Texas is known for its pioneering roots and blues music, but my parents must have missed the memo. Though my father hailed from Cleveland, he’d lived in Houston for years, where we should have been listening to Barbara Lynn at BBQs or playing Willie Nelson on his Aiwa stereo. Instead, it was 1991 and my little sister and I were crammed in the back of my father’s sporty Z car (which just so happened to be a two-seater) and forced to endure Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs,” among other late ’70s throwaways. My mother wasn’t much better, and despite being a native Houstonian, shared Dad’s nostalgia for their post-college heyday and subjected us to Sunny 99.1, the local yacht-rock station. That meant a lot of Doobie Brothers and post-Aja Steely Dan, along with the keen sense of being held hostage in a dentist’s waiting room.
You could say that’s why I found salvation in grunge four years later, but the real portal to my music discovery wasn’t MTV or school friends. It was the Kroger’s grocery store near FM—that’s Farm Road—1960, where my parents shopped every Sunday. Among the aisles of hot sauce and cornbread mix, I heard sounds that I had never heard before: Neil Young’s weary search for a heart of gold and Linda Ronstadt telling her lover there was no way in hell she’d commit to him. Something about those lyrics and their heavy emotions struck me. And though it’d be years before I ever set foot in Laurel Canyon or pressed my lips to a man’s, I knew right then that all I needed to feel alive was an acoustic guitar and some heartbreak.
Back then, Houston wasn’t much smaller than it is now — a sprawling metropolis with 2.1 million or so people, per the 2010 U.S. Census — but it sure felt that way. You had to drive everywhere because things were so spread out, and being nine meant being confined within the walls of my parents’ lives, which felt painfully small. Mom stayed at home, while Dad went to work, and neither did much in the evening besides watch TV.
“To this day, a quick trip to Walgreen’s feels as warm and reassuring as a mixtape left in the tape deck long after a road trip.”
But in the dairy aisle, surrounded by squishy gobs of cheese and cartons of milk, I felt invincible. “Treat your children well,” urged Jerry Garcia; “Have a cuppa tea,” Ray Davies implored, as I tossed beef-flavored ramen packet into the shopping cart. We could be doing the most mundane thing in the world and hearing those songs would brighten our day.They established a sense of place — California, Great Britain — and instilled a nostalgia for all things drudgery that’s stuck with me ever since. To this day, a quick trip to Walgreen’s feels as warm and reassuring as a mixtape left in the tape deck long after a road trip.
These memories come up in flashes as if they never occurred at all, as in a dream. I decided to find out the story behind them and put in several calls to Kroger’s media headquarters in Cincinatti, which quickly prompted an email from Gary Huddleston, a director of consumer affairs based in Irving. “This is a most interesting question and request,” he replied. “I am not sure I can answer, but I can shed some light on in-store music.”
Huddleston was a Kroger’s store manager in the early ’70s, when “… at times, we would hook up a local radio station to the in store PA system until we were told this was unlawful,” he recalled. “I think back in the ’80s we were probably playing a third party like Muzak and we told them the type of music we wanted. We didn’t want elevator music, but we didn’t want hard music.”
In fact, the chain was trying its damnedest not to offend anyone, although my store was secretly down with ganja-inspired folk rock. Local store managers could turn the dial to whatever they wanted, so long as the volume was “comfortable” and the tunes fell in the “middle of the road.” “There was no scientific means other than the manager of the store wanting music that was conducive to shopping, but it couldn’t distract from the shopping experience.”
Spencer Manio, a one-time DJ and professional playlist maker who’s worked for the likes of BlackBerry and Nordstrom, remembers this too. “Back in 1983, brands were still under the notion that music was too much of a distraction for the shopping experience,” he says. “You can’t have the heavy emotional power of a great song distracting the mission at hand. That’s why they called it “background music’.”
But today, that’s a whole other story. “Aside from the actual product being sold, music soundtracking the environment of purchase is the most powerful emotional, maybe even physical, connection a brand can make with its customer,” Manio says. And companies are willing to pay for it, it being a musichead like Manio who’s highly skilled at finding songs that blend in with a store’s aesthetic, from the displays to decor to staff outfits.
There’s a science behind it too. “Sometimes brands use focus groups made up of the targeted demographic to find out what music they listen to, and from that I’ll usually get some genres, eras, and some representative artists,” explained Manio, but for the most part, the Seattle resident “throws science and surveys out the window.” “When it comes to searching and choosing music for brands, I just trust my ears and experience. I’m drawing from decades of DJing every kind of music for every kind of person for every kind of occasion.”
You could say Manio’s brought the art of music discovery full circle. Rather than relying on data and charts, the tastemaker follows his passion, which he cultivated as a kid growing up in the eighties. From there, he learned to do the unthinkable, turning a serendipitous experience into a planned one, albeit with soul.
For me, the experience was flipped in reverse. My tastes weren’t shaped from a well-thought out playlist but a store manager who suspected that my parents, loyal customers that they were, expected a peaceful, easy feeling when they stepped into Kroger’s. If Carole King was lamenting time passed with her lover, that was only because the manager thought that’s what we wanted to hear. Fast forward 20 years, and now there are all sorts of ways to discover new sounds, some of which are more authentic than a store manager in Irving, Texas.
“I don’t think it’s natural to listen to a mix of songs that are rounded up according to similar audio attributes — instrumentation, tempo, production, etc.,” explains Manio, who eschews preset stations a la Pandora. “That’s reducing art to its most barest of traits. That’s like going to a museum that only shows paintings that have the same colors.”
Personally, I think the strangest discoveries are the best ones. After all, what’s a shopping experience without some variety?