S2, E13: You’ll Never Listen to Hotel Music the Same Way Again

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we dive into the surprisingly curated world of hotel music.

Think back to the last time you stayed at a hotel: Did you notice the music playing? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, that music was likely highly curated. In this week’s episode of Unpacked, we explore how that music comes together—and the psychology behind it all.

Host Rachel Parsons speaks with everyone from the CEO of a company that curates music for hotels to a music psychologist who shares why music is so effective in creating memories and moods.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, associate director of podcasts at AFAR, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that tackles one tricky topic in travel every week. And today, we’re exploring the surprisingly intentional world of hotel music. Our guide is Rachel Parsons, a multimedia journalist and host of the solo travel series the Peregrine Dame.

Rachel, who splits her time between London and L.A., was sitting in a hotel lounge when she overheard someone actively monitoring the music in the room. Suddenly she was paying attention to the music in a way she never had before. And she wanted to know: What exactly is happening behind the scenes? To answer her question, she spoke with everyone from the CEO of a company that curates music for hotels, to a music psychologist who shares why music is so effective in creating memories and moods. Let’s listen in.

Rachel Parsons, host: One of my favorite indulgences is a good cocktail at a nice hotel bar. The high design. Sophisticated atmosphere. Flattering lighting. The mood? Just right. And the music? Well, never given it much thought, really. But the hotel sure has.

Gideon Chain, CEO of Ambie: The second you step foot in a hotel, specifically a hotel, you know, every aspect of that experience has been thought about.

Alex Lamont, music psychologist: Music makes people feel good, feel bad, feel exhilarated, feel depressed.

Kristen Millar, creative director at NoMad Hotels: We’re thinking as soon as a guest crosses over the threshold of that door, how do we want to make them feel?

Kerem Suner, food and beverage director at Andaz Liverpool Street: Sometimes you feel that this song is, is a good song, but it’s playing at the wrong time.

Rachel: But play the song at the right time, and it underpins my entire sensory experience. Maybe I’ll stay for another. But I won’t necessarily know why. Music in hotel spaces goes back a long way. Musicians have played in lounges, lobbies, bars, and restaurants for centuries. In the 20th century, technology changed how, when, and what kind of music filled the room. In high-end hotels around the world today, that music is painstakingly curated. And in a postpandemic world when people are looking to buy experiences rather than things, hotel music is money, according to Ambie CEO Gideon Chain.

Gideon: It depends how you value it, but it’s definitely, you know, could be a 20-plus billion- dollar industry. If you look at, um, you know, the amount of properties that exist globally.

Rachel: Ambie is a U.K.-based technology company. It curates and supplies massive, customized libraries of music to hotels. Through its app, managers can choose, reject, or change soundtracks instantly. Ambie serves about 600 hotel brands in Britain, the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The company builds and constantly refreshes tailored playlists for each. And if that sounds like a lot of playlists, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

One of Ambie’s clients, the Andaz Liverpool Street in London, is lodged next to one of the most hectic train stations in one of the most frenetic corners of the financial district. The hotel was built in 1884. Its exterior is all grand Victorian architecture. But inside, it’s elegantly funky. A calm escape from the chaos outside.

Kerem: We have seven spaces.

Rachel: Kerem Suner is the food and beverage director.

Kerem: We have, uh, the lobby and the gallery has the same sound profile. Then we have Miyako, our Japanese restaurant. We have Lady A[bercorn’s Pub & Kitchen]. We have Rake’s [Café Bar] and the Parlor. We have Eastway and 1901 Wine [Lounge].

Rachel: The Andaz also has a gym and spa each with its own music design, or sound profile.

Kerem: In the old days, we wouldn’t have, we would have music, but it wasn’t controlled. Music was, was played by, by compact discs. We hooked up a laptop or we played a compilation CD, and the CD would stop and, and the music would stop. And then maybe for a while we wouldn’t have music. What we want now is, we want to combine everything, all the elements of a restaurant, decoration, food, and the music, and, and give, give the full experience to clients, full comfortable experience. We want them to leave happy, we want them to smile.

Rachel: Frankly, I’ve never considered whether a hotel soundtrack left me smiling, or if I even noticed it. But it’s become such an important factor in bar and restaurant design that it’s no longer an afterthought for the Andaz.

