Sunday 2 June 2013

The unquiet pint

Throughout my drinking career, piped music in pubs has been a perennial source of complaint. It is, by and large, wholly unnecessary and intrusive, and even if you like it the odds are that other people won’t. What is music to one person’s ears will be an unholy racket to someone else. While it is claimed to create instant “atmosphere”, almost invariably it detracts from a pub.

In the 1990s, a guide to pubs without piped music was produced entitled The Quiet Pint. I have a copy from 2000, produced by the Daily Telegraph and sponsored by J. D. Wetherspoon.

Like many such guides, it features a rather random selection of pubs and the overall coverage is too sparse to make it of much practical use, although it might occasionally lead you to a worthwhile pub that you weren’t aware of. The only pubs around here are the Devonshire Arms and Oddfellows in Mellor, the Grapes at Gee Cross near Hyde, Stalybridge Station Buffet and the Station in Didsbury (which I doubt is “quiet” nowadays and may have an uncertain future). Bizarrely, the Devonshire Arms is listed under “Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside” and the Oddfellows, in the same village, under “Cheshire”.

It would, however, lead you to such Cheshire gems as the Bird in Hand at Mobberley, and the two Blue Bells at Smallwood and Tushingham.

The sponsorship by Wetherspoon’s means that a few of their pubs gain main entries, but there is a complete listing at the back. Given their expansion since 2000, such a listing would now overwhelm the book. While the main Wetherspoon’s chain remains music free, I doubt whether many could really be regarded as “quiet”.

The last edition of the book seems to have been published in 2004, so it must have died a death. However, the problem hasn’t gone away, and if anything seems to be spreading. I can think of at least three pubs on my regular rounds which have a generally traditional character, but within the past few years have introduced piped music where there was none before. Indeed, sometimes the bar staff have been playing what sounded like Radio 1, which was totally inappropriate for the clientele. It has even spread to my local Co-op convenience store.

Having said this, at lunchtime today my local pub, which at times has been one of those suffering from the blight, was gratifyingly music-free, and all the better for it.

Strangely, a while back a regular commenter wondered what “piped music even means”. I would have said it’s a common English phrase, and provided him with the following definition: “music piped or relayed around a building or room which people have not chosen and which they may not be able to escape. In short, it is involuntary music, forced on listeners”.

It’s good to see that the Pipedown campaign against piped music still seems to be going strong.


  1. I think its volume that annoys me the most. Too quiet then why bother, too loud and its impossible to talk.

  2. Professor Pie-Tin2 June 2013 at 20:01

    That's what I miss most about pubs these days.
    Just the general hubbub of people nattering, occasionally punctured by guffaws of laughter.
    Although there's a pub I know in deepest Wiltshire which steafastly refuses any entertainment except Test Match Special on the wireless during the summer months.
    And Radio 4 Long Wave in the winter ( they prefer the old-fashioned sound of Long Wave rather than the Fancy Dan FM newfangledthingy.)
    There is a bar in Manhatten called Burp Castle with a splendid selection of craft beers and a contrary policy on noise I really like.
    The bar staff will shush any customers who are too loud while at the same time playing nothing but Gregorian chants quite loudly.
    Most Americans I meet there seem to hate it very quickly which only increases my general approval of the place.
    But ideally the shipping forecast on Radio 4, a crackling log fire and a snoring dog under the table are the only entertainment I need in a pub.
    I can't wait until my kids grow up and piss off and I can become that miserable old git in the corner of every pub.

  3. There are good beer, good pub even rough pub guides. Get writing the miserable old codgers pub guide, Mudge.

  4. Lots of people like piped music though, I would go as far as to say the majority of people like a bit of background music. No-one sits at home in complete silence, they turn the radio or telly on, so why would you expect them to in the pub?

  5. @Pyo. You've noticed the infamous "Mudgie paradox", there fella.
    This is an internationally renowned paradox studied by scientists the world over. It is that in order to survive or even prosper a pub has to be commercially viable. That means recognising what punters want and giving it to them. This can involve many things that appeal either to a wide section of people or small set of people. It may require diversity of offer in a pub market of many different types of pub that appeal to different people in different circumstances.

    The paradox is when that thing is something the “traditional” pub enthusiast does not like. It can be piped music. It can be a screen showing the football. It can be scatter cushions. It has to be something that arguably some punters like, maybe not everyone, but something a “traditional” pub enthusiast does not like. This then becomes something that is destroying pubs. It is certainly not providing something that appeals to some paying customers.

    The “traditional” pub enthusiast would like pubs to be successful. They would also like all pubs to be the same mock Edwardian/Victorian gaffs full of wood beams, bench seating & no pork pies in the cheese salad/ploughmans & full of old men sitting silently drinking bitter, looking morose and a sign banning modern expectations of fun and enjoyment.

