“Music is everything and nothing. It is useless and no limit can be set on its use. Music takes me to places of illimitable sensual and insensate joy, accessing points of ecstasy that no angelic lover could ever locate, or plunging me into gibbering weeping hells of pain that no torturer could devise. Music makes me write this sort of maundering adolescent nonsense without embarrassment. Music is in fact the dog’s bollocks.”
So wrote the Cantabrigian actor, comedian, writer, director, former quiz master, Blue Peter badge recipient, and final ever winner of the Pipe Smoker of the Year award, Stephen Fry, in his 1997 autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot. Yes, he is, or has achieved, all that and more. But his words, rather than his accomplishments are of significance at present.
Like Fry, I love music – many different genres. I’m delighted by classical music, jazz, rock, folk, country, pop music from a goodly number of decades, and a little reggae now and again. Not an exhaustive list of genres I know, but it will do for now. I’m also happy to mix them up. There have been many days when I’ve had my computer or smart speaker play all kinds of everything at random – yes, the Eurovision-related pun was intentional. Indeed, I still do this on a regular basis. A Beethoven piano trio might be followed by a Joplin rag, Mendelssohn might be followed by Metallica, a Franck sonata by Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz by Stan Rogers, or Bach by Baccara. On at least one occasion, the “immolation” scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung has been preceded by Lily Allen’s LDN, and succeeded by Pinky and Perky’s rendition of How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?
But there is a place where I feel that music is inappropriate – almost any shop. For me, shopping represents a stretch in one of the nine circles of hell. Music, rather than soothing my troubled soul, distracts, and adds further irritation. Why do they do it? Especially in supermarkets. Do they believe that as we allegedly want our lives to be more like films, that shopping should have a soundtrack?
Well, it turns out that this is an academic question. I mean that quite literally. It has been studied. In 1982, one Professor Ronald E Milliman, an expert in marketing, was good enough to offer us an answer. The data he collected indicated that music while we shop encourages us to spend more money. Music, so the theory goes, relaxes us, stroking us, caressing us, and gently coaxes us into digging our reluctant hands a little deeper into our pockets. Forty years later, they’re still bombarding us with music, believing, with utter certainty, or perhaps foolish optimism, that Don McLean will assist us in choosing pies (American or otherwise), Oasis will guide us in our attempts to procure the right kind of champagne, and Jessie J will help us to forget about the price tag.
Hmm. Are we really supposed to be convinced that a background of Brahms encourages us to buy bread? Or that Glen Miller gets us in the mood to accept the BOGOF offer on crisps? Or that listening to I Should Be So Lucky will remind shoppers, as they’re passing the appropriate aisle anyway, to pick up a packet of condoms, just in case?
Happily, there is good news for those of us who might be somewhat sceptical – even those of us who lack Professor Milliman’s exalted academic status. The good people who run Aldi have concluded that music on the shop floor really is a nuisance. If it’s loud, it drives customers away, because they can’t concentrate on their shopping. If it’s quiet, hardly anyone can hear it, so it’s pointless. Not only that, but having the relevant licenses is expensive. If they don’t have the licenses, they keep their costs down, which in turn keeps our costs down, and everyone’s a winner.
So, which camp has the answer? Are the bosses of a great number of supermarkets and an academic correct? Do the Beatles persuade us to buy beetroots, and does Meatloaf lure us to the meat counter, thus causing the tills to go “ka-ching”? Or are the management of Aldi and I right to suggest that Mozart has nothing to do with purchases of mozzarella, nor Avril Lavigne with avocados, and that silence is golden? God only knows.
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