Piped water, piped electricity, piped gas--but never piped music! --Stephen Fry
I'm taking a quick international poll: If you are reading this column in a bookstore, tell me what kind of music is playing on the shop's sound system?
Generally speaking, what do you think of "piped music" in bookstores? I only ask because music seems to be on my mind this week, thanks to the impending Tony Awards Sunday (even though the only Broadway musical I've seen in recent years is Fun Home) and Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats playlist, showcased recently on the Powell's Books blog.
More to the point, I also read that Waterstones "has been quietly pressing the mute button in its shops to give their customers some peace as they browse its shelves." The U.K. bookstore chain, which "joined the growing backlash against piped music," said more than three quarters of its almost 300 shops have imposed a ban on music in recent years, with CEO James Daunt noting that most customers want peace and quiet while visiting a bookshop, the Daily Mail reported.
The movement against piped music also gained momentum recently when British mega-retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) announced its decision to "switch off background music in stores in response to feedback from customers and staff."
Tumbling down this virtual rabbit hole, I learned that an organization called Pipedown, which was founded two decades ago by Nigel Rodgers, counts Philip Pullman, Joanna Lumley and the aforementioned Stephen Fry among its supporters. Recently, Rodgers visited the M&S flagship Marble Arch store in London, where he told the Guardian he heard "nothing. When noise is succeeded by silence, there is a sense of release."
Last December, when Waterstones CEO James Daunt first announced that the company would begin turning down the in-store volume, Rodgers advised Pipedown members "to persist with their quiet policy, congratulate the staff in each quiet branch and hand over a blue card saying 'Thank you for not having music.' (Available free to members for an SAE.) Better still, write to James Daunt himself to urge him to continue his no-muzac policy and to congratulate him on revitalizing Waterstones."
More than half my work life was spent in music-infused retail environments, beginning with a supermarket job in the 1970s. To this day, I retain a distinct, spine-tingling memory of the butcher's band saw whining in counterpoint to Muzak. This is perhaps one reason why '60s flower children like myself remain a little bewildered. How could we psychologically process a catatonic string arrangement of "The Age of Aquarius," accompanied by steel cutting through flesh and bone?
Time moved on. By the 1990s, when I became a bookseller, there were logical retail grounds for inflicting piped music on bookstore customers in the form of increased CD sales. Playing a select rotation of CDs--soft jazz or classical or folk, minimal words--not only fostered a certain aural calm, it also consistently sparked patron's interest, despite moments of confusion:
Customer: "What's that playing? Do you have the CD in stock?"
Me (listening closely for the first time in hours, having instinctively learned how to not hear the endless music loop): "That? It's... Let me check. (quick glance at CD cases by stereo) It's George Winston's Forest."
Customer: "I think it's beautiful. Don't you?"
Me: "Um, sure... Let me show you where to find it."
(Customer follows, whistling an unrecognizable tune in the spirit of George Winston.)
Holiday season piped music. I guess I have to mention that. We sold buckets of those CDs, thanks to a lush wave of piped Yuletide tunes, ranging from solemn to jolly, punctuated at regular intervals by our PA system's semi-desperate calls for assistance at the customer service stations. Now that was an odd bit of accompaniment to carols: "Oh, Holy night, the... 'We need help at the front service desk, please!' ...of our dear Savior's birth."
Music is still in the air at most bookstores I visit now, but I like the fact that not every shop feels compelled to play only quiet stuff, the piped music equivalent of library shushing. While few bookstores would get away with cranking the volume to 11, the range of music played in-store expanded admirably, even as CD sales were losing their bookstore lives. Or maybe because they were.
What does the future hold? Would you believe Muzak for online shopping in the form of services like Feed.fm, which "is betting that music will be a default feature on retailers' mobile apps. And unlike Muzak, which used instrumental, rerecorded versions of songs, Feed is providing real tunes from real artists with playlists curated by the brands." Sci-fi authors will be hard-pressed to compete with that dystopian vision.
So, what's playing in your bookstore? I'd really like to know. Do you hear what I hear? --Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)