Face the Music! Sound Advice For Bar & Restaurant Owners

A hit Madonna song proclaimed, “Music makes the people come together.” But, how do you determine what kind of music suits your venue? We’re not just talking about musical genres, but how, when, and at what volume music should be played.

“In our minds, the right music is essential,” says Andrew Wintner, founder/CEO of TALEA, an agency that works with hospitality, real estate, and retail properties on designing their on-property playlists. “Creating a great vibe with the music enhances the guest experience, as it is something they are hearing and feeling every moment of their time in the restaurant. You can have incredible lighting, furniture, cutlery, artwork...but the music touches it all. If you have music that is off, it can ruin everything else you’ve done.”

Guillermo Alvarado, JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa's director of Food & Beverage in Palm Springs, California, agrees that music is a critical part of a restaurant’s identity in terms of boosting the mood, flow of guest experience, and elevating the employees’ work environment.

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Photo: JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa

“Each one of our spaces, lounges, and restaurants has an identity, and we match all the visual elements, including menu mix, music, and decorative accent pieces to provide a natural sense of belonging and harmony [and create] an immersive experience,” he explains, adding that playlists can feature up to 300 songs. “Our menus, spaces, and music are all crafted in the same fashion to provide a well-rounded experience. Seasonally, our playlists have live feeds that update weekly as well, so we are able to customize as needed in our outlets. Our goal is that our guests depart with a sense of well being regardless of the nature of their visit.”

The Rhythm of Your Audience

According to Wintner, when a streaming service is the preferred choice, a bar or restaurant client needs to be sure that the music curation team at a company like TALEA takes into consideration several factors when designing the musical concept.

“From brand to style/concept of food, demographic of guest, and even purpose of music (driving beverage revenue, creating a buffer between tables), we analyze all elements of the venue and design a list that is crafted specifically for it,” he says. “Sometimes the songs that are ‘Top 40’ are exactly what’s needed, while other crowds want a ‘discovery.’ Seeing a guest hold up their phone to Shazam an unfamiliar song is the highest praise we as music curators can receive.”

Argentine and Latin-themed BKK Social Club at the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River (listed on The World's 50 Best Bars 2023), Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, and Rose Coffee & Wine in Winnipeg, may be products of their location and focus, but all three have the streaming platform Soundtrack Your Brand.

“You need to understand the target guest audience and their musical tastes,” says CEO and Founder Ola Sars, who like Wintner, sings the praises of her curation team, which ensures guests have harmonious music that’s not distracting during their experience, no matter the location.

“Your musical concept sets the boundaries for how many songs your playlist/s should have. If you have a niche concept, like an 80’s, a rock classics, or an electronica bar theme, there are only a limited number of songs to choose from,” he says. “As long as you stick to your concept and the longer your playlists are, the better. This will reduce the likelihood of your regulars hearing the same songs over and over, and your staff will have to listen to the playlist/s day in and day out. We have a standard volume that varies based on the time of the day considering moderate business levels. Our team monitors this throughout the day to ensure we’re maintaining the integrity of our guests’ experience.”

“Our ultimate goal is to be thoughtful about each aspect of the experience—from the food and drinks to the décor, service, and music,” says Nelson Harvey, co-owner of oyster/cocktail bar Traveling Mercies and casual fine dining restaurant Annette in Aurora, Colorado. He prefers longer, carefully curated playlists as they work best for smaller spaces and make for “more varied and interesting listening” during a six to eight hour shift. He also observes that guests tend to match the volume of the music.

“It is really important that your music volume fits the vibe that you’re trying to achieve,” Harvey says, expressing that generic music one can hear anywhere or music with distracting lyrics are sins to be avoided. “[Annette] guests love being able to hear the music while also being able to hear their dining partner across the table, so we keep the volume in the mid-range. At Traveling Mercies, we keep things more lively by boosting the volume a bit so guests in the small space know their conversations won’t be overheard by other tables. A vibe that’s slightly louder and rowdier definitely fits for a bar.”

