The crucial ingredient in the world's best bars is one that isn't poured from a bottle.
Think about bars with no music for a minute. Sounds terrible, right? Life in Singapore during the last six months without audio in venues has really hammered home the importance of background noise for the complete guest experience. No soundtrack to back your night can make even the world’s leading bars a sullen and dull affair.
Every bartender has been behind the stick on a quiet Tuesday night, silently cringing for that couple on the most awkward of Tinder dates you could possibly fathom. Now take a pause and imagine being able to hear every word of said conversation, every nervous chair scrape or glass readjustment in a silent room. It has been tough, and the collective sigh of relief in Singapore’s hospitality community when the ban was lifted was palpable.
A long time ago, in a bar far, far away, a mentor drilled into me that music and lighting are two of the most important factors to consider when developing your bar concept. Guests will forgive a drink or dish that isn’t perfect, or a bad interaction with a bartender if you make them feel comfortable where they are sitting. But put them in a room with harsh overhead fluorescent lighting and a playlist of early 90s cheesy Europop and they’ll be out the door faster than Sam Bygrave can scull a Daiquiri!
Music can affect everybody in the bar in an individualistic manner, whilst bringing the room together in what can only be described as a communal tour de force (anyone who has been in Shady Pines Saloon on a Sunday night singing along to Wagon Wheel can attest to that.) Guests feed off the energy you provide them — they leave their house in search of the ambiance that our bars, clubs and restaurants promise. There are very few abstract ideas that can affect the atmosphere of a venue as much as the lovingly crafted playlists we showcase.
The right track selection creates an air of authority, they make an interior feel authentic and lived in, whilst providing a sonic anchor to the overall concept for guests. All too often I walk into bars, and they are playing elevator instrumentals or “Generic House Vol 3” for the sake of music. When the wrong song is played in a venue it makes the whole experience feel disjointed. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but something feels off: the vibe isn’t right, it makes you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t hang around too long for a second or third drink.
Your venue's soundtrack helps to define your bar in the guest’s mind. They know upon walking into a loud raucous space playing hip hop or indie alternative that they are in for a bit of a looser night — one which will probably include a few shots, maybe someone dancing on a bartop, and a kebab on the way home. A backdrop of Gatsby-era jazz might suggest a more laidback sophisticated evening, filled with Manhattans, esoteric conversation, and a kebab on the way home.
If you’re designing a bar from the ground up, I implore you to get a sound engineer onboard as early as possible. The sooner they can create a sound schematic for your space the better your venue’s acoustics will be. Bars are notorious for using systems that are not set up for the correct environment and having hard surfaces which bounce soundwaves all around the room rather than absorbing and creating optimum conversational zones. Your choice of sound system (and budget) is equally as important, but don’t fall for the glossy shine of certain bluetoothed systems (*cough Sonos cough*) which are unreliable in service when linked and can cause more problems than they solve when there is a connection drop out or hardware failure.
I’ve been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to create multiple venue playlists through the last few years whilst also working in tandem with music consultants. Some memorable pieces of guidance they have passed over to me is to never deviate from your chosen music direction and to take your music offline — don’t rely on the internet to always be there, have it downloaded onto your system (onto two systems just in case), have a back-up player, squirrel away a stash of cassettes, maracas, CDs or vinyl, anything to avoid that dreaded dead air that no one wants in a bar. The best playlist in the world can only be as strong as the system it’s played on, so stretch the budget as far as you can, don’t cut corners because it’s ‘only music’ and give your guests the aural pleasure they deserve.
Oh, and for the love of all things holy, please stop playing Closing Time by Semisonic at the end of an evening, it’s not big and it’s not clever.