Kerem: When we have a space, we look into, we have an empty space and, and we have meetings with architects, we have meetings with kitchen bar designers, we have meetings with a light designer. We’re now also hiring a music engineer, a music consultant, and um, it is literally just like you put a candle on the table or you dim the lights, music is, is also taking a role as such.

Rachel: So when I stop in the Andaz’s pub, Lady Abercorn’s, I might drink with David Bowie, Ray Charles, or Leon Bridges. All good company. If I decide on a refined afternoon tea or glass of red in the 1901 Wine Lounge, though, the music shifts to something more seductive.

In the Andaz alone, there may be 70 songs in a playlist. Multiply that by six or seven playlists per venue that change dynamically depending on time of day and the crowd. Times nine unique venues. That’s more than 4,000 music tracks for one hotel, all curated to reinforce each space’s unique character. Market research has shown that customers are 96 percent more likely to recall brands whose music is tailored to their identities.

Gideon: Like that’s, that’s, you know, significant.

Rachel: Gideon Chain from Ambie again.

Gideon: Um, and we’ve done some testing as well and, and seen some amazing results sometimes of increasing customer spend. So like people who, um, were, were likely, you know, they’d stay for dinner, but then they’d leave and go somewhere else for a drink. If you actually morph the space from a restaurant into a bar at the right time of the night using music and also lighting as well, um, those people could stay. And they can have that experience there. And, and so they’re going to be buying drinks from you instead of from somewhere else.

Rachel [in conversation]: Oh, we’re all so manipulated! I, I don’t mean, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, but that, I mean, we know hotels particularly are, these are businesses. They have business models, and this is part of their business model that you just don’t understand how, um, how multi-layered all of this is as far as influencing customer behavior.

Gideon: Absolutely. I mean, without a doubt, there is a lot going on behind the scenes, a lot of different technologies and providers and, and, and things happening, you know, gearing you towards certain things,

Rachel: So, good for a hotel’s bottom line. But is a nice coffee or cocktail in a swanky setting not enough to keep butts in the seats? What I want to know goes beyond market research. Why is music that big a deal?

Alex: There’s lots of different people doing research on this. There’s a, there’s a really popular theory which suggests that music has effects on us in seven different ways.

Rachel: This is Alex Lamont. She’s a professor of music psychology and editor of the journal Psychology of Music. And those seven effects can broadly be grouped into three categories.

Alex: So, in a, in a sense, what we’ve got there is a sort of, things that we are primed to do. Things that we learn through experience as a, as a culture, and things that we learn through our own individual experience. And all of that is going into why music makes people feel good, feel bad, feel exhilarated, feel depressed, um, and why it is so powerful because it’s, it’s working on so many different levels.

Rachel: The first level is the physiological one.

Alex: It works on our brainstem. So this is, the idea is that this is an evolutionary, uh, argument that music is somehow fundamental to, to humanity. Um, something that is done in every culture around the world. And we are kind of primed to respond to music as in the same way that we are primed to respond to sound.

Rachel: Then there are functions like rhythmic entrainment, visual imagery, and music patterning. Rhythmic entrainment is what happens when we sway, bob, or dance along to music. For many of us, music conjures visual images that we associate with it. And music patterning has to do with how we expect a piece of music to go and how it surprises us if it defies those expectations.

Alex: And there’s another one which is about, um, evaluative conditioning. It’s called, it’s a bit like, um, Pavlov and his, his dogs and his bells. The idea is that when you hear particular types of sound, you have particular reactions. So that’s another one that is very much learned. So we don’t, we’re not born with those kinds of things, but in certain cultures, certain musical instruments or certain patterns mean particular things. So we might say trumpets mean celebration, for example. These are more learned kinds of responses to music, but there’s things that come from being in a particular culture, so they can vary depending on where you’ve grown up and the kind of music that you’ve listened to.

Rachel: So culturally, we’re largely conditioned to feel energized, even celebratory when we hear upbeat music. We might be predisposed to feel amorous when we hear sultry tunes. But what hotels are banking on is a more personal psychological phenomenon Alex calls episodic memory.

