October 19, 2012Music to Your Ears

By David G. Schwartz
October 18th, 2012

Here’s the funny thing about music in public places: If it’s working the way it should, you don’t even notice it on a conscious level. There’s just an extra spring in your step or, if you’re in a casino, pep in your poke as you hit the “bet again” button on your favorite slot machine. It’s the backbeat to your night out, or day at the spa, pushing you along without getting in your face. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

 Allen Klevens, 39, is the founder and chief operating officer of Prescriptive Music, the company that programs the music in Vegas landmarks such as the Venetian, Palazzo, Caesars Palace and the Flamingo. A pianist since age 4, he has long allied his love for music with his career. Initially he sold high-end pianos, but in 1999 he started a company that was literally what the doctor ordered—customized CDs of music to help patients stay relaxed before and during surgery.

In 2005, the Venetian’s Canyon Ranch Spa called Klevens looking for music for its spa suites—a different kind of therapeutic vibe. That prompted him to shift gears from strictly medical music to background sounds. Two years later, he won his first major account and started providing music mixes for 95 percent of North American Marriotts. Since then, he’s added several Las Vegas casinos and restaurants.

Good background music, Klevens says, has to walk a fine line. “You can’t be too sleepy—you want to be upbeat—but it can’t be overpowering, either.”

A casino’s first job is to decide exactly what vibe it wants—sophisticated, classic, energetic, relaxed—and then let the programmers do the rest. The worst situation is where a general manager treats the casino background music as his own personal playlist. It’s all about what the players want, and in general they want something that’s familiar, though Klevens throws enough independent artists and b-sides into the typical mix to keep it interesting.

Music is an art, but for Prescriptive, it’s also a marketing science. “Music is just as important to a casino as lighting,” Klevens says. “I could put on a holiday song right now, and you could see the heads turn.” One of the important touches is to split up the casino into zones: a high-limit salon will have different music than the main casino floor, and it goes without saying that songs that play well at the pool won’t always work in a gourmet restaurant. Music varies by time of day, too, with excitement building throughout the day, really pumping up after 11:30 to keep the after-dinner crowd inspired, and winding down after 3 a.m. to give club-goers a gentle come-down.

It’s hard to generalize, but there are some definite do’s and don’ts: generally, music has to be mainstream and family friendly, but still have a bit of an edge. That sounds vague, but Klevens is incredibly specific about what works. Here are three tunes that play particularly well: Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition;” the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up;” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” And then there are the songs you’ll never hear on a casino floor if the programmer knows what they’re doing: Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (too explicit). Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” (too slow). Brian Eno’s “This” (too obscure, and the steady rhythm and repetition can actually stress out casual listeners).

But casinos do have a say in what you hear. Prescriptive clients have in-depth discussions with programmers to identify exactly what kind of mix they want for each zone. The music is “broadcast” over the MUSICbox, a software system that can store and manage 10,000 tracks (no live streaming means no interruptions when Internet service gets wonky).

Clients have a great deal of flexibility; technicians are available around the clock to respond to issues and even to customize the playlist on the fly. Let’s say a high-roller wants to hear Billy Joel’s “Moving Out” while he bends the cards at his baccarat table; an e-mail to Prescriptive means that he’ll be doing just that within minutes. And when Celine Dion is performing at Caesars, you’re apt to hear a lot more of her in the casino; when Elton John takes over, he gets put into heavy rotation.

It’s a cliché to say that casinos leave nothing to chance, but as Klevens makes clear, there’s not a lot of gambling with the playlist. So next time you’re in a casino or restaurant and find yourself just that much happier to be there, you can be sure that’s by design.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.