Invisible but essential, playlists are the MVPs of bar culture

There are many elements that make your favorite bar your favorite bar. It could be the drinks, the staff, the atmosphere, or the chances of a drunken stranger walking up to you in the bathroom to tell you about their latest breakup or their tiered marketing plan.

But an often overlooked factor gives bars their essential personalities: playlists. While live music gets all the glory, playlists are the sneaky MVPs of bar culture, capable of turning an unassuming pub into a beloved dip, or, conversely, transforming a living room from. High quality carefully crafted into ‘that place where they wouldn’t stop playing Leon Kings.

The Whistler in Chicago, IL / Photo courtesy of Victor Duarte

Playlists make the atmosphere of a bar tangible. They can increase the energy of the crowd and encourage everyone to buy another part, or ruin it altogether and make you feel like you’re hanging out in an airport Chili’s.

Building a successful playlist is complicated. Bars are common areas, but musical taste is personal and subjective. What’s more, what you enjoy listening to doesn’t necessarily have to do with the drink of your choice – there’s no direct correlation between, say, enjoying the rich flavors of an oak-aged Malbec and the first works of Oingo Boingo.

So how do bars know what to play to keep everyone happy?

“Everyone’s a DJ,” says James “KP” Sykes, co-owner of Brooklyn’s The Armory. “I learned very early in my tenure as a bartender that everyone thinks they have the best musical tastes. “

It’s important to take responsibility, says Sykes. Opening your personal Spotify account and hoping your customers love Napalm Death as much as you do isn’t a winning strategy.

“Having guests for fun and for money are two very different beasts,” says Sykes.

Playlists can boost the energy of the crowd and encourage everyone to buy another game, or mess it up and make you feel like you’re in an airport Chili’s.

Most bartenders and owners have their own personal technique for creating the perfect sound environment.

“Much of my playlist selection begins with a question,” says Jeferino Tomas, general manager of Brooklyn’s Disco Tacos. “When I listen to this, where do I want to be? If it’s a sunny Sunday brunch, what songs will help uplift this moment? What songs will make me insist and experience strong sensations? “

This approach has led Tomas to select songs as diverse as “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, “1969” by Gabor Szabo, “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton and “Thang (Hips)” by Esperanza Spalding on one single. reading list.

Chef's special cocktail bar
Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar / Photo by Carolina Rodriguez

Chase Bracamontes, Director of Beverages and Partner of Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar in Chicago, estimates that a perfect bar playlist contains “30% of popular hits that people know, love and remember, as opposed to 70% of rarer jams they want to discover. In regards to.”

Getting people to pull out their phones and aggressively Shazam the soundtrack is part of creating the mood, Bracamontes says, because “part of being outside is having an experience that you can’t create at home. the House”.

Sometimes the perfect playlist is all about matching songs to settings. Bracamontes remembers a night in an old Polish Chicago bar “drinking Old Styles while listening to Hall and Oates. It was perfect.”

Playlists are the MVPs of bar culture
In The Heart, Seattle / Courtesy of In The Heart

In other cases, the connection is more diffuse. Malika Siddiq, owner of New Orleans-themed In The Heart sweatshop in Seattle, develops playlists with her team that forgo the typical fanfare vibes people might associate with the Big Easy. Instead, Siddiq tries to invoke the city’s famous party atmosphere by playing “music where we want you to dance and sing”.

But creating a perfect playlist is the start, not the end, of the job. Sykes says he has “several playlists on hand for different moods, occasions or even current events.” Flexibility is the key, he says. “An unexpected thunderstorm, which usually brings people in search of shelter, can turn what was once a quiet Monday into a Friday. “

“It’s the subtle whim. The rolls his shoulder, the foot vibrates to the rhythm. “-Jefereino Tomas, Disco Tacos

Fia Berisha, partner and beverage manager at The Landing Kitchen in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., Emphasizes the importance of the time of day or night. Around 6 p.m., says Berisha, “people usually just have their first glass of wine, they get into a conversation where the person at the table can be an affair, a first date, or a friend you don’t have. seen for a while. “

For this first quarter of drinkers, Berisha’s needle drops tend to Leon Bridges or Nathaniel Rateliff. But, at 10pm, she dimmed the lights and put on Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”.

“I like to turn up the volume just enough that you don’t have to scream while talking to the person next to you, but you notice your foot tapping on your second cocktail and you think, ‘I love this song.’ “, she says.

Sometimes playlists offer common experiences, the kind you can only have while sipping a drink with a stranger.

“When Charlie Watts died, I knew I had to walk to Moonlight Mile in Greenpoint,” says Ben Apatoff, author of Metallica: the paperback at $ 24.95, about a Brooklyn bar named after a Rolling Stones song. “And it was: a Stones-rich playlist and even a ‘RIP Charlie Watts’ message on the A frame on the outside.

“A bar that takes care of its playlists keeps people coming back,” says Apatoff.

Whistler bar chicago
The Whistler / Courtesy of Victor Duarte

Specific and recurring common experiences can become part of the DNA of bars. Not one but two bar professionals say that playing Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” has become a cherished bar tradition.

Victor King, executive chef and co-owner of The Essential in Birmingham, Alabama, said “Kiss from a Rose” was the most played song of 2019, according to the company’s Spotify account.

The 1994 ballad was also a hit at the Whistler in Chicago.

“I think it started out as a joke, but it turned into a very popular song on the last call,” says Billy Helmkamp, ​​owner of The Whistler.

This kind of playlist moment is less about creating an atmosphere and more about a secret handshake or the kind of ritual you would have at summer camp. It’s something that momentarily makes you feel a little less like an adult, and the world feels a little smaller.

“Watching the whole room sing this song makes me smile every time,” says Helmkamp.

The essentials of Birmingham, Alabama
L’Essentiel in Birmingham, Alabama / Photo by Caleb Chancey

And even if every customer doesn’t sing to a piece of the Batman forever soundtrack, bartenders can always tell if their playlists are connecting.

“It’s the subtle whim,” explains Tomas of Disco Tacos. “The shoulder rolls, the foot vibrates to the rhythm. It’s the unconscious movement of the guests that shows me if a playlist is working. The music is contagious and they can’t help but keep pace.

Berisha gives a more specific example. She can tell that a playlist works when, around 11pm, she finds “everyone singing New Order’s” Weird Love Triangle “on the chorus, and everyone laughs because it was totally unplanned in between. a bunch of singles in their twenties and college professors at the bar. “

We spend so much time on our phones, wearing headphones, or isolating ourselves in a digital abyss. Part of the intangible appeal of bars is the connection that comes from listening to the same music with strangers.

“People generally feel inspired to have fun if it’s inevitable that others around them are doing the same,” says Sykes. “It’s like the Mojito effect: once one person orders a mojito, you can still expect several other people to make the same request once they see it. “

The enthusiasm of a few people can spread to the rest of the crowd, says Sykes. It can open everyone’s hearts and minds to the possibilities that night holds.

“Or, at the very least, they will become more open-minded about the right time that they might be missing,” he says.


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