The importance of music in pubs (and Simply f***ing Red)

July 31, 2015

Ask most pub-goers why they choose a specific pub as their local, and chances are they’ll have something like ‘My kind of people’ or ‘It’s got a good atmosphere’ at the top of the list, above even the choice of beers or the quality of the food. In these leaner times, in surveys about why people choose pubs, only ‘price’ challenges ‘atmosphere’.


The problem with atmosphere of course is that it is so difficult to define. You can’t just buy it in, even though many try. You have to understand it, even if you can’t put it into words.


Most pubs would say that the reason they play music is to ‘create atmosphere’, and this is the surest way of telling a good publican from a bad one.


One of my locals used to have a guv’nor who instinctively understood the relationship between music and atmosphere, and how to create the right ambience by painting with sound. The place is what’s known in the trade as a ‘chameleon pub’, one of those places that serves the whole community, but serves different groups within it at different times. On a Wednesday afternoon there’ll be freelancers sitting conspicuously, sipping coffee behind their Macbooks, while a couple of old soaks quietly pop up the bar. On a Sunday lunchtime it’s full of families eating roast dinners, their pushchairs turning the route to the toilet into an obstacle course. And on Friday and Saturday nights there’s security on the door, a DJ on the decks, and the whole place is jumping.


When Andy was on duty in his pub, the soundtrack matched the occasion perfectly: unobtrusive and mellow through the weekdays, a bit of tasteful retro pop on Sundays, and the kind of music that people yell ‘TUNE!” at on a Saturday night.


But when it was one of his days off and the junior staff were in charge of the CDs, it often went wrong. Remember teenage parties where you used to argue about whose turn it was to play the next record, where you’d sit impatiently through Simply Red before you could impress everyone with your New Order album, because these guys claimed to like dance music and actually, none of their favourite bands would even exist without New Order, so you know they’ll like it, or at least they should, but when you put it on, because they don’t recognise of from the charts they say they hate it and ask for Simply Red to be put back on again, but it’s still your turn so you sit miserably by the record player, guarding it with your arm, a pariah until the song has finished?


Or was that just me?


Either way, imagine that person not beside your mate’s record player, but behind the bar of a mixed pub. If they were playing your own teenage music selection it would be bad enough. But someone else’s, a generation removed, can be intolerable enough to make the self-conscious freelancer plug their headphones into their Macbook – a bizarre thing to do in a communal space such as a pub, or at least it should be.


Every music lover loves the thrill of hearing one of your favourite tracks in a public space. It’s more potent over a public system than at home, and far more so than listening to it in your headphones, turning public spaces private. Particularly when you didn’t choose it, it establishes a kind of communion, if not between everyone, then between you and at least one other person.


But a good bar person has to be like a good DJ. You need to feel the room, and feel your way through it, surfing the atmosphere, nudging it this way and that. Show me a DJ who plays a succession of their own favourite records, unbending in the order they chose previously, and I’ll show you an empty dance floor.


It makes no difference that most of us in pubs most of the time want to talk rather than dance, or rather, it makes a huge difference, but not to the manner in which you choose the music. You have to be selfless. And if the atmosphere says it’s time to talk, not dance, both the style and volume of the music must respect that.


Of course, many people don’t want music in their pubs at all, and there are boozers that cater for them. But in most public spaces now, music is deemed essential to people enjoying their experience.


I was in a branch of Yo! Sushi at lunchtime recently, sipping my Miso soup next to a young family while a gangsta rapper screamed “Muthafucka” repeatedly, at a volume to drown out any conversation. Presumably this was meant to make me feel like I was having a better time, that there was a better ‘atmosphere’.


I’ve never been in a pub quite that bad (though I know people who have). The truth is, music does create atmosphere – that’s one of the main reasons we listen to it. It’s why films have soundtracks.


The soundtrack to my life is different from yours, but the pub is where we intersect. The music should be as well chosen and looked after as the beer. Even if, at that time of day, in that particular pub, it does mean listening to Simply fucking Red.