which wasn’t ap­pro­pri­ate to a bou­tique ho­tel in the Cotswolds.”

At just the time that the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion was shak­ing up the mu­sic and me­dia in­dus­tries, busi­nesses were in­creas­ingly seek­ing the skillset that Wood pos­sessed. Af­ter a few years of ad-hoc con­sul­tancy, in 2007 he founded Mu­sic Concierge. Wood is san­guine about his role in pulling mu­sic away from the al­ter­na­tive en­claves where he first dis­cov­ered it. As the mu­sic busi­ness has tanked, for many the no­tion of “sell­ing out” has come to seem dated. Sell­ing rights for songs to be used in ad­verts, TV, videogames, films and pub­lic spa­ces now ac­counts for a much greater slice of mu­sic in­dus­try prof­its. Any artist still ret­i­cent about li­cens­ing their mu­sic may be per­suaded to do so by the prom­ise that it will be used in a more so­phis­ti­cated, art­ful way than ever be­fore – a change Wood has played a part in: his job, af­ter all, is scuff­ing the line be­tween com­merce and cul­ture. “I’m do­ing some­thing I’ve al­ways done,” he said. “I’ve al­ways been driven by in­tro­duc­ing peo­ple to mu­sic they didn’t know they might love.”

Just as it al­ways has, the fu­ture of Wood’s in­dus­try will de­pend on how well it can adapt to the pace of change. Since Spo­tify was founded in 2008, dig­i­tal sales of mu­sic have col­lapsed, and stream­ing – on Spo­tify and its com­peti­tors Ap­ple Mu­sic, Ti­dal, Deezer, Pan­dora and more – has be­come the way most peo­ple lis­ten to mu­sic. Ev­ery­one can now in­stantly ac­cess most of the world’s recorded mu­sic on­line.

For back­ground mu­sic com­pa­nies, stream­ing is both a threat and an op­por­tu­nity. On the one hand, mu­sic has be­come eas­ier to ac­cess and dis­trib­ute, mean­ing that com­pa­nies like Mu­sic Concierge can se­lect, de­liver and tweak the mu­sic they de­liver to busi­nesses with greater speed, flex­i­bil­ity and pre­ci­sion than ever be­fore. On the other hand, ev­ery­one now has ac­cess to vast mu­sic li­braries that were once the pre­serve of a tiny num­ber of hard­core mu­sic nerds and peo­ple work­ing in the in­dus­try. “It went from us be­ing the bou­tique mu­sic ex­pert to hav­ing more of a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the brand,” said Sean Hor­ton, who worked as a mu­sic con­sul­tant at PlayNet­work for over a decade. “Stream­ing turned ev­ery­one into a mu­sic ex­pert.”

Be­hind the rise of stream­ing lurks the spec­tre of au­to­ma­tion. One part of Spo­tify’s ap­peal is its playlists, where it of­fers mu­sic for par­tic­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, as well as in­di­vid­u­alised rec­om­men­da­tions. The lat­ter re­lies on com­par­ing your choices with those of mil­lions of other users, com­bined with analy­ses of the raw prop­er­ties of songs, such as key, mode and tempo. For many peo­ple I spoke to while re­port­ing this piece, the al­go­rithms used to pro­vide these rec­om­men­da­tions seemed to be a source of anx­i­ety. At the big­ger com­pa­nies, in par­tic­u­lar, staff were keen to stress the im­por­tance of the real-life cu­ra­tor. Richard Hamp­son at Image­sound em­pha­sised the in­tu­itive side to his job. “It’s al­ways been about feel and hu­man touch,” he ar­gued. “Hu­man taste is re­ally im­por­tant, and the al­go­rithm thing is re­mov­ing that.”

Dur­ing my visit to his of­fice in July, Wood showed me a playlist he was work­ing on for Gravetye Manor, a ho­tel we had vis­ited the pre­vi­ous month. Com­pared to many of his other projects, this one was a mi­nor un­der­tak­ing: it was for a bar that seats about 20 peo­ple. The ho­tel had just sent some feed­back that the mu­sic for the evening sounded a lit­tle too muted, and he had some ideas for liven­ing it up. He clicked through his lap­top, pon­der­ing each of the songs’ qual­i­ties, teas­ing out how they might fit to­gether. “A bit of Bri­tish­ness,” he said, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, pick­ing a track by Richard Haw­ley; as well as a Marvin Gaye track, “to bal­ance it out with a bit of fa­mil­iar­ity”. A Shirley Bassey cover of the Doors, her voice croon­ing out of the lap­top speak­ers was, he ex­plained, “a way of test­ing the bound­ary”. He paused to lis­ten for a mo­ment, pleased with the choice. •

IL­LUS­TRA­TION : GETTY

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