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Invisible but Inescapable, Playlists are the MVPs of Bar Culture

There are a lot of elements that make your favorite bar your favorite bar. It might be the drinks, the staff, the atmosphere or the odds that a drunk stranger will accost you in the bathroom to tell you about their latest breakup or multi-level marketing scheme.

But one often overlooked factor gives bars their essential personalities: playlists. Though live music gets all the glory, playlists are the sneaky MVPs of bar culture, capable of transforming an unassuming pub into a beloved dive, or, conversely, turning a carefully designed haute lounge into “that place where they wouldn’t stop playing Kings of Leon.”

Playlists are the MVPs of Bar Culture
The Whistler in Chicago, IL / Photo courtesy Victor Duarte

Playlists make a bar’s vibe tangible. They can elevate the crowd’s energy and encourage everyone to buy another round, or totally bungle it and make you feel like you’re hanging out at an airport Chili’s.

Building a successful playlist is complicated. Bars are communal spaces, but taste in music is personal and subjective. Plus, what you like to listen to is not necessarily linked to your drink of choice—there’s no direct correlation between, say, enjoying the rich flavors of an oak-aged Malbec and the early works of Oingo Boingo.

So, how do bars figure out what to play to make everybody happy?

“Everyone’s a deejay,” says James “KP” Sykes, co-owner of Brooklyn’s The Armory. “I learned very early on in my bartending tenure that everyone believes they have the best taste in music.”

It’s important to own the responsibility, Sykes says. Cueing up your personal Spotify account and hoping your patrons love Napalm Death as much as you do is not a winning strategy.

“Entertaining guests for fun and for money are two very different beasts,” says Sykes.

Playlists can elevate the crowd’s energy and encourage everyone to buy another round, or bungle it and make you feel like you’re at an airport Chili’s.

Most bartenders and owners have their own personal technique for crafting the perfect sonic mood.

“A lot of my playlist curation starts with a question,” says Jeferino Tomas, general manager of Brooklyn’s Disco Tacos. “ ‘When I listen to this, where do I want to be?’ If it’s a sunny Sunday brunch, what songs will help me elevate that moment? What songs are going to keep me emphasizing and experiencing the thrills?”

This approach has led Tomas to cue up songs as diverse as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Gabor Szabo’s “1969,” Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and Esperanza Spalding’s “Thang (Hips)” all on one playlist.

Chef's Special cocktail bar
Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar / Photo by Carolina Rodriguez

Chase Bracamontes, beverage director and partner at Chicago’s Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, believes that a perfect bar playlist contains “30% popular hits that people know, love and have a memory attached to, contrasted with 70% rarer jams that they want to find out about.”

Getting people to whip out their phones and aggressively Shazam the soundtrack is part of building a mood, Bracamontes says, because “part of being out is having an experience you can’t create at home.”

Sometimes, the perfect playlist is about matching tunes to setting. Bracamontes recalls a night out at an old Polish bar in Chicago ​​ “drinking Old Styles listening to Hall and Oates. It felt perfect.”

Playlists are the MVPs of bar culture
In The Heart, Seattle / Courtesy of In The Heart

In other instances, the connection is more diffuse. Malika Siddiq, owner of Seattle’s New Orleans-themed In The Heart speakeasy, develops playlists with her team that forgo the typical brass band vibes people might associate with the Big Easy. Instead, Siddiq tries to invoke the city’s famous party atmosphere by spinning “music where we want you to dance and sing along.”

But crafting a perfect playlist is the beginning, not the end, of the work. Sykes says he has “multiple playlists on hand for different moods, occasions, or even current events.” Flexibility is key, he says. “An unexpected thunderstorm, which typically will bring in people seeking shelter, can convert what was once a quiet Monday to feeling more like a Friday.”

“It’s the subtle head bop. The shoulder roll, the foot thrumming along to the beat.” —Jefereino Tomas, Disco Tacos 

Fia Berisha, partner and beverage director at The Landing Kitchen in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, stresses the importance of the time of day or night. Around 6 pm, Berisha says, “folks are generally just having their first glass of wine, they’re getting into a conversation where the person at the table may be business, first date or a friend you haven’t seen in a while.”

For this first shift of drinkers, Berisha’s needle drops tend toward Leon Bridges or Nathaniel Rateliff. But, by 10 pm, she’s dimmed the lights and put on Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.”

“I like to raise the volume just enough that you don’t have to yell talking to the person next to you, but you notice your foot tapping during your second cocktail and think, ‘I love this song,’ ” she says.

Sometimes, playlists provide communal experiences, the kind you can only have while sipping a drink with a stranger.

“When Charlie Watts died, I knew I had to walk to Moonlight Mile in Greenpoint,” says Ben Apatoff, author of Metallica: The $24.95 Paperback, about a Brooklyn bar named for a Rolling Stones song. “And there it was: a Stones-heavy playlist, and even an ‘R.I.P. Charlie Watts’ message on the A-frame outside.

“A bar that puts care into its playlists keeps people coming back,” Apatoff says.

Whistler bar chicago
The Whistler / Courtesy Victor Duarte

Specific, recurring communal experiences can become part of bars’ DNA. Not one but two bar professionals say that playing Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” has become a cherished bar tradition.

Victor King, executive chef and co-owner of The Essential in Birmingham, Alabama, says “Kiss from a Rose” was the most-played song of 2019, according to the business’ Spotify account.

The 1994 ballad is also a hit at The Whistler in Chicago.

“I think it started as a joke, but it turned into a much-loved sing-along at last call,” says Billy Helmkamp, The Whistler’s owner.

This kind of playlist moment is less about creating atmosphere and more akin to a secret handshake or the kind of ritual you’d have at summer camp. It’s something that momentarily makes you feel a little less like an adult, and the world seem a bit pleasantly smaller.

“Watching the entire room belt out that song puts a smile on my face every time,” says Helmkamp.

The Essential Birmingham Alabama
The Essential in Birmingham, Alabama / Photo by Caleb Chancey

And even if every patron isn’t singing along to a track from the Batman Forever soundtrack, bartenders can still tell if their playlists are connecting.

“It’s the subtle head bop,” says Disco Tacos’ Tomas. “The shoulder roll, the foot thrumming along to the beat. It’s the unconscious movement of the guests that shows me if a playlist is working. The music is infectious and they can’t help but move along to the rhythm.”

Berisha gives a more specific example. She can tell that a playlist is working when, around 11 pm, she finds “everyone singing along to New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ at the chorus, and everyone starts laughing because it was totally unplanned between a group of twentysomething singles and university professors at the bar.”

We spend so much time on our phones, wearing earbuds or otherwise isolating ourselves in a digital abyss. The connection that comes from listening to the same music with strangers is part of the intangible appeal of bars.

“People usually feel inspired to enjoy themselves if it’s unavoidable to see that others around them are doing the same,” says Sykes. “It’s like The Mojito Effect: Once one person orders a mojito, you can always expect several more people to make the same request once they’ve seen it.”

A few people’s enthusiasm can spread to the rest of the crowd, says Sykes. It can open everyone’s hearts and minds to the possibilities the night holds.

“Or, at the very least, they will become more open minded about the good time they may be missing out on,” he says.