Musical Moves: How to Build the Perfect Sound for Your Space

Michael Smith knows music. He started his career as a DJ, performing with artists such as Rihanna, The Killers and Kanye West at events ranging from the Oscars to the Olympics to South by Southwest. That's not to mention his gigs at luxury events for top brands like Chanel and Vanity Fair. Five years ago, he took his skills of musical selection in a different direction with The Playlist Generation, curating the background tracks for elite clients around the world. (Think The Standard Hotels, Intermix, the Salvatore Ferragamo runway and even coordinated test drives for Jaguar.)

SALON TODAY met Smith at the Owners Forum at Oribe Backstage 2011 in Las Vegas last month, where he was sharing his musical insight with salon owners, illustrating how music can boost sales and listing what songs salons should be playing now, and we couldn’t resist tapping his know-how to share with you in this one-on-one interview:

You are a self-described sonic-branding strategist. What is that?

“Our company,, works closely with many of the world's top brands, helping them strategically determine the best way to utilize music for their business. We start with meeting creative stakeholders, looking at research, talking to customers, looking at competitors and determining what is unique about the brand - and then we apply our findings to their customer experience. We consider what music should be playing in their store, what their customers do when they are on their phones or using social media, how their TV campaigns should sound and much more.”

What are the key elements to building the perfect sound for a space? What needs to be considered?

“First off, take your own musical tastes and quirks and put them aside. You have strategically thought about every element of design, so why would you subject your customers to your favorite song from your Sweet 16 party? Consider what kind of clientele you attract, talk to them about what they are listening to and enjoying...see if they are international, open-minded and well-informed. Is music discovery interesting to them? Also, look to have your music feel natural. If your design is very modern, having jazz from the '40s could feel discordant with your space.”

Why is music such an important part of the customer experience?

“Clients will be more likely to purchase or even have a higher perceived value if they like what they are hearing. For example, research shows that customers will stay longer in stores when slower music is played.”

Where does music fall in importance with other top-of-mind environmental elements, such as décor, wardrobe, service and architecture?

“Music is the most overlooked design element. It's as vital as every other element and should work harmoniously to enhance them. Because you can't see it or touch it, it usually gets thrown to the wayside. Oddly enough, it's something that becomes a huge point of contention, which I know any salon owner or manager has experienced. You need to set a tone and draw a line in the sand about what music works and doesn't - and get buy-in from your staff when possible.”

How do you approach creating a musical identity for a space? How does that change as you move through different areas?

“Imagine you are your customer, and you're being guided through the path of experience. From the moment you walk in, a tone needs to be set. Do you have different music in the waiting area than in the salon? How do you factor in the frequent blow-dryers that create a cacophonous and inconsistent environment? We look at all of these things and the overall brand positioning and find artists and songs that resonate. We usually look for one or a few key artists. Is this business David Bowie meets The Black Keys? Is it Gaga meets Prince? That will give you a good starting point.”

You've previously curated events for Victoria's Secret. What is the soundtrack for a bombshell?

“Tell me the bombshell and I'll give you a soundtrack. You need something that makes your heart skip...sensual, with enough energy to get your heart racing. These are the most beautiful women from all over the world, and their regional spice adds to the equation. Adriana Lima with a hot samba break and up-tempo dance beat would be sassy!”

You've also worked with a number of fashion brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. What mix keeps fashion designers happy?

“Brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton want to push the envelope constantly. They don't want Top 40 at all. They need the latest but want things that usually have an understanding and appreciation of the past. They don't want to be different for different's sake. They want to be bold and irreverent with calculation.”

Musical Moves: How to Build the Perfect Sound for Your Space

You program the music at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Intermix. Do you think the songs sell more coffee and clothes?

“The figures show that they do. We have seen sales increases for a number of our clients. As an example, Coffee Bean sells 70 percent of its revenue from the hours of 7 to 10 a.m., so we focused on the afternoons to get people to stay in the stores longer and make purchases. By playing the right (i.e., slower) music to encourage that, we have lifted sales by more than 5 to 10 percent in certain time periods.”

Do you curate music differently based on location (i.e., The Standard Hotel LA vs. NYC vs. Miami)?

“It depends on the client. Some feel that they should have a consistent sound throughout their brand experience. I'm more of the mindset that at a bare minimum, an overall sound should be customized to the relevance of the location and clientele. Standard Hotels have different sounds for every property and unique channels within each property, as well. The holistic lifestyle of Standard Miami and the throwback Jetson-like vibrance of New York have little in common on the surface, yet have some strands of commonality running through them, like international awareness, eclectic selection and deep and unexpected cuts of music.”

You curate the music for some of the country's top salons. What do they ask for? How does a salon's musical curation differ from that of other service providers?

“Salons usually start out wanting to be edgy and different. Then, because of strong stylist demand, they tend to switch to Top 40 music. Don't be pitching celebrity chic when you are playing Fantastic Sams music. If you must give in, find unique covers and remixes that at least show your unique point of view.”

Most salons have multiple areas (such as the waiting area and reception, shampoo stations, cutting floor, color floor, change rooms and bathroom). If you could pick the perfect song for each space what would it be?

“For the waiting area: The xx, ‘Teardrops;' for the shampoo stations: Joan As Police Woman, ‘The Magic;’ for the Color Floor: Seu Jorge, ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine;’ for the Cutting Floor: ESG, ‘Moody;’ and for the Changing Rooms: The Bird and The Bee, ‘Maneater.’”

What's your process for choosing which songs or artists make the cut? Who are some of your favorite artists right now?

“Look for music that is timeless. It can be brand new, but don't chase trends. No one wants to be pushing something that is disposable. Favorites now include The Temper Trap, Miike Snow, Adele, The Black Keys and The Whitest Boy Alive.”

How do you balance the music you like with what you think the customers will like?

“I try to put my likes and dislikes aside and view the client through a lens unique to them. Always remember that it's not just about you. Making a strong statement about my salon playing my music is silly. That's what your living room or car is for. Finish the following, in terms of your work: ALWAYS know what you are. NEVER try to be what you aren't.”

What DJ has the best hair?

“Mark Ronson.”

Top three tricks for getting the crowd moving?

“Playing a great remix or mashup of a popular song. Turning up the bass. Subtly turning up the volume.”

What is your current state of mind?

“Can't believe I get to do this for a living. Excited to be getting married. The future is wide open!”

American Idol or The Voice?

Love Cee Lo and want to see The Voice blow up.

Your musical guilty pleasure?

Justin Bieber...’Never Say Never!’

Editor's Note: The interview with Michael Smith was conducted by Oribe's Jill Hilbrenner and Daniel Langer and originally features on Check out for more stories and a sensational video of Oribe Backstage.


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