Would you trust AI with the aux?

Customers flicking through hand-me-downs in the north London charity shop where Daniel Tucci volunteers do so to the sound of soft Cuban jazz. Just don’t tell his boss.

Despite its not-for-profit status, the shop outsources control of the songs played in its store to a company that relies on both “music supervisors” and “artificial intelligence” to pick the supposedly perfect tunes. The only problem, according to Tucci*, is that neither party has especially good taste. And so behind his manager’s back he plays his own selection instead.

While the likes of Blackstone and Apollo have in recent years moved to snap up the rights to popular songs, a host of start-ups have begun offering their curatorial services to brands like McDonald’s, Ralph Lauren and now, apparently, even humble thrift shops. But if private equity is the DJ and shops are the dance floor, where does that leave the rest of us?

The idea that the right song can encourage you to splash the cash isn’t new — Muzak started writing music for companies in the 1930s. Eighty years later it was acquired by Mood Media, one of the biggest “in-store media solutions” companies in the world.

Rival background music groups have since upped the ante. Swedish company Soundtrack Your Brand first added machine learning technology to its curation strategy three years ago, shortly after it was spun out from Spotify. Magnus Ryden, the group’s vice-president for music, likens the company’s AI, which filters songs by genre, period and beats per minute (all of which can be “tied to a brand identity”) to a “small baby you constantly need to nurture”.

DJ Sol dropping beats © REUTERS

Different shops demand different beats. “Gyms and bars benefit from music you recognize, but not retail,” Tyden says. “If you know the song, subconsciously it steals your attention. . . if you’re browsing in a store, it leads to small distractions and over weeks and months, that adds up”.

Demand for music designed not to be noticed is on the rise among both businesses and consumers, says Mark Mulligan, analyst at Midia Research.

Spotify and other data-harvesting platforms that promote “chill” and “mellow” playlists to work or consume to know what you want, when you want it, Mulligan adds. “Streaming has turned music into a utility, like water coming out of the tap”.

Thank goodness, then, that private companies make such great custodians of public goods. Disneyland, for example, blares The Sherman Brothers‘ 1963 track “It’s a Small World (After All)” some 1,200 times a day, making it by some estimates the most publicly performed song of all time. “Heavy repetition is not the enemy,” according to Play Network, another music-tech company.

Play Network admits on its website that algorithms alone aren’t yet smart enough to curate entire playlists for brands which, it claims, “by nature are far more complex than a single person”.

Tucci agrees with the first part, though he can’t fathom why even a human expert who has never visited his shop would be well placed to choose what he and his customers listen to every day. Staff at the high-end grocery across the road wish the relentlessly upbeat chart music they’re forced to work to was just a little less loud.

*name changed to protect owner from thrift shop retaliation

Further reading:

— Can David Solomon DJ? An investigation (FT Alphaville)

— All Points South for crypto-backed festivals (FT Alphaville)

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