Background Noise

Can background noise lead businesses to lose customers?

By Sara Hussein

- Last updated on GMT

How to reduce background noise in pubs

Related tags: Music, Hearing impairment

According to a recent survey carried out by the charity Action on Hearing Loss, almost 80% of people have left a pub or restaurant early because of excessive background noise.

The Speak Easy​ report, compiled last year, revealed that out of the 1,461 people surveyed, background noise was the second highest priority for customers after the quality of the food.

While seven out of 10 people with hearing loss and/or tinnitus considered background noise a key factor when choosing where to dine, surprisingly, almost 84% of people who didn’t have hearing loss also shared
this concern.

More than three quarters of those surveyed visited pubs every month. However, due to a basic lack of communication and appropriate staff training, 91% said they would not return to a venue if the background noise was too loud.

There are currently 11 million people with hearing loss in the UK, which is predicted to rise to more than 15 million by 2035. Noise levels, the report states, have been widely neglected and venues risk excluding their customers and losing revenue, regardless of the quality of their food and drinks offers.

Action on Hearing Loss head of public affairs and campaigns Rob Burley says: “This isn’t just a problem for people with hearing problems. There are pubs and restaurants that are acting on this to get a huge amount of business, especially when people without hearing loss also share this problem.

“People go out to socialise to have a conversation, and if they have this problem, it’s just not going to happen.”

He adds: “We just want to make the industry aware that this could be a problem they may not have looked at.”

Quiet retreat

Although the Speak Easy​ report found background music is a contentious factor for customers, the topic has generated mixed reactions among operators.

Gordon Reid, owner of the Queen’s Arms in Corton Denham, Sherborne, Somerset, agrees that background music is bad: “We don’t have any background music, most people who come here like that; it’s one of our attractions. Set in the heart of the countryside, the Queen’s Arms is a social hub for families and older clientele who use it as a quiet retreat from the city.

“If we played any background music, our customers wouldn’t come back,” he adds.

However, nothing is ever so cut and dried. Background music is mostly a ‘balancing act’ between satisfying customers and the pub’s objective as a business. Many publicans consider background music as an asset to their venue. When business is quiet it can often greet the customer as they come in to have a pint, or read the paper.

In the Speak Easy​ report, most who took part in the survey represented an older demographic (24% aged 55 to 64, and 40% aged 65 to 74), who, understandably, are more prone to shy away from background music.

On the other hand, the younger demographics were not widely represented. Less than 1% of 18 to 24-year-olds took part in the survey and only 2% of 25 to 34-year-olds voiced their opinions and said background music was a key factor in a pub.

Gavin Larkins, head of licensing at the PRS for Music (Performing Right Society), says: “A lot of people don’t realise how important the music is, it adds that competitive advantage to a venue.”

Know your Music License

■ Operators do not need permission (premises licence or a temporary event notice) to play background music under the Alcohol and Entertainment Licencing Law (Licencing Act 2003). All background music is exempt.
■ Under the Live Music Act 2012 (and subsequent deregulation), operators do
not need permission under the Licensing Act for hosting live acts and DJ sets if the music is played between 8am and 11pm in a licenced pub and with an audience of up
to 500 people.
■ Any complaints as a result of loud music could lead to a review of a premises licence or a noise abatement notice (under the Environmental Protection Act 1990).
■ Pubs will need a PRS for Music licence to play recorded music in public, for example radio, CD or music TV channel on business premises. This allows operators to also play live music on the premises. The lowest annual royalty that a pub would pay for background music is just over £80, but varies depending on how the music is used and the type of premises. An average pub with a jukebox and a TV pays about £400 a year.
■ Pubs will also need a copyright licence from Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) in order to play recorded background music. Pricing varies on the size of the pub’s audible area and the room where the background music is played. If a pub’s audible area is under 400sq m, an annual licence will cost £130.51 plus VAT.
■ If the audible area is 50sq m or less, the site is eligible to a concessionary licence fee of 50% off the annual fee if it
is using ‘traditional’ radio or television broadcasts. This includes national BBC national or local radio stations, independent national or local radio stations licensed by Ofcom, and BBC1, BBC 2, ITV1, Channel 4, S4C and Five television broadcasters. This does not include playlists from other sources, such
as Spotify.
■ If the pub has more than one area where background music is played, it should indicate which part of the premises it wishes to be licensed.

Tempo plays its part

While controlling the volume of background music is quite important when a venue is busy, music at a certain tempo can influence staff and customer behaviour, Larkins explains.

On a Friday night, for instance, music with a faster tempo is more likely to push customers to drink faster and return to the bar.

Equally, upbeat background music can also increase staff motivation and productivity. On the other hand, slower paced music can encourage people to eat or drink slower, which may prolong their stay and cause them to order more food or drinks.

For licensees such as Emma Harvey at the Wheatsheaf Inn, No Man’s Heath, Cheshire, music leads customers to prolong their stay, given the pub’s rural location. By using royalty-free music site Jamendo Music, the pub plays music from independent artists.

Harvey says: “We have a lot of older people during our lunchtime trade, I don’t think people like to sit in absolute silence. They may not be listening to the music, but it gives a little bit of warmth to the place and takes the edge off.”

“We’re very quiet during the day, you can feel very pressured to make conversation and the atmosphere can feel a little bit cold,” she adds.


Intelligent usage

John Ellis, licensee at the Crown Inn, in Oakengates, Shropshire, partially agrees: “Background music is important to kill the silence in a pub when it’s not busy.”

Given that his venue is quite spacious, background music is played during the day. However, at his sister pub, the Elephant & Castle, in Dawley, near Telford, Shropshire, people congregate around the bar and get involved in conversation.

“It has to be used intelligently. I’ve been in pubs where the background music is so loud I cannot hear myself think,” he says.

“The pub is the original social network and there is no point in having 40 or 50 people in a room who cannot have a conversation with one another. If the music is too loud, then you have people sitting in isolation. It’s driven me out of the pub.”

Older demographic

PRS for Music’s Larkins also suggests using TVs, when the venue is quiet, as an important source of background noise, which can increase the trade during the day whether showing a sports event, or a soap opera.

Background music still remains a key accessory in pubs and there appears to be no right, or wrong answer.

While the Speak Easy​ report’s findings should be kept in mind to accommodate a growing older demographic with hearing loss, an individual and common sense approach is probably best.

Potential Solutions

■ Volume: keep the music volume at 50 decibels or below for a suitable level of background noise.
■ Bookings: make bookings easier for customers with hearing loss by including an online booking system, or asking them to reserve their table through email.
■ Lighting: provide good lighting in
your venue for customers who rely on
lip reading.
■ Interior design: make a few changes to the pub’s furnishings. Include curtains and carpets to absorb more noise, or rubber caps on the feet of tables and chairs to avoid scraping the floor.
■ Staff training: ask staff to be more aware of their body language and facial expressions when serving customers who suffer from hearing loss. Making eye contact and speaking clearly with a lower tone of voice can help improve communication with customers.
■ Acoustic treatments: there are numerous acoustic treatment specialists in the UK, which offer various designs. Soundsorba, for example, provides a cost-effective solution with its product Echosorba. It offers eight stick-on
acoustic panels for a total of £176 (plus three £9 cans of glue and delivery charges).

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