Your Olive Garden DJ, no matter where you are in America, can be found sitting in a nondescript office in downtown Austin. She chose the songs you’re hearing at least a month in advance; she has a Ph.D in ethnomusicology.
Amy Frishkey works at Mood Media. In 2011, Mood became parent company to Muzak LLC, the company founded 80 years ago by a WWI general to produce background music for 20th century society. The original mission of enhancing otherwise mundane experiences in quasi-commercial settings hasn’t really changed much in the intervening years.
But the stakes are much higher now that technology has made it easier to perform a version of Frishkey’s job. And as more brands try to zero-in on the same target demographic (you know the one), the sounds being requested are becoming more homogenus.
Mood now works with dozens of clients at 500,000 locations both in the U.S. and abroad, from Ray-Ban to AT&T to Chase to Smashburger—all clients Frishkey’s colleague Bo White works with. White has been with Mood for 10 years, and has served as a music designer for eight. He says his clients have become much more knowledgeable about newer sounds, and as a result, brands are looking for playlists that include more radio-friendly hits.
“Even in [America’s] breadbelt, you’ll see see indie electro being requested to speak to younger customers,” he said.
Frishkey has seen the same thing, noting she has used British artists Florrie, the Ting Tings, and Swedes Icona Pop for multiple brands.
This indie pop genre genre “has a beat, it has an attitude, it has electronic, fun element,” designed for “a brand that wants to tap into what’s ‘more popular now.’”
Not every client is going after 18-34 year-old shoppers. Olive Garden, for instance, continues to stick with a big-band, old-school “homestyle” vibe, although the company has also added some adult contemporary. Danny Turner, Mood’s Global Senior Vice President of Programming and Production, said the company’s music designers are in many cases able to be “refreshingly oblivious” to what’s hot now if a client is simply requesting a particular in-store feel or experience.
That’s why CVS is now the only place you’ll ever hear one of the best songs of the ‘90s, “Here’s Where The Story Ends,” by The Sundays, outside of you personally dialing it up on YouTube or Spotify.
“We’ve got the luxury of going with our heart,” Turner said.
There are a subset of decisions that go into the playlists Mood creates, from location and even to the time of day, or what meal is being served.
And many companies—though certainly not all—also take into account what their retail employees want to hear while they’re working. Sunglass Hut, according to Turner, has its own music advisory board made up store associates, managers, and corporate officials who regularly get together with Mood for a “two-day deep dive branding workshop.”
Asked to name the most popular artist used at Mood, Frishkey and White both named George Ezra. Here’s his hit song “Budapest.”
White called this genre “Adult Album Alternative,” or AAA. Music like this, Frishkey said, “seems consistent in energy level, in its mood, it’s not going to jar you,” Frishkey said. “It does a good job of mediating between music you’d enjoy, and music that is calling attention to brand and want you to buy.”
But Frishkey acknowledged that streaming may pose a threat unlike background music has ever seen. “We have to work harder to differentiate ourselves and argue for our relevance,” she said.
One way Mood does this is by getting labels to pay them to debut exclusive artists or tracks for specific brands. An indie pop band called Echosmith, for instance, got an exclusive showcase for one Mood client shortly before their hit "Cool Kids" made it into Billboard's Top 20.
And they remain optimistic that brands will continue to appreciate having someone who’s spent their life listening to music at their decks. White said he dropped indie artist Toro y Moi's first single "Blessa" into a few of his "programs" well before anyone had even heard of the now-critic darling.
“To walk into a store and hear that they’re playing what you’ve created at exactly the right volume right volume, and have a sales person tell you it’s ‘super cool,’ it’s gratifying,” Frishkey added.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.