Behind the Bar
How Bar Music Affects Your Guests — And Your Staff
What if there was a free, easy way to promote cooperation among your employees or coworkers? If you ask Dr. Kevin Kniffen, Assistant Professor at Cornell University and one of the authors of a recent study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, music just might be the answer.
“Music in public spaces has been studied a lot by marketing researchers, and in that case, the interest is generally in what music is going to help influence customers or potential customers to make purchases or to linger,” says Kniffen. “In terms of music in relation to employees, there’s been little attention paid.”
The study explores the effects of different types of music on cooperative behavior using “happy” music (defined as rhythmic or upbeat music), no music, and screamo. “There was no difference between the screamo music and the no music,” says Kniffen. “Happy music caused this bump in cooperation, partly because of mood. We know that mood increased when happy music was played compared to the other conditions, but it also had a direct effect independent of the role of mood.”
As the Director of Music at Hotel Van Zandt in Austin, Texas, Lauren Bucherie thinks a lot about mood. “I've experienced firsthand as a consumer, but then as someone who works with music in hospitality, I see how it affects your emotions. It's sort of a manipulation tool, the way it gets you to do things and even really does dictate your mood,” she says. “I can see with the bar staff, if they're having a good time and if the energy is right, those things absolutely matter.”
Bucherie works with a music company to create playlists for each space throughout the Kimpton Hotel properties, and those playlists change based on time of day. “Putting yourself in those shoes: How do I want to start my evening? Or if it's 11 o'clock on a Saturday, how do I want to feel?” Bucherie checks in with the bartenders at Hotel Van Zandt’s Geraldine’s regularly to see how the music is working and take requests that fit within the general vibe of the space.
At Middle Branch, Lucinda Sterling, bartender and managing partner, is also watching the clock. “In the beginning of the night, a slower tempo type of music will be more inviting to a guest who's coming down from a long day at work and isn't necessarily looking for that upbeat vibe quite yet,” she says. “Around 8 or 9 o'clock is usually the time we'll pick up the tempo. That's the really critical time for our employees as well because we have to react a little bit faster to the turnover. Most people are going to drink faster when the sun goes down so that upbeat tempo will be really critical until probably about 1 o’clock.”
Next, she turns on Etta James. “You're either going to go home alone or you're going to go home with somebody,” says Sterling. “And so making sure that person gets into that mode of thinking like ‘okay, is this a time to seal the deal? Or is this a time to go ahead and close out and say our goodbyes?’ You want to get the guests in the mindset that they're going to have to leave soon without turning the music off completely.”
During open hours, Middle Branch plays music from a set playlist. “We pretty much stay away from music that was brought into the world after the fifties,” says Sterling. But before the bar opens, employees are encouraged to bring their own music to help them get into the zone. “I think that in the same way music can be relaxing, it can be very disturbing, so the right choice is important for that team to develop. In order to be cohesive, I think they need to talk about what kind of music everybody likes to listen to in order to get the bar open.” For her part, Sterling sometimes opens to heavy metal.
While a set playlist can be part of an enjoyable evening out for a guest, it can have unintended effects on an employee. Kniffen tells the story a former student shared in class about his summer working in a Jimmy Buffet-themed bar. “His statement was to the effect that he likes Jimmy Buffett as much as the next person, but listening to Jimmy Buffett all day long all summer long was a bit much.”
One way to temper the effects of a repetitive playlist is to get employees involved in choosing music. At Eighth Street Taproom in Lawrence, Kansas, the bartenders spin records and play mixtapes from a collection of cassettes. “The bartenders generally come in with their own cache of records,” says Jeremy Sidener, the general manager. “We also have a storage space upstairs and it's filled with records.” Occasionally, a guest will bring in an album and if it meets with the bartender’s approval, it will get played on the spot.
Kniffen champions this sort of employee ownership as a simple, free way to facilitate a better team. “Happy employees are going to help cause happy customers, and so I think that's among the reasons why, especially for bars or bar owners and managers, that the research points to the value of being attentive to employee preferences when it comes to music — and the research in this case pointing especially to happy kinds of music or rhythmic kinds of music as being much more likely to help cause this kind of cooperation and better mood among employees.”
“Employers that value cooperation amongst their employees can take away from the research findings that happy rhythmic music in the background would appear to help facilitate or cultivate more cooperation among coworkers,” says Kniffen. “It's a lot less expensive than these ‘team building activities’ just to be able to take advantage of something so mundane as a sound system.”
For Bucherie, music is effective both for staff and guests. “I think there will be more studies on this and how those things can actually be tracked down to the bottom line performance of our bars and restaurants,” says Bucherie. “There's a direct correlation on how you want to spend your time in a place based on how you're feeling, and you can enhance that and make that a great experience for the guests even just by the music you're picking to play.”