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Colin Nagy, head of strategy at FFNY, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality. You can read all of his writing here.

Boutique and luxury hotels go to painstaking lengths to get elements of their design right. Countless hours are spent on feng shui, color palettes, and scent. But music is something that can create another texture in a place and can elevate the hotel experience to a new level. Trouble is, getting music right is one of the hardest things to nail. And sometimes it only takes one false move to irritate a guest or break the magic of a moment.

One approach to building this dimensional layer is human-centric, drawing upon someone’s ability to map sound to the vibes of a physical space. Another approach we’ll also look at here is a tech-driven strategy, drawing upon AI and conceptual art for something more experimental that achieves a similarly transporting effect.

When music works, it adds depth and personality to a space: The Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin, Texas, has a meticulously crafted soundtrack playing in the bar and common areas. The playlist touches upon the psychedelic rock heritage of Austin with the likes of Roky Erickson and more modern, dreamy “gauze pop” from the Allah-Las, but also flirts with shades of Texas country music that are on point. The sounds tap into both the spirit and the aesthetic of the place — a hideaway for discerning musicians playing in Austin — and the city it sits in.

On the other hand, music out of context can create the opposite effect. When I’m sitting for an early 7 a.m. breakfast outside a hotel in Singapore and there’s cocktail house music playing in 4/4 time at 130 beats per minute, it can instantly and utterly ruin a moment. Such are the two extremes that getting sound right or wrong can evoke in a hospitality experience.

Music affects mood and can drive intended behaviors and even how we perceive how quickly time is passing. And hotels have gotten a lot more sophisticated at harnessing this power. Instead of the catchall jazz ambience playlist of luxury hotels of old, there’s more thought going into the programming of artists, the time of day, and context, as well as the targeting of specific spaces. According to a music programming service, RX Music, its selections are “continually fine-tuned to mutable nuances of the brand, audience, culture, space, and time of day.” Consultants can draw from the brand guidelines and “spirit” of a place and figure out how this translates into a sonic aesthetic.

The Human Touch

Orchid Music Design, based in Austin, Texas, is the company responsible for the signature sound of the aforementioned Saint Cecilia and other Bunkhouse Group hotels. The tastemaking curators at Orchid take a decidedly human-centered approach, saying, “We don’t do whiz-bang algorithms that distill all the music in the whole universe into your custom music experience. Every client project is human-made.” And the difference is discernible. While a lot of hospitality establishments have been using the magic of the Spotify algorithm to work for their background music, a human curator can make you actually take notice. The reason? A great playlist has soul, makes a few surprising or irrational moves, and taps deeply into the essence of a place. It eschews the obvious and can provoke at times.

The different spaces in a hotel also create different imperatives. A lobby is a convivial space that needs to match the energy throughout the day, without alienating a diverse range of guests who are staying there. Fitness rooms can be more straightforward, but there’s a fine line: In a world of AirPods and guests bringing their own devices, do people really need to be subjected to the buzz saw of slightly dated EDM? Sometimes something less in-your-face, but still energetic and propulsive, say house producer John Talabot — around 125 beats per minute — can work wonders.

And lest we forget, there are ambient sound signatures that sometimes people don’t even notice. The loop of music that plays on the hotel channel of the guest room’s TV can either create a relaxing atmosphere or it can drive you slowly insane if left on too long: These are typically brand manifesto videos that are a visual representation of a brand book played over and over. Also, the tune that plays when a guest is on hold or being transferred from one person to another is often overlooked.

AI-DRIVEN Soundscape

Music also can elevate a space into a high-concept and performative sphere. Sister City (a sub-brand of Ace Hotel) in New York City’s Lower East Side partnered with Björk in January to produce a lobby music installation based on the Icelandic singer-songwriter’s choral music. Björk in collaboration with Microsoft utilized AI to create generative ambient music. According to CNET’s review of the composition, the experimental piece is a relaxing yet shapeshifting composition that evolves based on data captured from a rooftop camera capturing patterns of clouds and birds. It’s a far cry from the piped-in music loops of bygone times. The project, called Kórsafn, is meant to align with the young, culturally astute, and tech-savvy guests who stay at Sister City.

The lobby of Sister City in Manhattan’s Lower East Side has self-check kiosks and ambient choral music by Björk that’s powered by AI. Photo: Sister City

The arrangement itself is rooted in “Icelandic music as well as snippets of Björk’s favorite choral arrangements from her career, including recordings by the Hamrahlid Choir of Iceland,” according to Sister City. It follows a piece from musician Julianna Barwick, who created the hotel’s previous ambient AI soundscape.

This is a meaningful evolution of music: adding context and elements of the hotel’s surroundings into something high-concept and lofty. It’s perfect for Sister City, which Ace is shaping into a progressive, art-centric brand. But every hotel, down to the motor inn, can learn how music improves and augments surroundings, creates subconscious feelings and movements, and can subtly yet significantly level up the guest experience.

Photo Credit: The Hotel Saint Cecilia's pool at dusk in Austin, Texas. Saint Cecilia has a carefully crafted musical soundtrack that taps into the soul of the property and the city of Austin. Nick Simonite