Tone-Setting Tunes

In the Café

tone-setting tunes

Coffee may be at the heart of your business, but the power of the music played at your café cannot be underestimated. Whether it serenades softly in the background or takes center stage on a live concert night, music plays a large part in forming your cafe’s atmosphere—and can impact your bottom line.

“Music can be fairly influential on a positive or less-than-positive customer experience,” says Matt Milletto, co-owner of the American Barista and Coffee School and Water Avenue Coffee Company in Portland, Oregon.

Researchers have dedicated numerous studies to examine music’s effect on the consumer experience. Lars Perner, assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, says the music played at your café can impact your guests at an unconscious level.

Studies show the pace of played music can affect how long people stay at your shop, so Perner suggests coffee shop owners experiment with the speed of their background music.

Studies show the pace of played music can affect how long people stay at your shop.

“If you have a rush at a certain time of the day, you may want to avoid music that is too slow paced because it may cause people to linger,” says Perner. “On the other hand, during other times of the day when you hope for people to stay and have a second cup of coffee, you may want to have more slow-paced music.”

Other factors key in creating a pleasant environment at your shop are music volume and appropriate genre, says Milletto, which may change according to the time of day. Customer preferences, branding, licensing, who determines playlists, and special music-related events held at your café are all considerations when managing café music.

At Brew Ha Ha, a boutique chain of ten cafés in northern Delaware, owner Alisa Morkides uses music, along with decor, to create an ambience that blends in with the community.

For the most part, Morkides puts musical selections in her managers’ hands: they can turn on a satellite station (from the ten to fifteen choices Morkides supplies) they feel blends in with the local community and feel of their store. They may also tweak the music per time of day.

“Morning is often a little more upbeat and afternoons can go a little more chill,” she says.

Morkides also believes employees should play a part in deciding on her cafés’ playlists.

“You definitely want to be happy when you’re working, and music will do it,” explains Morkides. “I want [employees] to feel like they can have some control over what their work environment is like.”

tone-setting tunes
(Photos: Andrei Bocan)

On the other hand, Milletto believes a customer-centered focus is the best approach when it comes to music.

“It’s really important to understand that the music is an element that’s in place for the customers, not necessarily the staff,” Milletto says.

At Subculture Coffee Roasters in Florida, co-owner Sean Scott sometimes involves customers by inviting them to curate playlists, but often selects tunes himself throughout the day and uses conversations with the staff to guide the musical selections.

Subculture emphasizes an inclusive environment—one that caters to the mixed demographics within the surrounding buildings (including a courthouse and college) of their city-center location. The result is an eclectic mix of genres ranging from oldies to dub step.

Scott’s musical special events also set his café apart, including a monthly Taco and Hip-Hop Night, an old-school block party in Subculture’s alley attracting roughly 1,000 people.

At Brew Ha Ha, tunes are also designed to blend into the feel of the community. Morkides offers live music at one of her cafés on Friday nights, also helping to distinguish the business’s brand. These evenings have been a hit so far: patrons are excited, and alcohol, drink, and food sales show a boost during these events.

Café owners can face penalties ranging from $750 to over $30,000 per unlicensed song, so arranging licensing is important.

While concerts can draw in new customers, Morkides recommends operators think about the potential costs of live music, amounting to potentially thousands of dollars a year in licensing fees. (Canned music can have costly fees, too.)

When choosing their musical set-up, operators either pay a fee included in the digital music package they’ve purchased, or check in with licensing agencies in their area to ensure they’re paying appropriate licensing fees for playing these tunes at their cafés.

Café owners can face penalties ranging from $750 to over $30,000 per unlicensed song, so arranging licensing is important. Various licensing restrictions apply depending on elements like café square footage, how music is played (e.g. through TV, radio, or iPod), the number of speakers in a room, or if a cover fee is charged. Licensing fees can be paid to performing rights organizations (PROs) including BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. Each organization provides licensing for different song lists, so businesses may need to pay fees to more than one PRO.

For their day-to-day music, both Morkides and Levine use DMX radio systems, while Scott uses subscription services like Apple music and Pandora.

Above all, when considering the types of music to play at their shops, Scott encourages other operators to view music as much more than just background noise.

“Coffee has always been much more than the actual product,” says Scott. “It’s creating space for people to have meaningful relationships, and music speaks that language.”

Carimé Lane is a freelance writer in Vancouver, British Columbia.