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Who Picks The Music You Hear At The Mall?

Spencer Manio in front of his office (his door is the one with the Ghostface poster) at PlayNetwork.
Kyle Johnson for NPR
Spencer Manio in front of his office (his door is the one with the Ghostface poster) at PlayNetwork.

In an episode from the fifth season of Mad Men the show's main character, advertising executive Don Draper, is asked by his client, the cologne company Chevalier Blanc, to supply a Beatles song for a television commercial. The year is 1966, and the 40-year-old Draper doesn't have his finger on the rapidly rising pulse of popular music. So he calls in a team of younger, hipper copy writers, including his wife Megan.

"When did music become so important?" he asks her.

She reminds him jingles have been important forever. But he knows that. Now, though, he says, clients are looking for specific songs, or moods. Chevalier Blanc asked for the Beatles, but said, "All we want is [...] that adolescent joy."

Draper's team decides on a Beatles-y version of "September in the Rain" by The Wedgewoods. It is a good fit. But Draper remains unhip, and at the end of the episode, he tries and fails to enjoy "Tomorrow Never Knows." He's not kidding around and not embarrassed when he tells Megan he has no idea "what's going on out there."

Today we know about these key elements of selling a brand, these emotional intangibles. It's an industry, one with a whole sophisticated infrastructure to the placement of music in ads. Layers of artists, labels, marketing departments and lawyers all work together. It's big business, at least in the diminished music industry. But just like back in Draper's day, there is a gap between executives in skyscrapers and pop music on the street.

What is the right music to use in an ad? Where do these tunes come from? These questions require a middle person for answers. Someone with their finger on the pulse.

Spencer Manio is a 39-year-old Seattleite who works in that go-between role. In 2010 he put Oakland blog darlings tUnE-yArDs in a BlackBerry commercial. Back then the band was relatively unknown. Fast forward two years later and tUnE-yArDs is a critically agreed-upon Great Band. How many people first heard them in that commercial?

Manio's job is being that guy Don Draper needed, full time, at Redmond, Wash., company PlayNetwork, and as a freelancer for BlackBerry and Nordstrom. He finds music and uses it to create specific vibes or feels for companies. Sometimes he does it by placing songs in commercials. Mainly he goes through ceiling speakers in retail stores. He's a professional playlist maker.

When you walk into a store Manio has provided a playlist for, you don't notice the music right away. He's not trying to make it jump out at you. It swirls together with the wares for sale, the color of the walls and the attitude of the sales associates. It's part of a whole experience, the ideal confluence of purchaser/thing purchased. It's not just music for running shoes. It's music for winning races.

A good retail playlist can bring home the culture of a business and psychologically affect a customer in a way that doesn't feel pushy. And it's positive for the featured artists. In today's flooded climate, where new songs are published at a crazy rate on the Internet, having your song play in a Victoria's Secret, for instance, can help cut through the noise.

Lacey Swain is in charge of licensing at Seattle's Sub Pop Records, and works with Manio often. She can testify that although retail playlists often register to the customer on an unthinking level, sometimes real engagement happens.

Swain says that was the case with Sub Pop band Fleet Foxes, whose songs "Oliver James" and "White Winter Hymnal" appeared in the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie Jack Goes Boating.

"One day [Hoffman] was in town, he came by and we were walking him around [the Sub Pop office] and I asked, 'How did you find out about the Fleet Foxes?' And he heard them in a coffee shop and Shazam-ed it."

Fleet Foxes didn't get much money directly from being played in that coffee shop. You can't buy music on Shazam — a smartphone app that identifies songs playing in the ambient space around the phone. But what it and other song-recognizing apps can do, is turn any place with internet access into a music store. You hear a song wherever you are, and from there it's a quick link through to the popular digital distributor iTunes, and from there you can walk away with that song on repeat through your headphones.

"You become invested in knowing that the music represents all these things that you don't see on a retail level, but rather the whole company, their culture. At that point you stop programming for the customer and program for the brand."

And if wherever you are, say a coffee shop, is playing by the rules, musicians and songwriters have another (tiny) income stream from that same spin. This is where the IRS of music licensing — the performance rights organizations, BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) and ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) — come in. Sometimes they go door to door fining businesses. Probably not your lemonade stand. But maybe.

The amount of money changing hands is relatively small. But retail playlists are about making associations and building awareness. If your song is in every Gap in the world, it's going to get stuck in some heads. That's a connection. And that's what the store is trying to get in on.