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Traveling Mercies, an oyster/cocktail bar in Aurora, Colorado. 
Photo: From the Hip

“How would your dining experience in a Michelin-starred restaurant feel if they were blasting heavy metal?” asks Farid Azouri . The DJ and co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based Residents Cafe and Bar straddles both worlds. As this venue has a globally inspired concept with a European and Mediterranean accent, music, to the tune of at least 400 songs that are played in shuffle mode, has been curated to match the theme and “inform the guests’ emotions.”

“The music here is highly curated, similar to our food and beverage menu,” says Azouri, who also recommends shuffle mode to prevent too much repetition. “We have different playlists based on days and hours—early dinner, rush hour and later in the night; weekend vs. weekdays—with close to 1,000 songs and growing. Each song has been handpicked, and we do not use AI [autogenerated playlists or radios].”

I’m With the Brand

“I love establishments that consider music from the build out process forward,” says Demi Natoli, beverage director of White Limozeen at the Graduate Nashville. “We use a system that adds to our playlists, and it changes over time. We start off with a base set of songs, and our software will add similar songs to it. It changes almost daily, so even if a guest comes in the whole weekend, they most likely won’t hear the same playlist.”

Natoli says that White Limozeen’s “over-the-top-pink” ambiance allows the freedom to play all kinds of music, leaning towards upbeat, fun, and nostalgic tunes running the gamut from disco, folk, to pop. Although country is part of the equation based on the Nashville location, the ideal playlist here involves that perfect balance of multiple genres.

Harvey believes it’s best to use playlists curated by humans, as the algorithms seem to sprinkle in the same handful of “ear worms” in a given genre. “We try to avoid songs so popular that guests will become distracted,” he says. “However, there are times when playing an old favorite will be the right thing at the right time. The team is also not opposed to ‘breaking the rules’ and indulging their own musical cravings by putting in one of their favorite artists occasionally. We might play psychedelic surf rock during happy hour and the early evening. Once it gets dark, we might segue into the sort of hip-hop you would hear in a beach town in the south of France. Rum features prominently on our cocktail menu, and music from places where rum is popular (Brazil, Cuba, New Orleans) tends to work well in the space.” 

James Beard Award-winning Boston-based chef Jamie Bissonnette’s Temple Records’ “listening bar” concept, on the other hand, means playlists come together organically. He not only provides a significant number of records from his personal collection, but also built the sound system himself.

“We play whole records and sides of records, curating about 20 records a night and LPs throughout the week, so we do not repeat much throughout [a shift],” says Bissonnette. “The decor is all about the music, including a display wall of album covers and a milled shelving area dedicated to the storage of 2,000 records as well as old gear and equipment that I collected over the years. Some parts of the bar are set up to mimic areas one would see in a record store. Naturally, our drinks menu contains cocktails inspired by songs we love!”

“As house/electronic music is the basis of our curation, it [is a fusion of] Latin rhythms, disco, French vocals, and old R&B remixes,” explain Azouri. “House music is based on a four-to-the-floor beat pattern, which is similar to the heartbeat and creates a sense of comfort and energy. Electronic music provides a consistent sound, that feels familiar but allows us to also blend in international elements (i.e. bongos, harp, Middle Eastern guitar).”

Williamsburg, New York-based Bar Madonna is also defined by its multicultural underpinnings, including modern Italian-American food and eclectic cocktail menu by Executive Chef/Partner Rob Zwirz, Catarina Guimarães’ Studio Guia interior design, and a vibe created by Art Director KidSuper, a multimedia artist and entertainer. Pulling it all together is owner Eric Madonna’s music background, expressing itself with a carefully selected hip-hop and R&B-heavy playlist that pulses through a “House Under Magic” audio system.

