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Ambience music programming from the pen of a guy who does it

In the music business, it's all about getting one's music heard.  Nobody wants their songs to be relegated to airplay by some obscure college radio station in the wee hours of the morning.  In the radio business, musicians and record producers call a song that's played often "in rotation."  An enormous amount of time, money and energy are expended to get records into rotation by producers, musicians, but most of all, musicians' agents (and their evil henchmen, "music promoters.")  The individual who is the focus of the expense of time, money and energy is the music "program director" or "programmer."

Now, that's radio (and MTV).  Once the exclusive realm of Muzak, background (or "ambience") music programming is becoming big business.  Owners of public businesses, like restaurants, clubs, stores, casinos, etc. have been intelligenced by industrial psychologists that if the right music is playing in the background in their place of business, sales will increase.  Small businesses, like restaurants, often attempt to set-up their own ambience music, using everything from CD changers to computerized playback systems.  The not-so-savvy restaurateur simply plays what he or she likes, not taking into account that some of their customers may not like it.  However, savvy restaurateurs who read-up on important things like ambience are aware that, to effect a subliminal reaction in the customer (and hopefully increase sales) a professional must be retained.

There are a group of folks who program background music who caution against using vocal music (except at Christmas). The conventional wisdom is that vocals interfere with conversation, and instrumentals do not.  There are times, when creating a particular, classy type of ambience, that caution is thrown to the wind and classic vocals are used.  Western-themed restaurants and stores play classic Country and Western vocals.  Slick, retro bars and restaurants often play Frank Sinatra tunes and other Rat Pack-type vocals to evoke a time gone by.  An urban clothing store is expected to have the latest Hip Hop tunes blasting from the speakers.

My interests intersect where restaurants meet music.  Yep, I not only program music for our own places, but I have a business doing it for others.  It's a pretty small niche, mine; jazz and standards are my passion, and that's just about all I program.  If your venue doesn't fit, don't come see me.

Any music programmer, even one who's a small fish, like myself, eventually ends up on the promotional lists of a few major record labels and many, many smaller, independent labels.  That means the programmer who's been around a number of years receives no less than a CD a day from entities hopeful that their artists will be put in rotation at the venues the programmer services.  Pity the poor soul who submits a disc to a programmer with the hopes that the programmer will, somehow, change genre specialties because the music on their disc is just "soooo fantastic" that "everyone will like it."  Those discs get put in the circular file right away.

For an eclectic restaurant that stages live jazz performances three days a week, the ambience is best created with the songs of the Great American Songbook -- the most popular and memorable songs written since 1900. A vast majority of jazz vocals are stylized versions of selections from the Great American Songbook. Nat "King" Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin and many more singers obtained most of their repertoire from the Great American Songbook. Notice that all of the singers listed above are no longer with us. Does this mean that those who embrace the Great American Songbook and sing its repertoire are dying off? No. There are many young (and not-so-young) singers currently singing the Great American Songbook. However, they've got big shoes to fill.

Recently, out of an even dozen discs in play at this restaurant, only two were by living artists (Tony Bennett's "The Art of Excellence," and Queen Latifah's "The Dana Owens Album.") Customers at the restaurant, especially the older demographic, comment positively to management on the combination of smooth vocals and clever instrumental solos that they hear coming from the sound system. Not too long ago, a customer told me "the music here's great; but it sounds like you have to be dead to get your album played here!"

Beside Bennett and Latifah, the living singers represented in our music selection include Diana Krall, Linda Ronstadt, Diane Linscott, Daryl Sherman, Michael Bublé and more. (Just this year we lost Shirley Horn and Bobby Short.) "But your chances of being played are greater if you're dead..." my customer repeated.

So I guess it's true. One's chances of getting one's CD played at this place are, indeed, greater if you're dead.

Now let's move out of the Standards genre and into good, old-fashioned rock and roll.  Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain are all examples of folks whose music was popular while they were alive, but whose records skyrocketed up the Billboard charts once they were dead.  Does this mean that everyone's chances of being put into rotation are greater, if they're dead?

CAUTION:  If you're a musician and just read the last paragraph, don't go out and kill yourself!

UPDATE 26 March 2008: Someone must've linked a very popular writeup to this one; there's been a flurry of voting and commentary on this older piece. The style reeks of my early contributions to the site, and the gratuitous softlinks below underscore that fact. Worse, beside my place and three clients, I've discontinued actively marketing ambient sound systems that are computer controlled.

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