Is a hyper-curated playlist the new house-made charcuterie? Whether a restaurant’s playing Lady Gaga or Langhorne Slim says as much about the place as its Mason jar drinking glasses or farm-to-table pickle plate. And in an era when even Facebook tracks one’s music choices, restaurants are paying more attention than ever to what goes with the hickory-roasted carrots — not just the za’tar-laced creme fraîche but, say, also Lambchop (the band, not the meat).
When a customer walks into a restaurant — even before Jack White’s “Sixteen Saltines” becomes the soundtrack for the sunchoke soup — the music sets the tone for the dining experience, says Bill Chait, the restaurateur behind L.A.’s Short Order, Picca, Sotto, Rivera and Playa, among others. Up until the first appetizer arrives at the table, “it’s all visual and aural,” he says.
“People consider the music a demonstration of whether this place is for them.”
Restaurants are mining their employees’ iPods, consulting with DJs and increasingly turning to companies that create tailor-made playlists and position themselves as “music sommeliers” or, to coin audio-branding-speak, creators of a restaurant’s “sonic identity.”
Prescriptive Music, a Woodland Hills, Calif.-based music branding company that formulates highly customized playlists, says sales have increased 40 percent in the last year. More than a third of its business is restaurants, says founder Allen Klevens, “and growing.” Its clients are as varied as Farmshop in Santa Monica, Cut in Beverly Hills and the Umami Burger chain, as well as the new 35-seat Italian restaurant Gusto.
“I wanted music fine-tuned to the roots of my cooking and the space,” says Gusto’s Vic Culina — not just a channel such as Muzak’s “Italian Rock.” (Though even Muzak now offers “micro-genres” and media consultants for “a music experience handcrafted at the track level,” according to its website.)
Some are more hands-on than others. “We’ve been at a standstill with the whole notion of prepackaged playlists,” says Josh Pressman, a former music journalist who curates songs for Short Order, choosing each track himself. “But now it’s become cool to be yourself, which is a radical concept in the restaurant industry.”
On Pressman’s playlist: the Avett Brothers, Junior Kimbrough and Cloud Control. The Idle Race’s “Birthday” spurred one patron to tweet his excitement of its inclusion in the playlist, Pressman says. “I never thought anyone else would pick up on the song.”
Music has been part of a restaurant-industry transformation. Ever since Mario Batali blasted Led Zeppelin at Babbo in New York and Wolfgang Puck did much the same at Cut, rock ‘n’ roll’s inroad to the dining room has paralleled what Manhattan Beach Post’s David LeFevre calls “a great focus on casual-izing even serious food.”
“When I had a vision of the restaurant, I had a feeling that I really wanted to go for,” says LeFevre, who, along with his manager, selects his own music. “The restaurant bustling, people talking, grabbing the last bite of the dish on the table and the Ramones playing over the speakers.”
And might customers buy more if the Ramones are playing? The psychographic legacy of Muzak — which originally claimed that people would be more productive when exposed to gradually intensifying music and now brandishes the tagline “stir the senses, stimulate the sales” — still reverberates through the art of the restaurant playlist.
Michael Smith, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Playlist Generation, is quick to refer to studies showing music’s effect on customers. “A test titled ‘The Influence of Background Music on Restaurant Patrons’ showed sales increased 11.6 percent when up-tempo music was played during lunch,” he quotes from Restaurant Management magazine.
About 300 to 500 songs compose a typical restaurant playlist, says Prescriptive director of music programming Alix Rumsey, with four to five playlists to the day — lunch, happy hour, dinner, late night. You’re much more likely to hear the French electronica of Justice at 81 decibels on a Friday night at Cleo in Hollywood than you are on a Tuesday at Cut, which might be rocking the Who at 74 decibels. (Pseudoscience says people drink more to loud music.)
Playlist Generation uses survey questions to determine a client’s sonic attributes, which it somehow translates to a “sound,” broken down by subgenre (electronica, dream pop), ethnicity (Scandinavian, Jamaican, Japanese), vocal type (female, male), emotional keywords (quirky, sexy, trippy) and eras (2010, 2009, “obscure releases from the ‘60s and ‘70s”).
Others rely on more primal means of selection. “I go with what I like,” says Short Order’s Pressman. “My starting point is what I would want to listen to in my living room. Hopefully, it’s not anything that would make my grandmother scream.”
What’s on the soundtracks at Short Order, Bazaar, Cut and Son of a Gun.
A retro-ish mix of blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, unconventional folk and indie rock, to go with burgers, shakes and fries, courtesy of resident “music guy” Josh Pressman.
“Meet Me in the City” Junior Kimbrough
“Oh Well (Live at the BBC)” Fleetwood Mac
“Ten Thousand Words” the Avett Brothers
Electronic with a lot of European, particularly Spanish, music to match the modern tapas at the Bazaar and “salt air” margaritas at Bar Centro, courtesy of Prescriptive Music. Beware more bass Thursday to Saturday.
“Don’t Turn the Light On” Chromeo
“Pharaohs” SBTRKT (featuring Roses Gabor)
“Body Work” Morgan Page (feat. Tegan and Sara)
“Spectrum” Florence and the Machine
Classic rock, courtesy of Prescriptive Music. Says Wolfgang Puck, quoting Bruce Willis, “‘There’s nothing better than listening to ‘The Wall’ with a bone-in filet and a great bottle of wine.”
“Rebel Rebel” David Bowie
“You Shook Me” Led Zeppelin
“Have a Cigar” Pink Floyd
Son of a Gun:
What you’d listen to while angling for redfish in Tampa Bay, Fla. Hip-hop circa 1991 (and Jay-Z circa the Black Album), lots of ‘70s rock and pre-Nickajack Cave Johnny Cash, courtesy of director of operations Helen Johannesen and staff.
“Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” P.M. Dawn
“My 1st Song” Jay-Z
“Ring of Fire” Johnny Cash