As I sit in the office writing this, Groove Armada’s 2007 hit ‘Song 4 Mutya’ is playing in the background. You probably only half-remember the song (if at all). I, however, am very familiar with it, as it’s in seemingly permanent rotation on our office Sonos.
It’s no exaggeration to say the song gets played at least once a day here – often, twice or thrice. Over time, my feelings towards ‘Song 4 Mutya’ have, understandably, deteriorated. I was once indifferent to it; I now loathe every wretched, jubilant second of it.
Still – it’s better than silence. There’s nothing more distractingly unnerving than a music-free office, soundtracked only by click-clacking keyboards and awkward throat-clearing. It’s hard to devise energetic, ingenious campaigns in a library-like atmosphere.
And I’d sooner listen to ‘Song 4 Mutya’ on a loop than explore the other option: taking control of the agency’s office playlist myself. That’s a minefield I refuse to enter, because there’s zero chance of choosing a soundtrack perfectly suited to all your colleagues’ personal tastes and current emotional states. Conversely, there are an almost infinite number of ways to do people’s heads in. Your selections can be too ravey, too rocky, too Drakey, too shouty, too emo, too fast, too slow, too edgy, too safe…
Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ
At Don’t be Shy, the thankless role of In-House Sonos Jockey most often falls to Charlotte Howard (official job title: senior campaigns manager). “You’re never going to please everyone, so I just choose the music that’s least likely to make people feel actively upset,” she says, wearily. “I lean on mainstream Spotify playlists – pop, dance, R’n’B, hip-hop – that focus on 1997 to 2007. That seems to be the period that provokes the most positive reactions, and the fewest negative ones.”
So, who should be in charge of an agency’s office stereo? Is a full democracy the best way to go, with musical responsibility cycling through a roster of willing volunteers? Or should a single benevolent dictator take charge, pandering to majority taste and quashing any dissent? And if the latter, who should that person be? Would you trust anyone in your office to wield such power?
Alternatively, you could abdicate the responsibility to a professional. Dave Chase is the founder of LTSNR, a company dedicated to “helping brands sound better”. LSTNR has consulted on music strategy (including playlist curation) for companies like Chanel, Harley Davidson, and Bang & Olufsen.
“We’re often asked to create playlists to soundtrack a business’s day-to-day operations,” says Chase. “That soundtrack may be intended for external use – in a store, for example – or internally, in an office or design studio. Sometimes it’s for a single, specific event, such as a meeting between two CEOs where one wants to subliminally impress the other.
“So the first thing to consider is: what do you want people to feel? How do you want them to react? Do you want people to notice the music? Do you want it to be in the background? Does it need to dovetail with the company’s creative vision? Is it integral to the success of the business?
“When you’re curating a soundtrack for a workplace, you want to be guided by the perspective of the company, but you also need to consider the people working in that environment day-to-day, to ensure they’re not being dictated to, detrimentally.
“For example: we created a very cutting-edge, heavily stylized playlist for one particular brand. But when we asked the employees what they actually wanted to listen to, they said Tiesto – a million miles away from what was on the super-cool, brand-aligned playlist. They needed something energetic and uplifting to work to, so we needed to accommodate that.”
Any other pitfalls to avoid? “You do need to be careful about swearing. Many people are still very offended by it. An uncurated playlist of edgy hip-hop is the most obvious risk in that regard, but F-bombs can come from anywhere. Another Love by Tom Odell, for example: a very Radio 2-sounding song, but the non-radio edit features an unexpected ‘fucking’ halfway through. In a workplace, that F-bomb really sticks out. It hangs in the air.”
The science of agency bangerz
As a copywriter, my personal workplace no-no is hip-hop. Not because I dislike it – hip-hop is, in fact, my favorite genre – but because I find the avalanche of lyrics impossible to write to. And science affirms I’m not just being a precious little fusspot.
“The brain has finite resources for dealing with tasks such as language processing,” says neuroscientist professor Nicola Ray of Manchester Metropolitan University. “So if you’re using up mental bandwidth half-listening to lyrics, you’re throttling your creative writing capabilities.”
Unfortunately, scientific research is yet to identify any music that could act as a one-size-fits-all turbocharger for marketers. Professor Ray: “Several studies have looked at the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ – the belief that listening to Mozart for 10 to 15 minutes boosts your cognitive and creative abilities.
“The studies have found no real evidence for this, however. Some participants showed mild, short-lived upticks in cognitive abilities, but the same effect can be achieved using pretty much any music – and may simply be down to the participant taking a 10- to 15-minute break from their daily tasks, which they could do in total silence.”
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Please don’t stop the music
Maybe your agency’s in-house soundtrack isn’t worth getting too het up over, then. If you can keep everyone half-happy and avoid any music-fuelled meltdowns, you’re probably doing okay. Saying that, it’s always worth double-checking your queued tracks when clients are on their way in – as Kess Crighton, our account director, affirms.
“The thought of a client arriving at the office for a meeting, and something like Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ comes on the office stereo… That’s an anxiety-dream scenario for me.”