Piped-in Music

Piped-in music is everywhere: stores, malls, restaurants, hospitals, doctors’ offices, convenience stores, car dealerships, and cafeterias—and even funeral homes. Noblesville, Indiana, a town of 52,000, recently spent $20,000 to install 32 street lamp speakers downtown, which blast big band swing or “Jukebox Gold.” In France, canned music is piped into parks and streets.

Librarians in Scottsdale, Arizona play a mixture of Native American, classical, and New Age tunes. Lovers of peace and quiet can attempt to escape by moving to the “quiet zone,” near the romance section.

Muzak and DMX employ “audio architects” to design playlists which reflect their clients’ emotional tone and lifestyle; this is known as “neuro-marketing.” Caribou Coffee, for example, attempts to convey “friendly, organic, interesting, and fresh” with songs by obscure artists. Whole Foods prefers New Wave music from the 1980s. Wiliams-Donoma likes playing Sammy Davis, Jr. LensCrafters aims for “inspired confidence” by choosing music which “communicates assurance and independence.” Red Lobster’s piped-in music attempts to create “an idealized beachcomber experiences” which makes customers “feel cared for and loved.” And what is the most played background song of all time? Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

The holidays create even greater canned cacophony. A British survey revealed that a typical sales assistant is forced to hear “Jingle Bells” at least 300 times prior to Christmas.

All of this “music” is acoustic torture to many lovers of peace and quiet. Columnist Harry Wilson stated that when he was at a supermarket, “I realized that I would never be able to work there, even though many people my age are doing so. I couldn’t stand it because of the ‘music.’ It is blasting, wailing, thumping, lamenting, caterwauling, clanging, and banging at all times—throughout the entire work shift. It would quickly drive me nuts.”

Joanna Lumley, a British actress, stated, “I have left shops, unable to purchase the object of my desire, because of hellish piped-in music.”

Nigel Rodgers, founder of Pipedown: The International Campaign for Freedom from Piped Music, recalls when he first became upset about elevator music: “It was a need I knew little about when we began eight years ago,” he said. “I was finally goaded into acting eight years ago after so much moaning by what happened one evening in a London bristro. The food was excellent, the service efficient, the prices not too outrageous, my companion adorable.” The only trouble, Rodgers said, “was that we could not hear ourselves speak. Music blaring from every corner killed conversation.”

Rodgers asked the waited to turn it down, “but he shrugged and said it was beyond his powers, as if it were the weather. We asked other nearby diners what they thought: they all hated it, too.” Rodgers and his companion then “left for somewhere quiet to talk. What we talked about was piped music: how it was spreading everywhere, how almost everybody seemed to loathe it but nobody did anything about it except moan in private.” Rodgers reported that when someone did protest, the reply was always the same: “You are the first person ever to complain!”

In fact, public opinion surveys indicate that many people strongly prefer acoustic freedom–what Rodgers calls “the right NOT to have to listen to somebody else’s choice of music” when out “shopping, eating, traveling, in the hospital, or waiting on the telephone.” A poll in the United Kingdom showed that 34 percent of respondents hated piped-in music, 30 percent liked it, and the remainder had no opinion.

Similarly, a survey conducted at London’s Gatwick Airport showed that 43 percent disliked the piped-in music and only 34 percent liked it. Further, Pipedown reports that “a survey of 115 blood donors at Nottingham University Medical School” found that “piped music made donors more nervous BEFORE giving blood and more depressed AFAER giving it than silence.”

Some American businesses are starting to take heed of the need for quiet shopping and dining. Around 25 years ago, Target stopped playing background music—and has received no complaints from customers wanting a return to canned music. Most Wal-mart stores do not play “background” music. Some restaurant reviews now include information on noise levels; Zagat reports that noise is the second-largest complaint among diners.

In Great Britain, Gatwick Airport has ceased playing piped-in music and Mark & Spencer has banned piped-in music in 300 of its stores.

In 2006, Lord Beaumont introduced the “Piped Music and Showing of Television Programs” bill to the British House of Lords. The bill would require British officials to develop plans to ban music and television programs in hospitals and trains.

Lord Beaumont said, “One of the things where they seem to think it would be a good thing to have perpetual music is when you are waiting to give blood. A lot of people say it drives them absolutely mad and sends up their blood pressure. We all love music as long as it’s the right kind of music and we can turn it on and off.”