Just call me holiday music Scrooge. I've been thinking about the negative retail implications of merry tunes piping through bookstore sound systems nationwide and possible connections to the impending end of the world (Happy Mayan Apocalypse Day, by the way).
I recently learned that Montgomery Ward created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for a giveaway coloring book (Johnny Marks adapted it as a song). Tommie Connor's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" was originally commissioned for a Saks Fifth Avenue greeting card ad campaign.
Disillusioned? Nah. I also read that retailers should consider the "sound of their brand," according Immedia Group, which found that of the 73% of shoppers who notice music playing in stores, 40% will stay longer in a shop if they feel the music is well chosen for the environment and 40% will spend less time there if they feel the music isn't suitable.
"We all have a deeply personal and individual taste in music, so choosing the right playlist can be difficult," said Immedia's CEO Bruno Brookes.
Music matters, and holiday music matters even more. It's an "I'm in the mood to shop" thing.
No one knows this better than my former colleague Erik Barnum, floor manager at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt. Among his many duties, he shoulders the considerable (and essentially impossible) task of pleasing both staff and customers with his in-store music playlist.
Although it has been four years since my last December on the sales floor as a bookseller, I'm still a bit haunted by those holiday soundtracks. The fact that we sold a lot of CDs because of store play was a retail balm of sorts then, but the long-term effect on me has been Christmas music tone-deafness.
Times have changed since I fled the bookstore music scene. "We pay for the Pandora Business service (Muzak for the 21st century)," Barnum said. "I picked five stations on Black Friday, with only one of them being a Christmas station. I put the Pandora box on Quickmix so it would only play a Christmas tune once in awhile. As the holiday approached, I gradually deleted stations until it was all Christmas all the time."
He also noted that while the Northshire "still gets the occasional inquiry about what's playing and we try to turn it into sales, our music section has been cut so far back due to downloading that the former relationship between store music and CD sales is over."
My holiday music recommendations back then were--unlike my ability to handsell books--irrelevant. I didn't have a clue. Not infrequently, after I'd heard a particularly irritating song a few hundred times and was considering the possibility of terminating the CD with extreme prejudice, a customer would suddenly appear like a sweet version of Marley's ghost and ask: "What's playing? It's so beautiful. Do you sell the CD?"
|Photo: Jean-Baptiste Mondino|
If the "sound of their brand" is critically important as a retail music strategy, then it's probably for the best that I'm not involved in this aspect of the business anymore. My holiday playlist leans toward the downbeat: Joni Mitchell's "The River," Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "I Believe in Father Christmas," John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)," Tom Waits's "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" and "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues.
I can hear customers rushing for the exits now.
Maybe holiday music has always complicated the spirit of the season. Consider this: "Do You Hear What I Hear?" was composed in 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Or this: Hugh Martin, who wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," was asked to change the original line "It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past" to "Let your heart be light/ Next year all our troubles will be out of sight" for Judy Garland. His lyric "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" was altered for Frank Sinatra to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."
I don't think I'm a musical Grinch; I just hear what I hear. But I do hope you have yourself a merry little Christmas, after which... we'll have to muddle through somehow. Even Mr. Scrooge had to face the music eventually.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1896.