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Why every small-plates restaurant has the same playlist

Tired of hearing inoffensive indie music everywhere you eat? Blame gentrifying millennials.

A retro diner jukebox. DutchScenery/Shuttershock

If you walk into a small-plates restaurant in any major US city, you’ll likely hear a similar playlist in the background — mainstream indie acts like LCD Soundsystem, M83, Grimes, and Beck will all be on there. That’s what Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater’s restaurant editor, caught onto after hearing the same tunes throughout her food reporting. She captured this trend in her 2019 piece “This is Every Generically Cool Restaurant’s Playlist,” which struck a nerve with diners and music lovers, and her accompanying playlist picked up nearly 5,000 followers on Spotify.

But she was left with some questions: How is it that these same bands and songs end up playing in hip restaurants across America? And worse, what does this musical uniformity reflect about the sameness of contemporary dining?

In Dixler Canavan’s follow-up investigation for Switched On Pop, she found that, aside from relying on staff playlists and Pandora algorithms, restaurant owners often hire “music selectors” to curate their establishment’s music. Dixler Canavan spoke with Yvette Bailhache, a music selector from Washington, DC, who calls the industry a “small, weird bubble”; and Jonathan Shecter, the Vegas-based founder of the background music provider Playback Prodigy, who says “a lot of [professional and amateur selectors] have the same cool references. They’re trying to project the image of cool, left of center, contemporary but not obvious.”

Given the limited number of selectors in the business and their overlapping tastes, it’s not surprising to find that different restaurants end up with very similar playlists. This homogenized sound is designed to appeal to the target demographic of hip, urban restaurants — Shecter says selectors “target people in their 20s and 30s,” just like a lot of trendy restaurants do. Urban millennials in this age range with disposable income and a taste for adventurous food have surprisingly predictable musical affinity.

The specific millennials these selectors target also have increasingly hardened musical tastes, anchored in the early to mid-2000s. A 2018 survey by the streaming service Deezer found that peak music discovery occurs at age 24. By 30, nostalgia for past music overrides the hunger for new sounds. These solidified preferences are reflected in Dixler Canavan’s playlist, which Bailhache confirms is “so accurate” to the lists of songs that selectors come up with. The playlist predominantly includes indie critic-beloved, synth-based dance music, with a few deviations into Billboard 100-charting hip-hop and inoffensive acoustic folk music.

That so many restaurants play indie music from the 2000s also reveals a less appetizing component of contemporary dining. New restaurants and real estate developments often accompany and ­­­­further gentrification. And music can play a role in community displacement. Background music in “hip” establishments can have a deleterious effect by signaling who does and does not belong in the venue regardless of a neighborhood’s historical makeup.

In Dixler Canavan’s story with Switched On Pop, we go deeper into how music selectors craft the sound of the dining world and question the subliminal effect of the background music in our lives.