in an era when even Facebook tracks one's music choices, restaurants are paying more attention than ever to what goes with the hickory-roasted carrots — not just the za'tar-laced creme fraîche but, say, also Lambchop (the band, not the meat). • When a customer walks into a restaurant, the music sets the tone for the dining experience, says Bill Chait, the restaurateur behind L.A.'s Short Order restaurant. • "People consider the music a demonstration of whether this place is for them."
At L.A.'s popular Son of a Gun restaurant — where the food had been called "beach shack food, tasty and inexpensive, dosed with hot sauce or vinegar, messy to eat, not meant to be anything more" — they play what you'd listen to while angling for redfish in Tampa Bay. Its playlist includes hip-hop circa 1991 (and Jay-Z circa the Black Album), lots of '70s rock and Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire.
Restaurants are mining their employees' iPods, consulting with DJs and increasingly turning to companies that create tailor-made playlists and position themselves as "music sommeliers" or, to coin audio-branding-speak, creators of a restaurant's "sonic identity."
Prescriptive Music, a Woodland Hills, Calif.-based music branding company that formulates highly customized playlists, says sales have increased 40 percent in the last year. Restaurants generate more than a third of its business, says founder Allen Klevens, "and growing."
Even Muzak now offers "micro-genres" and media consultants for "a music experience handcrafted at the track level," according to its website.
Some restaurants are more hands-on than others. "We've been at a standstill with the whole notion of prepackaged playlists," says Josh Pressman, a former music journalist who curates songs for Short Order, choosing each track himself. "But now it's become cool to be yourself, which is a radical concept in the restaurant industry."
On Pressman's playlist: the Avett Brothers, Junior Kimbrough and Cloud Control. The Idle Race's Birthday spurred one patron to tweet his excitement of its inclusion in the playlist, Pressman says. "I never thought anyone else would pick up on the song."
Music has been part of a restaurant-industry transformation. Ever since Mario Batali blasted Led Zeppelin at Babbo in New York, rock 'n' roll's inroad to the dining room has paralleled what Manhattan Beach Post's David LeFevre calls "a great focus on casual-izing even serious food."
The psychographic legacy of Muzak — which originally claimed that people would be more productive when exposed to gradually intensifying music and now brandishes the tagline "stir the senses, stimulate the sales" — still reverberates through the art of the restaurant playlist.
Michael Smith, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Playlist Generation, is quick to refer to studies showing music's effect on customers. "A test titled 'The Influence of Background Music on Restaurant Patrons' showed sales increased 11.6 percent when up-tempo music was played during lunch," he quotes from Restaurant Management magazine.
About 300 to 500 songs compose a typical restaurant playlist, says Prescriptive director of music programming Alix Rumsey, with four to five playlists to the day — lunch, happy hour, dinner, late night.
Playlist Generation uses survey questions to determine a client's sonic attributes, which it somehow translates to a "sound," broken down by subgenre (electronica, dream pop), ethnicity (Scandinavian, Jamaican, Japanese), vocal type (female, male), emotional keywords (quirky, sexy, trippy) and eras (2010, 2009, "obscure releases from the '60s and '70s").
Others rely on more primal means of selection. "I go with what I like," says Short Order's Pressman. "My starting point is what I would want to listen to in my living room. Hopefully, it's not anything that would make my grandmother scream."