dancing with the stores

Earlier this week, I was lost in the College Square Loblaws, remaining calm in no small part due to the always-soothing sound of California Stars — to my ears, still Wilco’s crowning moment. And as I hummed along to the music emanating from the mammoth market’s PA, a thought struck me:

They’re playing Wilco as background music at Loblaws!

Moreover, this followed recent encounters at the same store with decidedly unmuzakky numbers from Nirvana and Sonic Youth.

Music to shop by, it seems, ain’t what it used to be.

It’s a brave new reality that brought to mind an unpublished feature article I wrote some years ago for a local newspaper. I had pitched the piece as something of a music review of what’s playing at the local malls. And while the editors were kind enough not to assign the story to another writer in my stead, they were not kind enough to run it.

And so, without further ado, I will run it myself. What an age we live in, this era of the blog. If only it paid better.

It has taken three days, over a dozen venues and countless easy-listening sedatives, but at long last a sign of life has appeared.

The place is Carlingwood Shopping Centre. And amid the weary seasoned shoppers resting on the sprawling mall’s kitschy retro furniture, a gentleman is gently tapping his foot in time to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s mirthful take on Jerome Kern’s A Fine Romance.

“I like the music here,” patron Ali Abood volunteers. “It goes well with the people shopping.”

At 55, Abood is but a tyke among Carlingwood’s morning shoppers. And the steady stream of standards from Dean Martin, June Christy, Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett is clearly aimed at an older demographic. Yet, the grey-power crowd onhand is paying little attention to the tunes provided for its dining and dancing enjoyment.

It’s a set of continuous, uninterrupted tunes listeners are unlikely to find on the radio dial. Moreover, as Mr. Abood correctly noted, the playlist seems ideally suited to the mall’s clientele.

Or, as Carlingwood’s marketing director Frank Fenn puts it, “The music sets the soundtrack for the customer.”

Hence, those morning vocal-standards give way to lunchtime ’70s hits, afterschool teen faves and after-dinner rock from heavyweights like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. Monday evenings, you’ll hear vintage blues. Friday morning, it’s swing time – with plenty of room for dancers to hit the floor.

It’s all happening at the mall, where you’ll hear a range of styles no local commercial station can match. No need for a radio, much less an iPod. Just get out and enjoy.

Into classic rock? Try Herongate Mall, where the 1960s and ‘70s hits keep on coming. Stuck in the ’80s? So, for the most part, is Gloucester Centre. Looking for ’60s soul? Look no further than Hazeldean Mall. Or, if you’d prefer a mix of everything from Bruce Springsteen to No Doubt to Duffy, there’s Lincoln Fields Shopping Centre.

The choice is yours. There’s shopping, too.

Alas, not all malls put such play into the playlist. Billings Bridge Shopping Centre would do well to consider changing its format. Merivale Mall’s soundtrack is similarly uninspired. The Rideau Centre, meanwhile, prefers to take its music outside, pumping out a mix of new-age jazz-fusion that is more confrontational than convivial – all in the name of shooing away would-be loiterers. And in the process, alienating the area’s largest mall-listenership.

Most shopping centres, however, strive to provide the sort of non-intrusive background-music experience long cherished by retail stores. Sometimes, as in the case of St. Laurent Shopping Centre, that playlist can even be a closely guarded secret ‑ a strained-neck listen directly under a speaker (and you’d be surprised the looks one gets in that situation) merely allowing that we may be listening to Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth. Or possibly Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer.

Either way, the effort hardly seems worth it.

Bayshore Shopping Centre, by contrast, offers a dandy listening area near the lockers ‑ complete with benches whose value becomes all too apparent after several minutes’ worth of laidback muzak. When that creative-stillness is interrupted by what appears to be a challenging industrial number by experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten, it is a disappointment to learn it is merely the sounds of renovations being conducted inside a nearby store. Once the moment passes, it’s back to Berlin’s plodding Take My Breath Away. And, after that, to an ad for Bayshore Shopping Centre.

Yes, Bayshore’s muzak system is one of a handful that routinely interrupts programming to bring shoppers ads for stores within the mall, or for the mall itself. As Place d’Orleans marketing coordinator Kirsty Allaire suggests of her mall’s similar format, “That makes it kind of like a radio station.”

So much so, evidently, that her mall’s shoppers are regularly reminded they are tuned to ‘Place d’Orleans Radio.’

Oh yeah? Let’s see if they take requests. As Madonna’s Into the Groove gives way to Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, it seems a possibility.

“Requests?” the helpful but perplexed individual behind the Information counter says, processing the question. “I have no idea. I think it’s just an automatic thing.”

It is.

“That would probably cost a fortune,” Allaire says of implementing a policy of playing requests, or of hiring a DJ.

(This writer offered his services as a DJ to a number of malls, noting there is plenty of room for turntables within the lottery booths. Denis J Pelletier, Bayshore’s general manager, provided the closest thing to a positive response: “Maybe at Christmastime.” Consider it penciled in.)

Yes, a DJ. Imagine the life a skilled mixmaster could breathe into your favourite shopping centre. The mall, we are told, is dying. It’s all about the big box stores.

How to bring people back? Music. The food-court of love. And shopping. Most malls offer plenty of space for a dancefloor (heck, some weekdays, it’s all dancefloor). And there is no cover charge.

Fenn, whose Carlingwood can boast of playing the area’s best mix of mall-music – and, with one acknowledged foot-tapper, its most appreciative listenership – is amused by the idea. Yet, his quick response suggests he may have already considered it.

“Well,” he says, “that’s when you get into a SOCAN [Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada] issue.” (Shopping malls, being public broadcasters of a sort, already report to SOCAN. But with pre-programmed playlists, little if any work is involved in the process.)

For now, Fenn is content to offer a diverse selection that at least hints at the potential for music in the malls.

“I used to sell shoes here,” he relates, “and I would change the window-display according to the same schedule we now use for the music. At that time, the music was just a pop mix, with nothing to distinguish it for who is in the mall at the time. It’s important to consider the people in the mall.”

After all, locals can choose from a number of malls. Music, as toe-tapper Abood well knows, is one way to distinguish yours from others on the dial.

And, as Place d’Orleans Radio program director (OK, so the service, courtesy of a Montreal-based company, doesn’t exactly have a program director) Allaire admits, from time to time that music can elicit a response.

“Some people are very vocal about it, both positively and negatively,” Allaire says. “There are some who find it annoying. But you can’t please everyone.”

Well, not without the right DJ.

I feel better already, having finally seen that piece in print. And Mr. Abood, wherever you are, I hope you like it too. And that the music is still to your liking.

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Filed under Music, Ottawa

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