BBC radio's 'Music While You Work' boosted post-war productivity. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
BBC radio's 'Music While You Work' boosted post-war productivity. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

In 1964 the album The Sounds of the Office was released, and regaled the listener for 35 minutes with the sound of typewriters clacking and coffee being made. "The sounds of the office are essentially sounds of paper and machines," the liner notes explained.

If this eccentric corporate field recording were made today, the typewriters would be computer keyboards and the coffee would come in pods. But it would also include a set of sounds, unheard in the 1960s workplace and increasingly common in its 2017 descendant - the office playlist.

In 2016, PRS for Music, the organisation that collects royalties for UK songwriters and composers, granted more than 27 000 licences to offices to play recorded music.

That is a small proportion of the 351 000 British workplaces - including pubs, shops and hairdressers - licensed to play music, but the organisation says the number is growing.

Turning workspaces into huge jukeboxes has its pitfalls. The prospect of sitting at your desk being exposed to a colleague's love of Iron Maiden over the office sound system on "Metal Monday" is not conducive to happy employment.

Nor is the kind of remorselessly upbeat pop that treats workers like participants in a Pavlovian experiment, typing e-mails at an ever more furious rate as the beats per minute mount.

But music has a long history as an aid to productivity. Work songs have long been a feature of manual labour, alleviating boredom and providing a rhythm to the working day.

Between 1940 and 1967, the BBC broadcast the programme Music While You Work to improve efficiency and keep morale up in factories.

Its theme tune was the jaunty light orchestral airCalling All Workers.

Muzak was invented in the US in 1922 for use in workplaces. The Stimulus Progression approach was patented, whereby the day is broken into 15-minute chunks and the intensity of the music played in each is altered, according to the fluctuating energy levels of the labour force.

But the negative connotation now attached to muzak - bland, inoffensive - shows the danger of using music to shape working behaviour. No one likes to feel they are being manipulated.

Researcher Anneli Haake published her PhD on music in offices in 2010, the first such study. Her survey involved almost 300 employees in a variety of offices. "Many participants reported that music in the office was very important to manage the auditory office environment and its distractions, to manage mood and internal thought processes, to accompany tedious work tasks and to inspire them," she said.

"The most important thing is to have control over what you are listening to and if you are listening or not. Being forced to listen to music when working can be both annoying and stressful."

Streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify provide the modern equivalent ofStimulus Progression. Spotify's playlists include Your Office Stereo, in which gently left-field indie selections, such as Coco Hello by The Modern Strangers and Another Weekend by Ariel Pink, suggest a tech company-style atmosphere of studied informality.

Spotify's Productive Morning playlist, meanwhile, uses ambient post-rock instrumentals to induce a state of immersive concentration, with surging musical peaks for those eureka moments when the office worker solves some knotty problem.

Playlists offer a degree of agency to employees over what gets played, rather than having choices imposed on them. At the PRS for Music's London headquarters, staff vote on what gets programmed on to the daily office soundtrack, with different days devoted to different genres.

"We also have music bingo on Fridays," said Sam Pickering-Dunn, PRS for Music's director. Staff choose three artists they predict will be played on the radio: the first person to have all three selected is the winner.

But there is a catch to sounds in the workplace. Any business in the UK of more than one employee playing recorded music must pay to do so, because it counts as a form of broadcasting.

Two licences are necessary, one from PRS for Music, covering the songwriting or composition rights, and another from a different royalty collection society, PPL, covering the rights to the recording.

Even having a radio playing songs requires licensing.

PRS for Music and PPL plan to amalgamate their licences at the end of the year. Meanwhile, music-minded workspaces have to make sense of an ungroovy array of more than 40 tariffs from PRS alone.

"If you are playing music in the office environment and you also have music on hold when a customer calls in, there will be different tariffs applying to each," Pickering-Dunn said.

Businesses tempted to wing it without a licence should beware a knock on the door from the royalty collectors - an "active fieldwork force", she said.

There are other obstacles. Personal accounts with streaming services should not be used to play music out loud in offices.

A more expensive Spotify-affiliated service, Soundtrack Business, at about R590 a month, launched in the UK last year for commercial use, but it does not allow users to programme their own playlists.

Ignoring these restrictions represents a novel variety of white-collar crime: the office stereo as the new pirate radio.

The Financial Times

Please sign in or register to comment.