    When the scientists square the circle and resolve the paradox it is believed the pub industry will be saved.

  6. Of course, another good thing about Sam Smith's pubs is that they have no piped music, because Humphrey Smith is too mean to pay PRS fees.

  7. I like a bit of music in the long as it isn't too loud for conversation!
    In a large empty pub I can understand that a bit of background music will add some atmosphere. What should happen (but rarely does though) is that once the pub becomes reasonably busy the music should be turned OFF not UP!

  8. My local gets its music from an mp3 player beneath the bar. It's the same music every time I go in. 17 Blondie tracks, with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown ("Fire!") and Dusty Springfield ("I Only Want To Be With You") in the middle somewhere.

    I decided I wanted a change on Sunday so I went somewhere else. I ordered a pint of Proper Job at the bar and turned round to find, to my horror, what looked like a trad jazz band setting up.

    I finished my pint and scarpered, and went past another pub with someone singing live and badly out of tune.

    After that, I was only too glad to listen to "The Tide Is High" and "Sunday Girl" every 25 minutes with my pint of Windermere Pale.

  9. Just close your eyes and picture Debbie Harry circa 1977...

    Don't know if it's on that particular compilation, but I always think "Maria" is a cracking song.

  10. Debs must be making a packet from the PRS royalties from the place if it plays her hits non-stop every day from 12noon to 12midnight. Helps pay for the plastic surgery, probably.

  11. I once stayed in a hotel in Bristol which during breakfast played a tape-loop of about three songs by Mariah Carey in her early phase when she seemed determined to demonstrate the full multi-octave range of her voice. After a while I think I complained and they turned it off...

  12. I'm not particularly a jazz fan, but a trad jazz band setting up wouldn't put me off. Piped music and live music are quite different. The worst in my book is neither of these but karaoke: I once saw a biker girl sing a beautiful version of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams, but most karaoke singers I've seen don't have a go until they're half cut and even then deliberately sing badly. Piped music wouldn't necessarily stop me going into a pub, but karaoke would.

  13. The presence of piped music rarely puts me off going into a pub and, to be honest, sometimes I quite like it if it's to my taste. But, in general, pubs would be better off without it, and I'd prefer to eat my ploughman's and sup my pint without Beyoncé warbling into my ear.

  14. When I was a waiter in a chain pub as a teenager, the music was on a tape that looped after something like 47 minutes, which they'd worked out was the length of the average visit.

    We got a new tape from head office every six months.

    So, even though I love music, I really, really got to hate all the songs on those tapes. Can't stand to hear Wonderwall by Oasis even nearly twenty years on.

  15. The thing is, guys, that old mudge is fond of these "traditional" style pubs which is a euphemism for grotty old shit hole where the bitter is cheap. In the craft beer bars us trendy hipsters hang out there is unlikely to be a physical threat of violence. Not unless you count your metrosexual friends hugging you a violent act. Down the pig and whippet for a pint of ye old brewery cocksnot with Mudge and you face a constant threat of losing an ear, eye, whole eye socket from the toothless tattooed psychopath spilling his Stellaberg in rage at the injustice and suffering of the world. You might also be offered some knocked off meat or xmas tree lights, in June. In such environments piped musak serves to calm things, relax customers and sooth the soul. Rather than mock it, when you hear it, your survival changes just went up.

  16. What? Oh sorry, I was still thinking about Debbie Harry circa 1977...

  17. Peter Allen's comment about a little bit of background music in an empty pub, which is then turned off when the pub starts to become busy, is definitely the way to go. When there are just a couple of people in a pub, they can sometimes feel inhibited to talk in anything more than a whisper, for fear (however irrational) of being overheard. This is especially true if they wish their conversation to remain private. This, however, is the only time when piped music is acceptable in my book.

    py0, perhaps I am unusual in liking to sit at home in complete silence - unlike my wife who has to turn the TV/radio on the moment she sets foot in the house!

    Curmudgeon, I can still picture Debbie Harry circa 1977!

  18. To me piped music always used to mean Muzak (tm) - centrally chosen music sent to lots of different places, often the tunes of songs, but without the singing. Music selected by pubs - whether I like it or not is, at least partly, a way a pub establishes its identity. In a large pub, playing music loudly through speakers round the sides is stupid. In a multiroom pub, having the same volume in all rooms is also stupid. In a small pub, playing music at the bar should be enough - and plausibly also helps get people to sit rather than lurking in the way at the bar. There're few things worse than sitting in a nice quiet corner of a pub and then someone at the bar choosing their favourite tune and whomping the volume up.


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