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Every shopper at every Target is listening to the same song at the same time

A new Target store location on campus at the University of California San Diego in fall 2020. (Sandy Huffaker/AP Images for Target)
A new Target store location on campus at the University of California San Diego in fall 2020. (Sandy Huffaker/AP Images for Target)

by Lydia Moran

April 08, 2021

Music hasn't always been part of the shopping experience at the Minneapolis-based retail chain. If I'd gone to Target back in, say, 2008, the only soundtrack would have been the squeak of cart wheels or my panicked breathing while choosing among dozens of toothpaste brands. But after testing music in several of its Minnesota stores in 2011, Target outfitted locations nationwide with sound systems as part of a large 2017 remodeling plan.

Is there someone sitting in a downtown Minneapolis office tower spinning shopping songs for the nation? As much as I wish it was someone’s job to DJ stores in real time, in reality, Target outsources its music curation to Texas-based Mood Media, a company that supplies background music experiences to major retail clients.

Muzak, first founded in the 1930s, supplied background music for retail stores and other establishments. In the 1940s, the company began experimenting with customizing the pace and style of music to influence productivity and sold workplaces instrumentals that gradually increased in tempo over 15-minute increments, followed by 15 minutes of silence. This “stimulus progression” was backed by research that indicated workers could be lifted out of fatigue with rhythmic tunes.

Back at Target, “Stay” by Alessia Cara and Zedd was playing while I searched in vain for a block of tofu. I imagined what it must have been like to be one of the first elevator passengers or work in a factory under sounds growing steadily more insistent. It could be that Target’s playlists nowadays operate in a space between quelling my nerves about parting with my money and increasing my energy to spend it. In the past, Muzak focused on the mechanics of music: the tone, pace, style. Now, in our world of unlimited streaming, brands want to do more than influence customers with auditory uppers and downers; they want to share a story.

I heard three more songs before hitting the checkout aisle: “Tiny Little Bows” by Carly Rae Jepsen, “Soak Up the Sun” by Sheryl Crow, and “Pale Shelter” by Tears For Fears. The collection of songs I heard on my trip were released between 1992 and 2017. Artists ranged from chart-toppers like Sheryl Crow and Zedd to the Molochs, an LA-based indie band with less than 4,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. They alternate in tone and tempo, from dubstep-adjacent beat drops to the mind-numbing soft rock of the early aughts.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.