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Residents Cafe & Bar Patrons dance to a set by Co-Founder & DJ Farid Azouri.   (Photo: Residents)

Playlists: How to Avoid Hitting the Wrong Notes

Sars says that a typical made-for-business playlist runs ten hours or more. “It’s not only what type of music you play that influences the ambience….The volume of the music also influences the behavior of your patrons,” details Sars. “Raising the volume the right amount at the right time could result in an extra round at the bar.”

She further elaborates that Soundtrack Your Brand is the only music streaming-for-business service that provides the vast catalog and selection of songs licensed for commercial use, that businesses may access on demand (as they are familiar with accessing on consumer services). She also notes that “legacy” services only provide playlists due to the licensing. 

“Over the past 13 years, Soundtrack has secured thousands of direct licenses with global labels and publishers, ensuring the music creators and rights holders are properly remunerated and that bars, restaurants, and hospitality leaders can avoid risks of being fined or sued,” she explains. “With over 120 millions tracks available to play on demand, and more than 1200 playlists available by business type, mood, genre, season, holidays and events, this kind of variety is only possible due to the company’s global licenses and AI Playlist Generator.”

Restaurant management also needs to be careful with copyright law compliance. According to Wintner, properties that are just using Spotify or another streaming service are non-compliant as they are consumer products and not legal for businesses. “When working with a background music provider like us, we cover the fees for the Performing Rights Organizations (P.R.O.s) such as BMI, ASCAP, SEASAC and GMR. The property is still responsible for fees around live music and DJs, but for background music,” he says.

“At Somaek, where we use streaming, it takes a mindful ear and some effort of adding and skipping songs from playlists,” says Bissonette regarding his other restaurant. “We change the playlist throughout the night, as well as changing up what songs are on the playlists seasonally or when we start to get tired of them. Playing the wrong mood music is also rough. Something that feels like a club at 11 p.m. playing at 5 p.m. on a Monday is just awful."

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The turntable setup at Temple Records. (Photo: Temple Records)

Azouri, meanwhile, also cautions that the developers’ choices in décor and decorative materials may throw off even the best selected sound systems and playlists. “Many restaurants use metallic décor, concrete floors, or have large windows,” he says. “If the walls or the ceilings are not treated, it can reduce the sound quality or create echoes or reverberation. The sound level should be adjusted based on the number of guests present in the establishment. Bodies absorb low-end frequencies and, therefore, the volume should increase along with the number of guests. Also, depending on the type of music being played, the type of sound system should be adjusted.”

Michael Duggan, a.k.a., Senior Director of People + Culture at  Aparium Hotel Group and in-house music genius at Kansas City’s Crossroads hotel, wants to remind readers that music in the dining room or lobby should never really be the focal point. It should function to accompany the space and “drive the vibe.” He believes that finding musical combinations that share a groove is key, while having abrupt changes in tempo from song to song can kill the energy in the room and make people notice the song instead.

“Playlists should flow along with the energy of the way the evening flows...higher energy songs as the night progresses,” he says. “A playlist will need to be at least as long as service goes so there are no repeats. I also want to take my team into consideration, so they don’t hear the same songs every night, I want them to enjoy it as much as the guests, [so they] should be long enough that maybe they only hear a couple of repeats in a week...or there are enough playlists to keep it fresh from day to day, week to week.”

All The Way Live

Although some venues will not have live music or DJ's because of limited space, others will bring in DJ's to spin on special events, the summer season, and weekends year-round. Alvarado brings them in to create enhanced energy at the resort's pool, lead interactive activities, and build guest loyalty. Limozeen's Natoli noticed having a DJ on the weekends encourages guests stay longer. At Residents’ Cafe, DJs are hired for dance parties and other events, though it may not make or break a guest experience.

“We have live music or DJs occasionally in XR, a Summer concert series at Percheron rooftop bar, and have experimented with live acts and DJs in Lazia with little success as the space is a little too intimate to get the right mood out of a live performance,” admits the Crossroads Hotel’s Michael Duggan on the trial and error process of finding what music vehicles work for different venues.

