Custom Music Playlists Making Waves

There was a time in the bar business when the difference between background music built for ambience and the upfront sound meant to move you was easily discernable. There was low-volume reggae caressing your ears in the late afternoon; maybe some raging Rolling Stones for the early evening happy hour crowd; and by midnight, thumping hip-hop had them dancing along the bar. But those transitions took effort — sometimes even a live DJ — to cultivate, and for the most part, customers were kind enough to allow you to dictate the mood.

Today, however, people love their playlists. Streaming music services like Songza offer hundreds of different playlists built around your current mood, activity
or the time of day. Your customers are accustomed to creating the soundtrack of their lives. Are you ready to accommodate them on-premise?

“As a kid, when I wanted the new Ozzy Osbourne track I had to buy the whole album,” says Josh Katz, founder of El Media Group, a New York City-based provider of custom music and A/V set-ups for nightlife and hospitality establishments. “We were pigeonholed into making musical decisions, where we had to really decide to go to Tower Records and say, ‘Well, this week I’m going buy this one album,’ and then that’s it. Whereas now I watch kids and adults have access to massive libraries at their fingertips, and what it’s done is create a major growth in the education of music and the listener base for all genres. Music is a big part of their day-to-day, so it’s more important than ever for the actual venue experience.”

El Media Group (, which Katz launched in January 2005 with his partner Ernie Lake, has created what he terms “music identities” and “enhanced customer experiences through music” for more than 1,000 top hospitality brands. The company’s impressive client list includes such recognizable nightlife names as Blue Smoke, Tao, Lavo, Buffalo Wild Wings, The Ainsworth, Gansevort Hotel + Resorts, Dream Downtown, The Standard, Mandarin Oriental, Borgata Casino & Spa, Anheuser-Busch, and Marquee Dayclub.

“I had been in the music business and I saw what was going to come was a deterioration in consumer spending on music,” says Katz. “And I had the idea that businesses will pay for music. It’s pretty big marketplace that nobody really cared about, and it’s been overlooked by the mainstream music business. I looked into the current product offerings and they all seemed to be very mass-market, low-level offerings. So I decided that, combined with the emerging technology of digital delivery, I could potentially get into this business and serve the luxury sector, the high-end marketplace.”

The service provided by El Media Group has, essentially carved out its own niche. The streaming, customized playlists created by eight on-staff DJs are generated with each particular client and venue in mind. Proprietary software created by Katz allows his technicians to equalize playback volume for smooth song transitions on each playlist before streaming it to the client’s venue with a small amount of extra content in case of a lost signal during transmission. The customized playlists can then be edited (songs can be deleted, etc.) by the client via an app on any Web-enabled device.

“On the music side we basically will work with a brand and sometimes we’ll go in and see the venue, sometimes we won’t, depending on what the situation is,” says Katz. “We have case studies in which we’ve come up with a music direction for people that have been translated into creative briefs for the DJs — a barometer of artists that would play here and those that wouldn’t. And when we’re doing overhead background music we work with them hand-in-hand coming up with playlists, coming up with directions for a time of day and try to create a great vibe.”

Working with El Media Group allows bar owners, especially those with multiple venues and large staff, to remove a time-consuming element from their operations by allowing the musical feel for an evening to come from someone else — quite a divergence from the old days.

“We are part of the change, and bars need to adjust,” says Katz. “They need to think about what they’re playing, and every bar is different. Some rely on their bartenders to feel out the vibe of the room, but you may not want to rely on a kid who is going to play his or her personal tastes versus what your customers want. With El Media Group, we’re going to help you create an environment. From your old crusty bar to the new rooftop hotel bar — we cater to both and everything in between.”

El Media Group also offers high-end A/V system design and installations, and naturally many of its music service clients overlap with their hardware customers. The company utilizes two types of EMG Music Players to channel their custom playlists to each venue, according to Katz, with one version ideal for sites of less than 3,000 square feet, and another for any location larger than that.

El Media Group’s music service involves a one-time installation fee plus an ongoing monthly fee that also covers licensing costs for all of the music. And while he doesn’t feel that his service competes directly with jukeboxes or live music or other traditional delivery methods for music on-premise, Katz understands how people are interacting with music today, and he’s confident that his service can help on-premise operators get in-tune with those customers.

“What was once background music has become part of the overall experience,” says Katz. “People are so into music because of customization and because over the last decade they have gained access, for a very low entry price point, to massive music libraries.”

Have you?