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How Restaurant Playlists Get Made — and Why So Many Sound the Same

An Eater X “Switched on Pop” investigation

Hand reaches to touch a button on a juke box, with the other hand in the corner holding a Coke cup, with a restaurant in the background FlickrVision/Getty Images
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

A few months ago, I created a Spotify playlist and dropped it on Eater with the headline: This Is Every Generically Cool Restaurant’s Playlist. At the time, I called the playlist a giant self-own — to see all these songs that once meant a lot to me become background music engineered to make me feel cool was mortifying — and many people seemed to feel the same way. Within the list’s first few days of existence on Spotify, it garnered thousands of followers looking to get into their feelings with “Midnight City” by M83, “I Can Change” by LCD Soundsystem, and “Giving Up the Gun” by Vampire Weekend. Clearly something resonated; to figure out why, I recently teamed up with songwriter Charlie Harding, the co-host of Vox Media Podcast Network’s Switched on Pop to parse through why this particular constellation of music had become the default soundtrack at so many restaurants.

Two professional music consultants shed some light. Jonathan Shecter of the Vegas-based background music provider Playback Prodigy helped us understand the brass tacks of what restaurants need from a playlist: hours and hours of music (like at least 30 hours if a restaurant is open 10 hours a day), sufficiently randomized, suited to the time of day and vibe.

Yvette Bailhache, a music selector who works with restaurant groups in D.C., also suggested that the world of music selectors is a “small, weird bubble,” whose tastes sometimes converge — and who also were especially active during the rise of algorithmic music platforms, like Pandora. The list, she suggests, reads like Pandora 101, in part because of that. (One restaurant industry veteran also told me that many restaurants that opened when this music was truly current — think 2005 to 2012 — paid consultants for playlists at that time and then simply never updated them.)

But what Charlie and I really wrestled with was the way in which a soundtrack can articulate not only a mood (we detour to spend some time examining the trippy soundtrack of LA spaceship/tasting-menu restaurant Vespertine to think more about scene-setting) but also who is in the space, and who, perhaps, isn’t welcome at all.

Because of course this isn’t every restaurant’s playlist. This is specifically a list that fits a target audience of millennial and Gen-X diners in big urban centers with disposable income. Their age (my age) is also a huge factor; we’re getting too old to seek out new music, and that’s reflected in what we’re hearing in the wild. Like the musicians on the playlist, these operators and diners skew white. That the musical taste of this cohort has become at all universalized is telling — and, sadly, not that surprising.

Listen to the Switched on Pop episode | Listen to the restaurant music playlist