Why do bars and restaurants insist on piped music?

My 30-year campaign to put a sock in infernal background muzak! It never stops tinkling in restaurants, shops and hotels. But NIGEL RODGERS is no fan of a constant soundtrack… and he’s waged a lifelong war for silence

The Gore Hotel in London’s South Kensington was a smart venue in a fashionable part of town and so I had high hopes for my night out with my French then-girlfriend.

It has to be said that I had a bit of making up to do because only a few weeks earlier we had gone to a pub in Covent Garden and things had not gone well after I’d taken a strong objection to the pop music blaring out of its speakers.

In fact, I worked myself up into such a rage that I finally rose from my seat and threw the contents of my beer glass at the loudspeaker high on the wall above me.

Why do venues have to pump unwanted music through their speakers to the annoyance of customers 

Of course I missed, and — instead of fusing the thing as I’d hoped — all I succeeded in doing was making a mess. And then I was asked to leave, or rather we were, which created a certain froideur between us.

And so you can imagine my annoyance when the first thing I noticed as we walked into The Gore’s Bistro One Ninety that night 30 years ago this month was that it, too, had high-volume piped music.

‘Why are they forcing this atrocious noise on us?’ I asked. My companion shook her head, mouthing something I couldn’t hear.

As my exasperation grew, her face fell. She could see where the evening was headed and, if past experience was any guide, we’d be lucky to see our tartes tatin.

But I wasn’t just being neurotic, we could barely hear each other. In the end it upset me so much that I approached every other table, asking each set of diners if they, too, objected to the deafening pop music.

I was quite willing to sit back down and button my lip if the restaurant was split on the issue but, to a man (and woman), they all wanted the blasted noise off.

When I put this to the waiter, he shrugged, said it was out of his hands and asked if we would like to sit upstairs in the hotel’s more expensive restaurant instead.

‘You need to channel your energy and stop moaning,’ my companion said.

In 1992, at the age of 38, I resolved to start a formal campaign against the racket that greeted me almost everywhere I went, whether it be a restaurant, shop of GPs’ waiting room

So, then — at the age of 38 — I resolved to start a formal campaign against the racket that greeted me almost everywhere I went, whether it be a restaurant, shop or GPs’ waiting room, and that night in 1992 Pipedown was born.

After all, I was then, and remain, an author of non-fiction books and so I wasn’t without communication skills.

The introduction of the smoking ban enabled us to shop, eat and drink in a smoke-free environment, so why does uncontrollable, inescapable background music linger in these spaces like cigarette smoke once did?

Unwanted ‘muzac’ (NB. ‘Muzak’ with a ‘k’ is a tradename these days) easily becomes a noise, and noise is the forgotten pollutant. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself think, let alone hear the person you’re with.

You can’t read, you can’t listen to your music on headphones. No, you’re trapped, beholden to a dreadful cacophony.

And I speak as someone who can hear pretty well. But there are 12 million people in the UK with some sort of audio impairment, be it deafness, general hearing loss, tinnitus (hearing a constant ringing, whistling or buzzing sound), hyperacusis (noise sensitivity making sounds seem louder), presbycusis (struggling to distinguish speech from a noisy background, such as in nature documentaries) or misophonia (an intolerance of selective sounds).

Those with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, not hearing conditions per se, can also be triggered by loud noises.

So it’s not absurd to call it a pollutant: its trace isn’t left in one’s lungs but on the nerves of its sufferers. It’s a real pain in the ear.

Often when I complain, a bar manager or a restaurant owner thinks I simply don’t like their taste in music. It’s not that at all, I just can’t abide the ubiquity of it.

It’s the people who love music the most who can’t stand its inappropriate use. Greensleeves, for example, is a fine piece of music, as is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and they do not deserve to be treated as acoustic wallpaper, still less mutilated as hold music.

People are even assaulted by unwanted music when travelling in a lift 

One of our early supporters was the comedian, writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry, who summed up our mission in the slogan: ‘Piped water, piped gas, piped electricity but never piped music!’ It’s not a utility and it’s bloody well not a part of civilised life, as many seem to believe.

So what of my campaign to stop it? Over the past 30 years our band of muzac-phobes has grown and our collective shushing has won us some high-profile scalps, the first being Gatwick Airport.

After badgering their management about the horrible, unrelenting music around terminal lounges in 1994, they agreed to carry out a customer survey. And, surprise, surprise, a majority disliked the music: 43 per cent, compared to the 34 per cent who liked it, and the rest didn’t care or notice. So the airport listened and it’s been quieter ever since.

M&S is another success, though more intermittently. I’m sure when sales dip, some marketing guru believes the answer is ‘ambience’ until they get mixed feedback and turn the music off again. My local M&S is mercifully quiet and whenever I mention it to a cashier they seem pleased by its absence.

Indeed, it’s the workers in the places infested by music that I feel most sorry for.

The problem is nothing short of hellish at Christmas when shops repeat the same festive dirge hundreds of times a day

We’ve had correspondence from so many: a woman in a factory was off sick for six months because of ghetto blasters at work; a worker at a concession inside Heathrow was plagued by the ‘music at all times’ policy of the business next door; and the constant sound of a radio in a Royal Mail sorting office drove one person to early retirement.

The problem is nothing short of hellish at Christmas when shops repeat the same festive dirge hundreds of times a day.

Another of the biggest complaints we get concerns TV noise. Our email inbox must resemble the Points Of View post bag.

Why, oh why, must a scene of a cheetah chase on a nature documentary be accompanied by a soundtrack of drumbeats?

I once wrote to David Attenborough about this, praising his otherwise excellent programmes. He said the music was ‘appropriate’.

Brian Cox is another culprit. I and so many others can’t make out what the physicist is saying, given his narration is swamped by an orchestra that may as well be playing in your living room.

Complaints from us and others swelled to such a pitch over Cox’s Wonders Of The Universe series in 2011 that the BBC re-edited it to lower its background music.

It was a lone concession by an otherwise indifferent corporation. In its centenary year, I hope the BBC starts to take older viewers seriously, otherwise it smacks of ageism. I once suggested they invite people over 55 to listen to programmes before they’re aired, so real public feeling could be gauged, but they didn’t respond.

Still, at least I can turn the TV off — something I couldn’t do when I was immobile in hospital years ago. Don’t ask what I had, I’m better now, but the worst of it was the TV of the patient next to me.

After he’d gone to sleep it was still playing, leaving me staring at the ceiling, wide awake and not at all resting, until a nurse finally came and switched it off.

Ward TVs should be banned in my view and headphones should be mandatory for patients who watch theirs at their bed.

The issue has been a chief concern of ours and now it’s getting proper attention. A recent paper in the British Medical Journal bemoaned its deleterious effects on patients in what is supposed to be a healing environment.

GP waiting rooms are no better, but the receptionist at my local knows me and turns the TV down when I go in!

But don’t think me a cantankerous finger-wagger around my Wiltshire village. I might live alone — having got divorced (though not from my Bistro companion) — with no children and a labrador down since he died two years ago, but I love a party.

I just have to hiss to my guests as they leave to be quiet, not wanting to wake the neighbours and be labelled a noisy hypocrite!

The struggle continues. I’m not sure if I can hold the torch of quietude for another 30 years, but battle by battle I hope we’ll win the war — one day achieving peace in our time. 

  • For more information, go to pipedown.org.uk

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