"All brands are media companies now," Manio says. "That's how they're trying to get allegiance. Being down with what the kids are down with. Let 'em know that, 'We're on the level, too, kids.'"

It might sound a little brain-washy, but when this branding is done right, it doesn't feel that way. It feels like a natural extension of the physical stuff in the store: the arrangement of shirts in a pyramid, posters on the wall, racks of vinyl for sale in clothing stores like Urban Outfitters.

If you go on Nordstrom's website for clothes, you don't just get photos or a slideshow. You see a full-on video of models in a high school setting, with a scrappy pop soundtrack. Manio made that happen.

Nordstrom contacted Manio to coordinate music, told him the point of the video was to promote jeans, and that there would be a narrative about "cute" girls and boys in a school environment with lockers. Their music guidelines for pitches included: "New indie flair, but, as always, upbeat and clean — hipster, fun Nordstrom music. No Katy Perry wannabes. Good Coachella-y bands."

Manio picked "Hearts" by Nashville band Tropical Punk. It's not the best song in the world, or the most original, but it's peppy, the mood is right, it sounds like other popular stuff. And the band is independent, meaning the music will be cheap to purchase (generally), easy to get and he gets the satisfaction of directing money to people who really need it — a more noble cause, perhaps, than giving The Rolling Stones their next million. The band said yes right away and made a few thousand dollars.

That money comes along with what's a "sync license": music synchronized with moving images. Sync licenses are one-time payments for songs you hear soundtracking TV shows, movies and commercials you see on the Internet. Famous examples include Van Halen and Crystal Pepsi; Volkswagen and Nick Drake; The Rolling Stones and Microsoft. Those were huge. Fleet Foxes' music in an obscure movie is on the smaller end of that scale. But regular work in that arena can financially sustain a band or solo musician, at least modestly. Manio has done syncs of existing songs for companies as a freelancer; now PlayNetwork is doing them, too.

Manio's also made custom syncs — actually creating music for the occasion. For Under Armour, he helped find a voice to go with original music by Darrin Wiener, for their bleachers-stomping jingle, with its tough refrain of "I will!"

"It's the biggest check I ever got for music," says Spac3man, the local rapper Manio called to voice the line, because of his gravelly tone.

Placing music into retail playlists is a different science. The music you hear in stores isn't a direct sales pitch, it's all about branding. Commercials make a cumulative impression, drawing consumers into a company's "essence" through logos, catchphrases and moving images and music, which goes right to the heart. Retail playlists use music almost subliminally, getting the consumer to relate to a particular culture and emotion. Rather than cerebrally registering "That's a good price," the soundtracks of businesses are about winning hearts and minds. The adage goes: "It's not about the buying. It's about the buy-in."

Essence is a strange product to manufacture. But it's a product nonetheless. And it's a natural product for Manio, who comes from the world of party DJing (as DJ Suspence), specializing in creating an atmosphere that gets everyone open. When he DJs out, any event becomes his event. If there is alcohol, drinking increases. Dancing becomes more vigorous. Music nerds poke each other with surprise at his selections. He blends New Order with New Jack Swing, British Invasion with EPMD. Recently at the Showbox in Seattle, he did a set of folk music, scratched and juggled it like it was hip-hop. Skilled, silly and serious, he makes stuff work that shouldn't. Afterward people ask him to DJ their parties.

"That's why I love the [music programming] job," he says. "My whole background for DJing is getting into the minds of the people who are dancing. That runs the whole gamut of the wedding party, corporate party, bar mitzvah — and finding out what will give them the most joy. And that's not necessarily what I enjoy, personally. But I love changing my perception to be them, to see if I can channel that. As much as I'm a music snob, one of the other joys of music is how it affects everyone so differently, and knowing that's what it's all about."

At PlayNetwork his clients are Under Armour, Converse, Old Navy, Fed-Ex, Sea-Tac Airport and Finish Line. He makes playlists for those companies. I know Manio personally, but got to know him as a fan. Over the years I've spent time with him in both capacities, sometimes going to work with him. I've seen a lot of creativity go into his retail programming. He says there are many strategies for programming retail music. Some brands tell him they think familiarity is key, to keep a customer in the store for five more minutes, to sell an extra pair of socks. Manio is after something deeper.

"For example for Under Armour, the music in their stores wasn't matching their brand anymore," he says. Under Armour is known for their stretchy, high-tech workout shirts, non-cotton, skin-like stuff that looks good on people with muscles.

