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Bad Music in Public Spaces

DMX, it turns out, was responsible for the turgid dinner mix I’d heard at the resort. This was Channel 22, Beautiful Instrumentals. Then again, the Chet Baker mix I’d enjoyed over breakfast was also a DMX stream: Channel 5, Straight-Ahead Jazz. Perhaps they weren’t wholly evil after all. Later I spoke to the resort’s GM and gently suggested that he reconsider the dinner music. He made no promises, though the phrase “melon scooper in my eardrum” was, I thought, fairly convincing. Still, one man’s Mantovani is another man’s Mingus. Who’s to say the regular clientele won’t prefer Beautiful Instrumentals to Straight-Ahead Jazz?

This is the fundamental problem with music in public spaces. Not everyone has an opinion about the proper temperature of the salmon or the aesthetic merit of that floral arrangement. But everyone has an opinion about music. There’s no accounting for taste, especially that of your customers. No wonder so many places farm their music out to professionals.

My friend Jeremy Abrams is one of those professionals. His consulting company, Audiostiles, devises playlists for Thomas Keller’s restaurants and Four Seasons Hotels, among other clients. The service is as much about branding as it is about entertainment. As Abrams explains on his website, “Décor, accessories, and clothes all create image, persona, and mood…. Music now does the same.” A well-chosen “soundscape” also says, “Trust us, we’re hip. Even if we didn’t program this iPod.”

The idea that piped-in music could actually be hip is a relatively new one. Perhaps I’m just getting old and out of touch, but lately I’ve been hearing songs I like in the Container Store. Eight times out of 10 they still subject you to James Blunt, but just when you’re ready to hang a noose around that Elfa closet rod, along comes Arcade Fire to set everything right.

The sea change, for me, came on a recent flight on Delta. It’s been my experience that music, like food, is best avoided on passenger jets. So imagine my surprise at actually enjoying Delta’s boarding music—even writing down the names of songs to buy later: Grant Lee Phillips’s “Fountain of Youth,” M. Ward’s “For Beginners,” Jeremy Messersmith’s cover of the Replacements’ “Skyway” (my favorite song by my favorite band). When was the last time you discovered great music on an airplane?

For the most part, though, the song remains the same. Three hours later I was in the airport waiting out a layover when my ears pricked up at a familiar line: “Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago.../Across the north and south to Key Lah-go....” It suddenly struck me that I’ve heard “Smooth Operator” more times than I’ve heard “Born to Run,” more often than I’ve listened to NPR’s All Things Considered, maybe more than I ever heard my own grandmother speak. It’s not as if I chose to; I never owned the recording (and if I did I wouldn’t tell anyone). Yet at that particular moment, I confess, it was the ideal sound track. The lazy spirals of saxophone melted the stress of the commute away. The epic line at security didn’t loom as large. I had considered popping a Xanax, but no longer felt the need.

Jeremy Abrams, founder of Audiostiles, creates custom-made soundtracks for hotels and restaurants around the world. Here, his exclusive T+L play lists, guaranteed to set the right mood for your beach getaway, romantic country retreat, and urban weekend.

Peter Jon Lindberg, Travel + Leisure’s editor-at-large, never leaves home without noise-canceling headphones.

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