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Imagine two twenty-somethings out on the town for their first awkward date. Maybe they met online, or perhaps they finally just took the first step from turning a friendship into a relationship. Should they hold hands? Is he going to offer to pay for dinner? Is this going to be an easy night, or a really awkward night?

Ready to take the plunge into their first real one-on-one conversation with limited distractions, they enter the restaurant. It’s romantic, cozy and perhaps they made reservations a little too early because it’s half empty and incredibly quiet.

So quiet in fact, that those awkward pauses between conversations begin to seem a little bit longer than they should, and the wait for every dinner course becomes a little bit more painful as the night progresses.

Gosh, could somebody turn the music up?

Now imagine you’re at a spa, ready for a relaxing massage. You lay down in a pin-silent room. Rather than submerging yourself in the tranquil sounds of music and water, instead you’re laying on your stomach in a scant towel, listening to the sound of bare hands scratching against your back and the breathing of your masseuse.

Or is that you?

To put it frankly, a business without some kind of background music can make a quiet moment even quieter. Most businesses won’t make this fundamental mistake when it comes to providing some kind of “white noise” in their establishment, but there are still plenty of things to think about when actually choosing what music to use in your business.

Afterall, mood is marketing, and the way that someone feels in your business can make all the difference. For example, note this feedback, found on Yelp.com for businesses in the New England area:

  • “REALLY small place, but the music was fantastic!”
  • “The music was a little too loud for the size of the room.”
  • “This place is far too loud for any kind of genuine human connection to occur. If you want to have a meeting of the souls, I suggest you go to XXXX instead.”
  • “This place always plays great music that is not overbearingly loud which is refreshing compared to a lot of other lounges in the area,”

That’s why we asked Steve Cerilli, Sound Design Consultant from Shortwave Recording Company who works with restaurants and other businesses to weigh in on the things that you should be thinking about when choosing the music for your business.

Tip #1: Stick to instrumental

Cerilli tends to lean towards instrumental music when choosing tracks for a business’ playlist. It makes sense, considering that people already have enough people to talk over in any given business, and they don’t need to add one more voice to the mix.

Tip #2: Decide what kind of music you want to play.

Cerilli doesn’t shy away from playing music that doesn’t match the brand exactly, in fact, sometimes he thinks it’s a good idea:

“Sometimes the unexpected will impart a cool vibe into a mix. Avoiding what people would expect to be playing makes the experience much more interesting. I like some places to have very non-descript music, especially if the theme isn’t funky or bohemian. Other venues seem to have more freedom to mix it up.”

Cerilli told us about his experience at a popular Mexican restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island called Perro Salado:

“I helped Perro Salado with their speaker and zone volume control installation. They are always playing an eclectic mix of genres from country blues to reggae. Even though it’s a Mexican restaurant, it works.

It’s all about the unexpected. Things can stand out when you change the context and this can work for or against you depending on the scene.”

Tip #3: Make a playlist

According to Cerilli, the first step in creating a playlist is to ”first establish a foundation of tracks that have legs, meaning that you can stand to listen to them over and over without having them become annoying or obvious. Once you have your foundation playlist built, you can add variety to it.”

Cerilli noted that, “at Radio Newport, we create sub-mixes of new material that gets added to the “foundation”. This allows us to go back to the core at any time, strip out the newly added and mix in a fresh list.

The “foundation” list is always there and it will end up defining the tone. It becomes a form of sonic branding.”

Tip #4: Keep the music volume in line with the crowd volume

Have you ever been to a place where the music suddenly seems to fade out, or even worse, starts blasting? Cerilli explains why:

“Volume is always dependent upon the amount of people in the space at any one time, and even those levels are going to change as the headcount goes up or down. This is especially true in a place where people are talking, like a restaurant or coffee shop. The more chatter, the more you can raise the volume to meet that background noise.

Take a busy restaurant in Newport for example. Saturday night the music volume is perfect at 5pm, then by 8pm the house is full and the music is barely audible. A manager turns up the music to meet the background chatter, which works until the restaurant starts to clear out at 11. Suddenly the music is too loud and everyone makes a dash for the volume.

It’s best to invest in a compressor/limiter to level out the relative volumes. Speakers should be positioned in the areas where people tend to gather and talk the loudest.”

But is there ever a case when you want the music to be loud all the time? “Always crank the music in the restrooms,” jokes Cerilli.

Tip #5: Don’t forget to cover your legal bases

Unfortunately, you can’t legally just spend a fortune on iTunes and put together a kick-butt playlist for your establishment. In fact, there have been quite a few bars in the news lately who have been getting sued for it.

“Just because you own the CD’s, you actually don’t have a legal right to play in public, says Cerilli. “You need to pay licensing based on capacity of your business.”

“Its best to contact both Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)  and The Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC), which are separate performing rights organizations,” warns Cerilli.

At the end of the day, you’ll be the one deciding what music floats the boats of your customers (unless of course, you hire Steve to do it for you). As long as people can hear themselves think and the music doesn’t distract from the experience itself, you should be fine.

If not, there’s always a jukebox, right?

Steve Cerilli is a Sound Design Consultant at Shortwave Recording Company. For more information, give him a call at 401-952-1186.

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