"I went to their headquarters in Baltimore. It was a fortress of fitness. I met my contacts, toured the campus, worked out in the gyms. There was a laboratory that we couldn't gain access to. It had a big warning sign with lightning bolts on hands. Basically you could get lasered in there," Manio says. Getting down and dirty with the brand also helps him decide which music to use. "It inspires and gives insight that you can't articulate sometimes. You become invested in knowing that the music represents all these things that you don't see on a retail level, but rather the whole company, their culture. At that point you stop programming for the customer and program for the brand."

As he got more intimate with Under Armour in Baltimore, he started to see things in the business that even it wasn't aware of yet. He saw their next move.

"The main word I heard was 'innovation.' Innovation in the fabric. So you truly have to find innovative music, in a way. You can't have finger-pickin' folk music. What's behind the fabric? It's a soundtrack to the company's soul. In this case it's what you'd expect a linebacker to have in his body. Just stone and concrete and steel."

It used to be a company like Under Armour would associate itself with music played in sports arenas, like Queen or Gary Glitter.

"Familiar, clapalong, singalongs," Manio says. "Now it's more working out. Trying to get motivated. Stuff that athletes listen to before a big game."

Under Armour got him thinking about how society's attitudes about fitness are changing, and Manio's eyes light up talking about the evolution of the jock jam, how it goes through earbuds now, not giant speakers, how fitness culture has shifted from running on fan energy to personal army-of-one energy. We are not concerned about the love of the game like we used to be. Today we are into serious gear and training. He cannot reveal his playlist for Under Armour, but it will be aggressive electronic music. There will likely be mainstream songs by Skrillex and Calvin Harris, who soundtrack many a CrossFit and "bootcamp" experience. Manio says he will probably also program underground tracks by Hudson Mohawke, Rustie, Baauer, Lunice and TNGHT. He's trying to elevate taste. But in the end it's about balance.

"There's certain songs that aren't meant to be played in retail because they're too jarring," he says, making a zooming trash compactor noise to imitate Skrillex. "But with a decent amount of it, you get the idea. It's the machine. The human machine."

If he pulls it off right, he'll communicate the brand, intrigue the consumer and expose people to extraordinary music. Essentially he's trying to help Under Armour convince you, whoever you are, even if your body is not a temple, that you could be in the Olympics. He could be shlockier, but wouldn't be keeping it real to himself as a DJ. And that's the reason Manio can sleep at night.

He experiences tension all the time. If money were no object, he would be happy being a monk, creating music all day in his basement home studio, emerging only to shop for records at Goodwill and make rice balls so his family didn't starve. But making playlists for the airport doesn't mean he's faking it. He's already crossed that bridge in his DJing.

"Don't get it twisted. Being a DJ is a job. It's a professional job. So there's two ways to view it. You can play what you want and have people follow you, and love what you're playing. Or there's the facilitator of a good time, for whoever's there. They're both good. Sometimes I'm so high off rocking a party, playing songs I don't necessarily like, because I'm feeding off what people are digging and the enjoyment they're getting."

Manio estimates PlayNetwork reaches 75 million people per day. And each one of those people is important.

His boss at PlayNetwork, Jon Wooler, explains: "In the old days, [record companies] used to fund a lot of money to have in-store play only in record stores. There'd be listening posts, you could listen to records, and they'd pay for that — because their perception was you can immediately purchase the CD and walk out with it. And that changed. There's no record stores anymore. But the process is the same."

There is no payola for retail playlist programming — in fact, sometimes PlayNetwork pays labels to use their music. But for companies that understand that relationship between environment and sales, their retail store is almost like a record store: Starbucks puts music CDs by the cash register, for instance. And for those stores who get Manio as their music programmer, they become much cooler record stores than the Orange Julius across the mall (no offense to Orange Julius).

He's also one reason that, in that strange world of music where it's often used for sneaky purposes, there can also be artistic purity. Manio's professional attitude is down to the fact that he's an artist. Since he has to make dollars, he's an especially broad-minded one, with no time for snobbery.

"It's not about knowing the coolest stuff, or being down with old stuff, or 'when things were better,'" he says. "It's about how [music] affects everyone in a really personal way. And you can't f--- with that."

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Corrected: February 20, 2014 at 9:00 PM PST
An earlier version of this story overstated Spencer Manio's involvement in creating a theme for Under Armour. Manio did not write the theme.
Andrew Matson