Stop the (holiday) music

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2012 - 3:36 PM

There's a science to annoying us with these familiar holiday tunes.

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Photo: Stephanie Grace Lim, MCT

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When it comes to having a love-hate relationship with Christmas music, Kevin Featherly takes the fruitcake. The Bloomington guitarist is "sick to death" of being force-fed holiday music every time he steps out in public, but he's also performing it. "I am both a sufferer and perpetrator," he said, admitting that he is providing holiday background music in coffee shops "which will go nameless to protect the unsuspecting." He has nothing against the music -- it's the repetition that has him feeling bah-humbug. Featherly is among a rising chorus of critics who think we've reached a saturation point as the music is foisted upon us in stores, elevators, restaurants and skyways.

Allison Adrian, an assistant professor of music at St. Catherine University, teaches a class on the auditory architecture of shopping malls. Some of this irritation, she said, comes from the fact that we've gotten used to having total control of our musical environment, thanks to the proliferation of MP3 players and subscription radio services.

"This Christmas music is out of our control," she said. "Hence, it is particularly annoying."

Retailers aren't playing Burl Ives' "A Holly Jolly Christmas" because they like hearing it every day. They're playing it in hopes it will make customers want to spend money.

"We are now more aware as a society that music serves as social engineering: Its intent is to motivate us to behave in a particular way," Adrian said. "Christmas music is an aural sign that we're being treated as consumers."

Christmas tunes can have a particularly potent effect, said Joe Redden, an assistant professor of marketing and logistics management at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

"We know that inducing a positive mood generally makes people more likely to spend," he said. "Given that Christmas music is almost exclusively positive and upbeat, this should help sales. Christmas music also could 'prime' people with the spirit of the season."

Songs that remind people of their childhood holidays also might make them more likely to splurge on gifts, he said.

No way out

Even if consumers are tired of the music, it's probably not in any one retailer's interest to stop, Redden said. Annoyed shoppers are caught between a lump of coal and a hard place.

For retailers, the thinking is: "If everyone else is doing it, then I might as well do it, too," Redden said.

Retailers need to realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas, said August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists, citing the annual Pew survey showing that the percentage of Christians in the United States is dropping. That being said, he's not advocating for a ban on holiday music.

"We're all for freedom of religion and freedom of expression," he said. "We oppose it [the music] in public places, like schools. And we don't like the proliferation of religious music, like 'Away in a Manger.' But something like 'Jingle Bells' we consider secular music."

The purveyors of holiday music are becoming more sensitive to public push-back. In the first week of November, a large Canadian retailer, Shoppers Drug Mart, hushed Christmas music in its stores after customers complained that it had started too early. After the move, nearly 6,000 Facebook users posted messages on the chain's page, almost all of them applauding the decision.

Radio programmers also are taking a more cautious approach, said Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Research, a firm that monitors radio stations, including those in the Twin Cities.

"Stations have been more conservative" in adopting all-holiday formats, he said. "Stations that used to [start] early in November just to get a jump on the competition are now waiting until a week or two later."

Other than spending the holiday season on a deserted island, you'll be hard-pressed to avoid Christmas music. But Featherly, the guitarist, has a suggestion for mitigating the problem.

"I would not propose an end to Christmas observances," he said. "But might we agree to a five-year moratorium on the music of Vince Guaraldi? I love that music, and I'm struggling hard to avoid growing to loathe it out of sheer, insistent redundancy."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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