Saturday, 10 September 2016

Time to face the muzak

'Tranquillity lubricates the soul, piped music destroys it.' - Spike Milligan.

According to the Good Pub Guide, music is the top complaint by pub goers. The guide's editor stated: "Piped music, canned music, muzak, lift music, airport music, call it what you will, it’s there and our readers loathe it in any shape or form. It enlists bitter complaints from our readers and has done so ever since we started the guide 35 years ago." Various surveys have confirmed this point, and Curmudgeon has agreed in his post, Pipe Down.

Reading the original article and Curmudgeon's post, there are three main reasons for disliking piped music:
  • It distracts from conversations and actually disrupts them if too loud.
  • It is someone else's choice of music, which is especially irritating if you don't like it.
  • It can cause particular difficulties for people with hearing problems.
To these I would add:
  • As piped music is usually on all the time, you can't escape it, except by not using the pub at all.
  • Treating music as aural wallpaper devalues it.
It would seem that some licensees believe that music creates 'atmosphere'. While this is probably true, I'm certain that irritation is not the kind of atmosphere they have in mind. I have yet to hear anyone say: "Let's go to the Pipe and Drum; they've got excellent muzak there."

Shops can be as bad. I wrote this on Curmudgeon's blog: "What I do find more irritating is music in supermarkets in the run-up to Xmas: from next month, we can expect Roy Wood, Slade, Paul McCartney, Wham!, and all the others from late October to Xmas Eve. I now dislike all those Xmas singles, including any I used to like." I always feel particularly sorry for the shop assistants who have to suffer it throughout every working day for a couple of months.

It's not just pubs and shops: there can also be too much music on television and radio. A programme about, say, the early 1940s will almost always be accompanied by Glenn Miller. I like Glenn Miller in small doses, but at that time people did not live their lives surrounded by music, Glenn Miller or otherwise, so it is not authentic. All-pervasive background music really began in the 1960s with the advent of cheap, portable transistor radios and hi fi systems that replaced radiograms. TV dramas sometimes include pop or sad singer-songwriter songs to create atmosphere, but I often find them a distraction from the plot. The same with the excessive use of classical music in 'Morse': as it is not incidental music, it demands too much of your attention and gormlessly over-eggs the point that Morse likes classical music. Even radio documentaries sometimes insert music when the only connection is that the song has a phrase that happens to coincide with the topic under discussion, but is otherwise utterly irrelevant. It's as though they think we cannot understand something unless it's hammered home in the most obvious and clumsy way possible.

Getting back to pubs, it's a bean counter's view of music as a feature to be added, in the same way as the decor, furnishings, paintwork, carpets and so on. It is not intended to be enjoyed in its own right: it's part of a package but, as there is no music that appeals to everyone, if it's not what you would choose, it's an intrusion, whereas you can usually ignore a carpet you don't like.

One strange thing happened to me with piped music. A pub I used to go to regularly did play background music. I having a pint with my friend Geoff when a familiar song came on: it was my own recording of a song that he and I had co-written. I'd previously sold the CD to the landlady, and it seems that she'd put it in the piped music selection. Sadly, there was no rush to the bar by eager customers demanding to know more about the song.

The Good Pub Guide is not to be confused with CAMRA's Good Beer Guide.


  1. I have yet to hear anyone say: "Let's go to the Pipe and Drum; they've got excellent muzak there."

    Beg to differ. I may never have commented on it to another person, but I could name you two bars near me of which I'd say that a particularly good line in piped music was part of their appeal; three if you count the one with the free jukebox (making the music you'd hear on any given evening highly unpredictable). Sadly, only one of the three still offers the quality & variety they used to. The free jukebox in one bar has disappeared, while it turns out that the soundtrack in one of the other two was the 'random selection' setting on the (normal) jukebox in the corner - which the owner couldn't afford to keep running, because nobody was putting any money into it (because the 'random selection' setting was too good, ironically).

    So there aren't many bars I'd go to for really good piped music - and sometimes I do prefer the traditional background silence of the English pub - but there are some.

  2. I suppose there's always going to be an exception, but I never have heard anyone go to a pub because of the piped music. A jukebox is not the same because the customers can choose what they are listening to.

    1. I doubt if it's always 'the customers' but in my experience it is more likely to be a small group of customers, or even just one who choose what to impose on the rest. This happens in one of my local pubs and the main 'culprits' are regulars (and always men) in their fifties who like to play pop music from their youth. They also like to ask for the volume to be turned up, which is inappropriate for a small pub with a mostly wooden décor (since the last carpets were ripped up). To their credit, the (much younger) bar staff do try to keep the noise to tolerable levels.

      A friend of mine told me that some years ago on a pub crawl of Sheffield with a group of friends, they went into a pub new to them which turned out to have poor and surly service and poor beer as well. They got some change together and put something like 'White Christmas' on the jukebox for ten plays in succession, leaving after the second time round. He never found if someone pulled the plug or the regulars just sat through it.

  3. Nev - was that pub we were in The Falstaff?

  4. I think most people would actively seek out a pub that plays decent music, and of course as everyone's definition of decent varies, then different pubs will cater to different tastes.

    Whether its a jukebox or whether its music chosen by the bar staff is irrelevant. If you don't like the music, you've simply accidentally wandered into the wrong pub, aimed at a different clientele with a different taste in music to yourself.

    1. You'd have something of a point PY if all piped music were carefully chosen with the tastes of the customers in mind, but all too often it reflects only the preferences of the licensee or the bar staff.

      This post was not about all music - only piped music.

  5. My blog states: "Comments, including disagreements, are welcome. Abuse and spam are not and will be deleted on sight."

    Offensive post by PY deleted.


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