The return of office music: is it better than silence – or much, much worse?
Almost 30,000 licenses to play songs in the workplace were granted last year – up 8% on 2015. Are we set for a new era of employee productivity?
hy not read this while listening to the soundtrack to which it was written? There is a weird video on YouTube called Stimulus Progression. What sounds like a technique developed by Alfred Kinsey is in fact 90 minutes of “music at work”, released in the 1970s by Muzak, the background-music merchants. I have put it on at full blast, although I don’t recommend you do the same.
For decades, it was thought that playing music in our places of work would boost morale and productivity. Before it terrorized hotel guests and shoppers, Muzak originally set out to rally workers with 15-minute cycles of slowly climaxing, terrible music. It makes me feel like Don Draper trapped in a lift. My productivity is peaking only because I want to finish and turn it off.
The BBC piped the uplifting light music show Music While You Work into factories during the war, but work music fell out of favor among everyone but mechanics and maverick surgeons (a friend of mine recently gave birth by cesarean to the tune of Madonna’s Holiday). Now, it seems, office music may be making a return.
PRS for Music, which gathers royalties for the industry, granted 27,000 licenses to workplaces to play music last year – 8% more than in 2015. Anecdotal evidence is rife of the widespread streaming of Spotify playlists across desks (doing so without a license is technically illegal, because it counts as broadcasting).
“For many people here, music is part and parcel of their life,” says Karen Byrne, the chief operating officer of Zone, a digital agency in London and Bristol with 260 employees. The company has several Spotify accounts and licenses music from PRS (prices start from about £50 a year). It plays calmer music when “harmony” is required in the business and faster-tempo songs “when people are lagging”.
At Tab Media, a startup news network, editor-in-chief Joshi Herrmann recently returned to the New York office to find music playing. “So many offices are silent now, because of headphones,” he says. “So, if playing music means fewer headphones, I’m down.”
Sven Grundberg works at Soundtrack Your Brand, a Swedish Spotify spin-off that builds playlists for companies. Their clients are mostly retailers, but inquiries from offices are becoming more common. His colleagues – about 70 of them – do not hear music at their desks (“we don’t want to force it on people”), but the company plays music in communal areas, where workers can skip tracks and adjust the volume, but not the contents of the playlist. “If you let people play what they want, they play Skrillex and that just pisses everyone off,” he warns. Not as much as Muzak’s Stimulus Progression, Sven – trust me.
• This article was amended on 27 July 2017. The original stated that the BBC’s Music While You Work played classical music, rather than light music.