“We have hosted live radio performances and shot music videos in our hotel," continues Duggan. "I used to create Spotify playlists for our spaces, but now we have partnered with a company called The Playlist Generation, who take my sample lists as inspiration and build out music programming to flow seamlessly throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening to keep the energy in our spaces up and appropriate.”

Residents co-founder Farid Azouri
Residents Cafe & Bar Co-Founder & DJ Farid Azouri.  (Photo: Residents)

Some of the top audio, visual, and sound-related manufactures and brands used at Boston’s Grace by Nia include JBL Speakers, Share Microphones, and Behringer Mixers. Owner Nia Grace adds that they build and install speakers for all locations throughout the venue to be unison in a way to match the aesthetic of our brand and reach our sound requirements. She also advises changing the playlist weekly is imperative as trends progress, and new hit songs are relevant.

“There are several emerging trends and technological advancements that could shape practices with ambient music,” observes Grace. She has found that hiring or regularly scheduling a live DJ or a live band can enhance the atmosphere and experience at a venue, especially when management is looking to increase volume. At Grace by Nia, these peak areas are during 7pm-2am, including brunch times from 12-4pm where larger numbers of diners are expected.  “Although things have shifted since I first entered this industry, ambient music is a true part of our core product and band,” she says. “Ambient music enhances each experience, encouraging customers to engage in the moment and have fun instead of the music being a filler.”

Sounding Off on Good Practices

Masterdisk Owner Scott Hull, who has mastered major hit records in every genre—including Grammy-winning titles—offers his take on mistakes restaurants make when booking live bands or DJs in their venues. Some good rules of thumb:

  • Watch closely when patrons get up and leave as that will speak volumes (pun intended).
  • Bar or restaurant staff cannot run the sound as they are too busy doing their regular tasks.
  • Do not assume that a sound system can run itself. Get a professional audio person involved in the system you are setting up.
  • Live bands want to do more, but the venue must provide a house engineer to interface between the band and the venue. Even if a band has a setup, do not leave the sound system completely in the band members’ hands.
  • Live bands cannot do their own sound unless they travel with their own sound system, which is rare for small groups.


Matt Edgar, owner of Chicago’s Pineapple Audio, specializes in “the sound of hospitality” with custom audio systems for bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs around the world. He offers the following tips: 

  • Do not position speakers at the bar, at operational service areas, or on the ceiling as our ears are not on the top of our heads.
  • Always hire professional design-build AV firms to handle the entire project, and invest in quality speakers and amplifiers to ensure the music is pleasurable, not just “noise.” 
  • Invest in room acoustic treatment. 
  • Use a commercially licensed service that provides a stereo high-quality stream, such as Soundtrack Your Brand or Music Matters.    


Marlon Gonzalez, general manager of Hotel Dena in Pasadena, California, and Destinee Almonte Oliver, events director of Liquid Productions, the hotel’s beverage partner, have a few useful pointers in how to use technology to bridge music and decor. 

“Lighting and sound are the most important aspect of the bar/restaurant experience, as they make up 90% of human perception” says Almonte Oliver. “Together, they aren't a part of your vibe...they are your vibe. For this reason, we have several overarching rules:”

  • If we're open, there is music playing.
  • Play the real/explicit version of the song if nothing is outrageously offensive.
  • Or, don't destroy the vibe with an ill-placed ballad or random speed metal song.
  • Fridays and Sundays are different. Choose accordingly.
  • Give the staff the ability to easily skip a song when required

“A good manager is always in tune with the energy of their space,” says Duggan. “They should have quick access to the volume controls and regularly adjust to fill the space with the right musical energy to give our guests the experience we want them to have. This should go hand in hand with lighting controls.”  

The bottom line: Bad-sounding live music is bad for business. That's not only limited to the talent being too loud. If you cannot hear the vocalist, or if the sound is not pleasant, people will not stay.


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