Alex: When we experience music, we also connect it to the things that are going on at the time that we hear it. And this is where I’ve done a lot of my own research about how music is so important to people—is what it does to take you back to times, to places, to people, um, that sort of personal story through music and our musical biography, if you like, of the the key bits of music that matter to us across the lifespan. Um, and those are highly, highly individual. So there might be some, are some things in culture that are shared. Um, so we might say from Britain, we might say, um, Elton John playing “Candle in the Wind, Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral. You know, that’s one that would probably evoke lots of emotions for people even if they weren’t there, even if they didn’t really know that much about it, but it’s a kind of a cultural moment if you like. But the majority of pieces of music like that are going to be individual. And when we ask people about these, they will come up with such different things that have the same resonances. You know, there’s, there’s such a diversity when you get to those, but it’s another really, really powerful way of how music works.

Rachel: In the context of a hotel, the company is hoping its soundtrack becomes part of my musical biography. So when I enjoy a relaxing brunch in the Parlor at the Andaz, listening to Soul II Soul, later when I hear the song elsewhere, I remember the Parlor. The connection my mind makes between the music, where I am and what I’m doing is also enmeshed in one last psychological effect of music. The one Kerem Suner might have in mind when he says he wants guests to leave happy and smiling. It’s called emotional contagion. And it’s a phenomenon Alex Lamont says is quite curious.

Alex: The idea here is that, um, we are picking up on the emotions of the music. We might also be picking up on the emotions of the people that are around us when we’re experiencing music. So if we’re all in a crowd, um, and we’re having a brilliant time, you know, you start to have more of a brilliant time if other people are also doing that. Um, so that’s, so that’s less perhaps learned and more to do with the connections that we have through music. So the fact that music brings us together and reminders of, um, experiences and so on.

Rachel: It’s psychological alchemy. The entire sensory experience in a high-end hotel is designed so we form good subconscious impressions and memories of it. When those memories are reinforced by shared emotional connections with others, it’s magic. But as Gideon Chain knows, that knife cuts both ways.

Gideon: The right song at the right time can just, it can change everything, you know? And that’s, it’s that emotive aspect of music, which, which by the way has a flip side, which is that the, the wrong song can completely kill the vibe.

Rachel: If people don’t like the music, they’re not going to stay. At the Andaz Liverpool Street, Ambie’s technology lets Kerem go about his day. If he hears the right song at the wrong time in Rake’s Café, for example, he can open Ambie’s app and move the song to a playlist for a different time. Ambie’s curators constantly refresh and update playlists based on his feedback.

As attuned as Kerem Suner is to music in his bars and restaurants, across town in London’s West End, if it’s possible, another hotel exec may be even more fastidious.

Kristen Millar: We invest a tremendous amount of time in creating these visually stunning spaces. Why would we not, you know, um, put the same level of intention and energy and focus into the audio experience, too?

Rachel: Kristen Millar is the creative director for NoMad Hotels whose outpost in the theater district opened in 2021. She estimates she spends about 12 hours a week handpicking music for NoMad. The hotel uses a company similar to Ambie that takes care of licensing and feeds its playlists. But Kristen has built those collections largely on her own. NoMad London is in a registered historic building. It was the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court and police station for more than a century. The building was finished in 1881. The courtroom is now a ballroom. Its famous defendants include Oscar Wilde and suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.

Kristen: It was designed to be intimidating and kind of imposing based on the fact that it was, you know, the people showing up there were in some kind of trouble. And so it has like a very grand physicality to it, but it’s also designed with, you know, a tremendous amount of elegance due to its pro, due to its proximity to the Royal Opera House.

Rachel: It’s right across the street.

Kristen: The other thing that’s super interesting about NoMad is if you look at images of the interior design, you know, from afar and you consider it, theoretically you might expect, you know, the playlists and the music program to actually be more traditional and more classical in some sense. The story for us has always been about creating this idea of tension to some degree. And tension not to make people feel uncomfortable, but to actually make people feel more comfortable. I think that we want to kind of balance that elegance, um, with a soundtrack that might be a little bit more unexpected, and not for the sake of being defiant, but to actually bring, you know, these kind of like unexpected moments of, of curio, curiosity and, and also to create a little bit of a juxtaposition.

