Does Your Playlist Need Counseling?

Here’s how to work through a musical identity crisis

Every restaurateur knows that great food and excellent service are essential, while cramped seating and garish lights can send diners straight for the door. Even worse? Playing the wrong music.

“I went into an Indian restaurant in L.A. and they were playing Indian fusion electronic music and it felt right,” says Richard Jankovich, director of content and creative at San Diego-based Mood Media. “Then, in the middle of dinner, one of the servers switched the CD and put on Nine Inch Nails. I asked for the check.”

Jankovich, a 15-year music-branding veteran, helps oversee music programming for numerous restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Hooter’s and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. He’s one of a growing population: music curators helping restaurants set the proper tone. 

"[Music] helps establish what you’re trying to get across without having to say anything."

—Jeremy Abrams, owner of New York-based Audiostiles

Contrary to popular belief, working with a music expert doesn’t mean giving up an identity. Most experts request an initial meeting to discuss a restaurateur’s musical tastes and the vibe of the concept. From there, they’ll compile a sample playlist for review and supply music intended to create a restaurant ambience that keeps customers in their seats longer.

“[Music] sets your image and who you are,” says Jeremy Abrams, owner of New York-based Audiostiles, who programs music for restaurants such as the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and Michael White’s Altamarea Group. “When it comes to staying for that extra drink or dessert, music enhances the experience and makes it more enjoyable.”

But not everyone wants to give up that control. Payal Saha, who owns fast-casual Indian restaurant The Kati Roll Company in New York and London, creates her own playlists. Mixing current pop hits with Bollywood tunes allows her to cater to her diverse clientele—and to control what gets played. 

Playing music from your iPod can be illegal without paying proper licensing fees to performance-rights organizations like Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). Saha uses a Custom Channels player to download and play music, paying an annual licensing fee that goes to the music labels.

Restaurants’ monthly or annual fees to music curators generally include the licensing fee, according to the National Restaurant Association. Large companies like Mood Media and indie consultants like Abrams can charge anywhere from $45 a month to a few thousand dollars depending on the degree of customization, the number of songs and the frequency of refreshing the playlist.  

For those who want to avoid paying fees or hiring a music curator, there is an alternative. Restaurants with less than 3,750 gross square feet (not including the parking lot) can use audio from a television or radio—if a cover is not charged.

Ultimately, restaurateurs need to decide between tacking on responsibilities or enlisting the help of an outside consultant. Either way, it’s important to remember that customers are listening—whether they want to or not. 

Ari Bendersky is the former editor of Eater Chicago and has written for a number of outlets including The New York TimesAssociated PressSaveurChicago magazine and Chicago Sun-Times.

Whether creating an in-house playlist or working with a music curator, follow these tips to keep things in tune:

Do: Think about the demographics of your customer base (age, lifestyle, etc.).

Do: Think about using different styles and tempos of music to create diverse environments at different times of the day.

Don’t: Jump around from jazz to classic rock to electronic dance music without making sure there’s a consistent tempo across genres.

Don’t: Let the volume compete with the level of chatter in the restaurant. Turning up the music will just force louder conversation.