Why the war on muzak is no longer falling on deaf ears

As Marks and Spencer stores fall silent, could this be the beginning of the end of muzak? Sarah Freeman speaks to one dedicated campaigner who certainly hopes so.

Marks and Spencer has announced it is to stop playing piped music in its stores. Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Marks and Spencer has announced it is to stop playing piped music in its stores. Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Nigel Rogers is an unlikely figurehead for a protest movement.

The author of various books on art history and Roman architecture, Nigel leads a largely quiet life in rural Wiltshire, but there is one particular subject guaranteed to raise his hackles. Music. More specifically the kind of music which is piped into supermarkets, bars and restaurants.

“It’s an inescapable nuisance and one that I would like to see consigned to history forever,” says Nigel, who became so irritated by the practice that he decided to form Pipedown, a campaign group dedicated to its eradication.

That was back in 1992 and yesterday Nigel and the rest of the Pipedowners toasted a significant victory in their war against muzak when Marks and Spencer announced all its branches would be free of pipe music for forever more.

“There is a tendency to think that piped music is a necessity like gas and electricity,” says Nigel, who counts the likes of Stephen Fry, Lesley Garrett and Joanna Lumley among his celebrity supporters. “It’s not, but it has prospered due to the dubious propaganda put about by the piped music industry. I have no doubt that they genuinely believe that it improves customer experience, but they are wrong.”

Nigel is aware that his war against piped music may not have the political clout of Greenpeace’s move to rid the world of nuclear weapons or the emotional punch of a RSPCA campaign against animal cruelty, but it is, he says, a modern day curse.

“Like all unwanted noise, inescapable piped music raises the blood pressure and depresses the immune system,” he adds. “It also causes problems for the millions of people with hearing problems - 14 per cent of the population according to official figures.”

Nigel likes statistics. The Pipedown website also quotes numerous opinion polls commissioned by everyone from the BBC to Barclays Bank which have all drawn the same conclusion - that more people hate piped background music than like it.

“While there is anecdotal evidence about differing types of music affecting people’s shopping habits, there is no genuine evidence to show that such music increases sales by one penny,” says Nigel. “The likes of Aldi, Lidl, John Lewis and Primark all thrive without wasting money on canned music.”

The Marks and Spencer decision was just one of Pipedown’s hard won victories. Previously it has been successful in persuading Gatwick Airport to drop unwanted piped music in its public areas.

“Sainsbury’s and Tesco also now don’t use background music in their branches except alas at Christmas,” says Nigel. “And both Waterstones and the Nationwide Building Society have agreed to phase out nonstop music from their respective branches.”

However, the war is far from over and according to Pipedown two of the biggest offenders are Yorkshire-based supermarket chains Asda and Morrisons.

“Asda is a notoriously muzac-polluted chain, but even it is experimenting with having one quiet hour per week when all the music and televisions will be turned off in one of their Manchester stores. It’s for the benefit of autistic customers, but we’d like to see it extended throughout all their stores.

“There is still much more we need to do. Banks like HSBC think it’s perfectly acceptable to play a constant stream of piped music and worse still there are hospitals where patients, lying immobilised on beds or stretchers, are literally powerless to escape the twin horror of piped music and television which don’t seem to have an off button. In this world what we need more than anything is a little more quiet time.”