Music Mixed for Mass Merchandising

If you've ever stopped at The Gap to buy into its clean-cut insouciance, then you're familiar with how the clothing chain's presentation is wholly unmolested by geography. In California, New Jersey, Kansas and everywhere else, you know what you're getting from the Gap: immaculate pine floors, pleasant waxy aromas, beautiful bolts of denim.But what really makes the experience universal is a crucial yet unseen element: music programming. Popping and snapping and grooving harmlessly from the speakers at every Gap store in the U.S., a four-hour "targeted music programming" mix is a subtle component in standardized ambiance. It's literally more uniform, from store to store, than the merchandise.For this benign sameness, shoppers and staff can thank AEI Music Network, a Seattle production giant that assembles music programming mixes for The Gap, Oaktree, J. Crew--about 125 fashion, food and other retail chains in all. AEI is the biggest "foreground-music" programmer anywhere; its musical selection is the only hit parade in about 60,000 U.S. stores.Think of it: Eddie Bauer's vanilla soul, Abercrombie & Fitch's Alternahits, Banana Republic's Irreverence Light--all programmed by AEI. Even those Euro-club mixes that set the mood at Structure and Express were taped in the Pacific Northwest. Such consistency, from store to store and from coast to coast, is considered vital to the chains' identities--and to their survival in a fickle market."The strain to open new stores and concepts is a big one--so any degree that a company may make their job easier, as a resource tool for sound merchandising, will be helpful," says Paco Underhill, founder and managing director of New York consumer research consultant Envirosell, which has studied our shopping habits anthropologically for 15 years."People who make money at the racetrack make good judgment calls," he says, "and if the music is a good way to cut the odds, so be it. In terms of giving a store its character, music provides the best bang for your buck." Mark Leader, AEI's director of music programming, is one of 16 professionals mapping out the mixes for retailer clients based on their bills of stylistic goods, along with the time of year (and day) customers will be exposed to its discs and satellite feeds. "Our tape library has several hundred concepts customers can choose from. It's a little overwhelming, but you need appropriate music for certain situations and customers," Leader says. Consumers dislike spending time in stores without a clean musical ambiance, he says--and if they're spending less time, they're spending less money. For the $65 a month per outlet AEI charges for its programming service, the chains consider it a bargain. Just imagine the cost of installing new pine floors.)In the 1990s, retail has come to serve as a form of bona fide entertainment, Underhill says. And the in-store presentation of music mirrors the way consumers show a current taste for hearing it--as a mix, whether homemade cassette tapes or the Trainspotting soundtrack. "There's no irony that the Gap is now selling its own compilation CDs at the counter," based on AEI's programming selections, Underhill says. "It's legitimate merchandise, and it's a legitimate merchandising vehicle."And such merchandising vehicles are about to come full circle, he adds with a wink: "MTV and VH-1 retail stores are on someone's drawing board as we speak." Underhill, who counts the cable networks' owner Viacom among his numerous clients, notes, "Executing media identity this way already worked with the Discovery Channel and Nickelodeon." In other words, whereas we now have chains pushing retail merchandise by way of a musical image, we're about to encounter chains pushing their musical image by way of retail merchandise. It's almost too perfect.With MTV stores in our future, AEI's Stepford Wives approach to programming probably doesn't sound so diabolical after all. Consider also that its programming actually boasts greater variety and attention to detail than that of most commercial rock radio stations, beholden as they are to Billboard figures, stuffed suits, and the crude tastes of prepubescent listeners.Still, consumers willingly tune in and turn on. And if hearing a song once every four hours sounds offensive, try Chicago's "alternative" rock station WKWX-FM, which according to the Chicago Tribune played Bush's single "Swallowed" every two hours for a solid week this fall. (The Gap was probably one of the few places where anybody could avoid hearing it.)"To get to be a programmer at AEI, you need a passion for music--and not just in one genre either," says Leader, himself a former deejay. His personal tastes run to "everything from Jerry Lee Lewis to Billy Corgan, as long as it rocks. I'm also very much into country--Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, Travis Tritt. I'll pass on Garth, but I still stick him in programming. There are more ways to go wrong than right in music programming, and when you start playing music according to your own taste, you're dead."Fair enough. But only the most braindead kid in Radioland would sit through the same Bush song 12 times a day. So is it cruel and unusual to punish retail-store staffers with the same songs twice a day for a month? Should we establish an Amnesty International GapWatch? "Their primary job is to sell merchandise," sniffs the ruthless Leader.And, Underhill notes, AEI's methods are preferable to far more terrifying options. "Ten years ago I did a study for AT&T in which they played a tape loop of their commercials throughout the Christmas holiday season in their retail stores," he grins. "It drove the employees absolutely bonkers." Underhill warbles a couple lines from a mid-'80s telecom jingle and laughs, shaking his head. " I can still hear it in my nightmares."


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