Rachel: The opulence of the soaring atrium dining room and plush library lounge could feel snooty and stiff. But the soundtrack makes it feel familiar and accessible. Walk into the dimly lit, moody cocoon of the lobby and: [strains of Erykah Badu]

Kristen: You could hear everything from Erykah Badu to Charles Bradley [to] um, New Order playing at brunch time on the weekends. Um, you know, if you go into Side Hustle, you will definitely hear, you know, a lot of De La Soul, some NWA, Tonga Conga. It’s, you know, that space lends itself more to, you know, the food and beverage concept personality, which is, you know, much more Southern California, Mexican, very much kind of focused on Latin America. So the playlist really reflects that point of view. Um, so yeah, I, again, I think it’s always a little unexpected. I think the music volume is louder than most people would expect. Um, it’s a big part of the sensory experience.

Rachel: For Kristen that experience is defined in large part by tempo, but volume is key.

Kristen: I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time not just adjusting the music in the spaces and the volume, but actually spending time with our management team, getting them to understand why and when they should be adjusting the volume of the spaces. You know, sometimes we want to understimulate people, sometimes we want to overstimulate people, and the volume is, is critical for that. And it has to be done by human beings. It can’t be, it’s not a black and white formula. We can’t say at 9 p.m. every single day, the music has to be at this decibel.

Rachel: Staff have to be able to read the room and all its variables to make the music work just right for guests. After all, they’re the paying audience.

Rachel [in conversation]: But you’ve got another whole audience there. And arguably they spend more time in that hotel than the guests do. So how, how does your staff like your music? Because you could really, I mean, I have worked in retail in the past, and we all know that we’d like to—

Kristen: Me too.

Rachel: —kill someone the seventh time you’ve heard a song in an hour on a loop. So, um, so what kind of feedback do you get from your, from your staff?

Kristen: I think for the most part they love it. I think they’re, you know, amazed that we’re playing, um, NWA at Side Hustle and that they basically get to, like, walk around their room as a server at Side Hustle bopping along to the soundtrack. And I see that happening every day. You know, we have our bartenders like literally dancing behind the bar sometimes in Common Decency, like that is not an uncommon sight. And when they’re really, you know, have that energy to support their mood or like lift their mood sometimes when they’re super busy and stressed and it becomes a point of conversation with a guest, which happens a lot. Um, I think it’s something they feel really good about.

Rachel: Like the Andaz, NoMad’s playlists are long. And there are so many of them for each of its four spaces, employees aren’t in too much danger of revolt from hearing songs repeat. In the end, if music makes a person’s job a little more enjoyable, it contributes to a kind of double bottom line. Because as Alex Lamont says, music is going to affect each of us, often in ways of which we’re not consciously aware. There’s the obvious, perhaps cynical, answer to why hotels spend so much time on music: It’s part of an immersive package painstakingly designed to influence us to spend more time and money. To form associations and connections with their brands.

But for everyone involved in designing those experiences, like Gideon Chain at Ambie, there’s also a philosophical answer:

Gideon: You know, we live in a pretty strange world at the moment. Maybe it was strange pre-COVID, but it’s definitely strange post-COVID. And I think, you know, we strongly believe that, that music is kind of even more important now. And I know that we’re biased in a way because obviously it is a service that we provide. But, but like, we truly believe that, you know, in this, in the world that we live in now, and especially in businesses, people go out less and when they do go out, they want to have an incredible experience. And, and so it’s even more important that the music is, is, is in, is incredible. And the lighting is incredible. Music just has such a, can have such a, not just a calming impact, but also just make you feel such in, take you to a good place, if it’s done right. And I think we’ve never, we’ve never needed that more than now.

Rachel: And now that I’ve had a peek behind the curtain, I have a deeper appreciation of the subtle ways my favorite hotels are trying to sway me. But it’s OK. I think I’ll stay for another drink.

Aislyn: Well, to quote Abba, thank you for the music, Rachel. I know that I’ll be paying much closer attention the next time I settle in for a cocktail at my hotel bar. That’s it for this week. To learn more about Ambie, the company Rachel interviewed, visit ambie.fm. And if you want to hear more from music psychologist Alex Lamont, you can follow her on Twitter @Alex_Lamont. And finally, if you want to read or listen to more of Rachel’s work, visit rachelparsons.com. And a special thanks to Ambie for some of the tracks you heard today, as well as to the British Psychological Society.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. This season, we also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

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