Last weekend, I left my apartment and made my way to a large room full of strangers. We were all listening to music, whether or not we thought about it. Familiar songs piped through overhead speakers as we shuffled around one another, taking care to remain six feet apart. There was no dancing or singing along to the lyrics, and the DJ was invisible. This is what a screen-free collective listening experience looks like in pandemic times: going to Target.
Using an app to identify songs, I learned that the branch off Highway 100 in St. Louis Park was playing “The One I Love” by the Molochs when I arrived at peak hours on a Saturday afternoon. Later, in the cosmetics aisle, it was Santigold’s “Can’t Get Enough of Myself.”
Search “music’s influence on consumer behavior,” and you’ll find numerous studies and articles eager to pull back the curtain on how the tempo, the genre, and even the country of origin of in-store music helps fill shopping carts. For example, lower tempos cause shoppers to spend more time in stores and tally longer receipts. Classical in the background may motivate people to pay more for the same products than other styles would.
Music hasn’t always been part of the shopping experience at the Minneapolis-based retail chain. If I’d gone to Target back in, say, 2008, the only soundtrack would have been the squeak of cart wheels or my panicked breathing while choosing among dozens of toothpaste brands. But after testing music in several of its Minnesota stores in 2011, Target outfitted locations nationwide with sound systems as part of a large 2017 remodeling plan.
“As part of our ongoing tests to continually improve guests’ shopping experiences, Target first tested overhead music in fall 2011 when our Ridgedale store in Minnetonka, MN, was remodeled,” Target representative Jacqueline DeBuse wrote in an e-mail. “Guest and team member feedback was almost universally positive.”
More than 1,000 Target stores are currently playing music — the same songs simultaneously, actually — and DeBuse says the company will continue to add this feature to new stores and remodels “as a fun element while guests shop.”
Is there someone sitting in a downtown Minneapolis office tower spinning shopping songs for the nation? As much as I wish it was someone’s job to DJ stores in real time, in reality, Target outsources its music curation to Texas-based Mood Media, a company that supplies background music experiences to major retail clients.
Back in 2017, when stores were first rolling out overhead music, a Target representative told the Los Angeles Times that the company requested “upbeat” tunes that fit Target’s playful branding. Similarly, DeBuse added in her e-mail that Target “look(s) to create playlists with music that is upbeat, positive and has a playful personality.”
In that same Los Angeles Times piece, Danny Turner, Mood’s senior vice president of programming and production, revealed a bit of what goes into creating a playlist for corporate clients. DJs work to do “a deep dive into the DNA of the brand,” he said, and pull together a mix that will project a company’s desired identity.
Interestingly, in 2011, Mood Media acquired a firm whose original name one may associate with the inside of a dentist’s office or a John Lennon-penned dig at Paul McCartney and Wings.
Muzak, first founded in the 1930s, supplied background music for retail stores and other establishments. In the 1940s, the company began experimenting with customizing the pace and style of music to influence productivity and sold workplaces instrumentals that gradually increased in tempo over 15-minute increments, followed by 15 minutes of silence. This “stimulus progression” was backed by research that indicated workers could be lifted out of fatigue with rhythmic tunes.
Another of Muzak’s well-known subliminal dealings in the workplace resulted in the moniker “elevator music.” Soothing sounds piped into newly invented elevators were thought to quell workers’ fears as they hurtled into the sky for the first time.
Back at Target, “Stay” by Alessia Cara and Zedd was playing while I searched in vain for a block of tofu. I imagined what it must have been like to be one of the first elevator passengers or work in a factory under sounds growing steadily more insistent. It could be that Target’s playlists nowadays operate in a space between quelling my nerves about parting with my money and increasing my energy to spend it. In the past, Muzak focused on the mechanics of music: the tone, pace, style. Now, in our world of unlimited streaming, brands want to do more than influence customers with auditory uppers and downers; they want to share a story.
I heard three more songs before hitting the checkout aisle: “Tiny Little Bows” by Carly Rae Jepsen, “Soak Up the Sun” by Sheryl Crow, and “Pale Shelter” by Tears For Fears. The collection of songs I heard on my trip were released between 1992 and 2017. Artists ranged from chart-toppers like Sheryl Crow and Zedd to the Molochs, an LA-based indie band with less than 4,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. They alternate in tone and tempo, from dubstep-adjacent beat drops to the mind-numbing soft rock of the early aughts.
In July 2020, Mood Media filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing challenges including coronavirus-related shutdowns at the company’s retail clients and the rising costs of music licensing. It was quickly rescued with $240 million in exit term loans. “The convergence of technology, public health concerns, and the advent of a “new normal” presents both challenges and opportunities,” Mood Media SVP Strategic Alliances, Eric Sinoway told Billboard Insider in October.
Overhead music must be appealing to a wide variety of shoppers, must be present without seeming intrusive, and, most importantly, must help customers form positive associations with a brand. In a world where brick-and-mortar stores are going out of style, where thousands of “dead malls” stand barely occupied, and a viral disease further motivates shoppers to order online — perhaps while streaming their own selection of tunes — the role of overhead music may be increasingly important.