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8 Tips to Help You Choose the Right Restaurant Music

By Holly Edwards | 5 min read

The right song can change everything. A certain tune or genre can immediately transport you to a different time and place. In the right atmosphere, music is more than just notes — it’s an experience.

When guests visit your restaurant, they want an experience. The music playing in your dining room can set the mood and make a meal all the more enjoyable. So, how do you go about picking the perfect music? We did some research — read on to see what we found out.


Read up on licensing rights

You’re paying for a subscription to Spotify or Pandora, so you’re allowed to stream playlists from those apps over your restaurant’s loudspeakers, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. According to Toast, you must pay a fee to a performing rights organization (PRO), or to a music service that has paid the appropriate fees on your behalf, to play music in your restaurant legally. If you play copyrighted music in your restaurant without paying licensing fees, you could leave yourself open to penalties and fines. Some fines can reach as high as $15,000 per song, so this is definitely something you want to avoid.

In the U.S., there are three main PROs: SESAC, BMI, and ASCAP. Together, they represent millions of artists and songs, and all you have to do is pay them a one-time fee to gain access to their music. Your licensing fee will vary depending on factors such as the size of your location and how many nights a week you’re playing music. If your restaurant is small enough, you may not have to pay a licensing fee, but do your research to avoid a potential legal battle.


Consider your environment

An Italian, fine-dining restaurant is likely going to have a different soundtrack than a laid-back bar and grill. If you want to transport your customers to Naples while they sip on wine and enjoy housemade pasta, you’ll most likely consider playing classic jazz artists, Dean Martin, and Italian instrumentals. If you’ve got a big patio packed with diners who love your signature burger and fries, top hits or ‘80s party jams may be more up your alley. Think about the type of environment you want to project to your guests, and that will help you decide what music to play.


Take time of day into account

Your music will likely change course throughout the day. During lunch rushes and early-afternoon hours, you should stick to fun, light tunes, like songs from Jack Johnson or Dave Matthews Band. That’s because people meeting over lunch are usually old friends catching up or business associates meeting in person to discuss a project, and people usually spend less time eating lunch than dinner.

When happy hour hits, typically between 5 – 7 p.m. on weekdays, try playing some lively, instrumental music or an indie playlist that complements a hip, fun atmosphere. This will encourage more people to visit your restaurant after work to have a drink and take the load off. Once dinnertime arrives, you can try changing the music to the kind of atmosphere you’re trying to match. Consider your customers and the vibe you want to give off. You usually can’t go wrong with jazz or classic rock playlists. If your restaurant stays open late, you’ll want to play more upbeat songs that will liven up your customers and convince them to stay (and spend more) until you yell “last call.”


Try something new

If you just stick to playing the Top 40 hits, it’s not going to make your restaurant stand out. Why? Because customers already hear those songs everywhere they go (radio stations, gyms and grocery stores, just to name a few), so why not take this opportunity to try something new? Go back to your branding, to when you first opened your restaurant. What image or environment are you trying to give off to customers? Think about that and then go a little deeper.

For example, if you’re a tiki bar, and you want to give off island-vibes to your customers, go a little further than just playing Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett’s biggest hits. Google artists similar to these that you think your guests will enjoy or search for pre-made themed playlists on your preferred music streaming app. This will open up your world to a plethora of similar artists that you could introduce to your customers. Have you ever been to a restaurant and they play a song that you really enjoy but haven’t heard before? That’s what you can offer to your customers.


Decide between instrumental and vocals

When deciding between playing instrumental music and music with vocals, consider what type of atmosphere your restaurant is projecting. If your eatery is upscale and serving expensive entrees and classy desserts, you are probably going to lean towards playing instrumental songs that aren’t going to be distracting for your customers but will still complement the atmosphere nicely. In fact, research shows that if you have a high-class restaurant, and you play classical music, customers are going to perceive your menu prices as lower, so they’re willing to spend more money — up to 40% more.

On the other hand, if your restaurant is more casual and serving lower-priced items and drinks, we recommend choosing music that’s more upbeat, louder and that features vocals. This will keep your customers energized and more willing to buy additional drinks at a faster rate. That will allow you to turn tables quicker and make more money.


Keep an eye on guest reactions to volume

No matter what type of music is coming out of your restaurant’s speakers, remember to watch the volume. Average restaurants should aim to stick to a noise level of about 70 decibels (including ambient sound), while more lively bars can play music that’s between 75 and 80 decibels comfortably. The trick is to find a decibel level that is comfortable for your customers and employees (because let’s face it, they’re going to be listening to it most of the day). If your restaurant offers late-night drinks or food (especially if it has a dance floor), you can turn the music up louder. Just keep an eye on your guests and see how they’re interacting. That should be able to tell you whether or not you should adjust the volume.


When in doubt, look at the data

There have been numerous studies done on how music in restaurants can positively or negatively impact diners’ experiences. A study from Cornell University found that low and slow restaurant music increases guest satisfaction and encourages guests to eat less. So, during the day, you could offer this type of music in your restaurant to go along with small plates or a tapas menu. Another study found that loud music can prohibit diners from tasting sugar and salt. Whatever music you choose, you probably don’t want it to be so overpowering that it takes away from your actual dishes.


Make sure you have the right equipment

What good is the perfect background music if you don’t have the right equipment to play it on? In order to maximize the effect your music has on your guests and restaurant, it’s important to have the right sound system. If you don’t have a big budget for a sound system, you can go with the same trustworthy products restaurants have been using since the ‘70s: in-ceiling speakers or smaller, cone-shaped speakers. These will typically run you around $500. Willing to shell out a pretty penny for a sound system for your restaurant? Invest in an amp with digital sound processing and an advanced mixer with multiple inputs and outputs. This kind of equipment can allow you to change both audio zones and volume zones, and it’ll run you about $3,000.

The commercial music partner that you choose to work with is also really important — make sure they can work with the audio infrastructure you’re interested in purchasing.


Holly Edwards
Content Marketing Specialist

Holly Edwards is Gather's Content Marketing Specialist. She crafts blog posts, social media content and thought leadership pieces that help restaurants and other venues streamline their planning process and host successful events.

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