Canned Music: love it or loathe it or in between?

Reply Sun 22 May, 2016 09:48 am

Canned music intrudes on lakefront idyll
Mary Schmich

9:24 pm, May 20, 2016
Forever open, clear and free.

You may recognize those words as the great Chicago mantra, the exhortation that urges us to keep our majestic lakefront unencumbered by human-made stuff.

If only that mandate applied to canned music.

This cranky thought kept humming through my brain the other day as I walked along Navy Pier to check out the rehab of what has long been Chicago's cheesiest and most popular tourist attraction.

Even with the construction machines and barricades, the pier, which turns 100 years old this summer, was looking good. To the south and north and east, the great blue lake glittered out to a far horizon. Most of the old waterside clutter was gone.

Near the center of the pier, a wide curving staircase swooped to a second level where, in the shadow of the new Ferris wheel, visitors snapped photos of a skyline that seemed close enough to touch.

But up and down the pier, inside and out, polluting the beauty of this unique place was music.

Not live music. Not Chicago music. No, just the mundane piped-in light rock that has invaded every corner of our public life, from the grocery store to the gym to the restaurant to the gas pump.

Lakefront noise pollution is hardly limited to Navy Pier. In the summer, the lakefront is more carnival than nature retreat, and music is part of the show. To live here in the warm times is to accept a certain amount of noise next to our greatest natural endowment.

But the intrusion of piped-in music is mostly just that — intrusion, not entertainment, and it seems to get harder to escape.

All along the lakefront, vendors play their radios or their boom boxes loud enough to disturb the peace. Last summer a friend emailed me after a lakefront jog to protest the commercial radio blaring from loudspeakers on North Avenue Beach all the way up to Diversey.

"Nothing like really crappy, unavoidable music and commercials for e-cigarettes to make a day at the beach complete!" he wrote.

Noise excites us, makes us feel alive. Without it, we are bored to the point of terrified. At least that's the premise that keeps purveyors of canned music in business.

Imagine the existential dread of walking along a giant, lonely lake without the company of '70s and '80s pop rock trickling through the speakers. In such freakish silence, who knows what crazy things a person might do.

Think? Breathe? Notice the sky and the water and the texture of the air?

No, please, no. Turn up the Doobie Brothers!

The best thing that can be said about the canned music at Navy Pier is that it's not as bad as it used to be. Before the recent improvements, the so-called music was a cacophony so excruciating it could have tortured secrets out of the most hardened terrorists.

Now, at least, the same music plays all over the pier and the speakers — 300 of them — are better.

"Before, there were certain areas that had the option to play their own music," said Jen Kramer, the pier's director of entertainment and special events, when we talked Friday. "It was totally intrusive, confusing, noisy."

The new system depends on an app called Rockbot, a "social jukebox" that allows anyone with the app to help program the music. So, say, you're sitting at Harry Caray's Tavern, gazing out at the skyscrapers and the lake, and you know this exquisite moment is missing just one thing.

Fire up the Rockbot app, make the perfect request and soon, Elton John will be serenading the entire pier.

"The pier's a place of recreation primarily," Kramer said, "and background music's been a part of the pier's history. Music brings a festive feeling to an outing."

Some pier restaurants, she said, have lobbied to turn the music up even louder.

"It's a very fine line to keep everybody satisfied," she said.

Kramer, nevertheless, seemed sympathetic to my complaint, just as I'm sympathetic, or try to be, to the fact that many people expect canned music in public places.

She said pier officials have recognized that there are places on the pier that are made for quiet reflection, and the new system allows the music to be turned off in those zones. Officials also have the power to override Rockbot musical choices that are spoiling the general mood.

"We've had several this week," she said, "where we've said, 'Nope, we're not going to be playing that, nope, that's too noisy.'"

Here's to hoping that they just say nope a lot.

[email protected]
Twitter @MarySchmich


That restaurant noise tag could go either way, as it may soften other customers' noise, or itself be considered noise.
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Reply Sun 22 May, 2016 10:41 am
The music I listen to in my early 20s is now the instrumental muzak in the stores and I often find myself singing along. I kind of like it but I'm not so sure that the people listening to me do.

I like music -- all kinds of music and pretty much expect to hear it when I'm out and about in a city.
Reply Sun 22 May, 2016 10:45 am
I'm not sure that what I am talking about is what I used to know as muzak. I think it is more tinny, and less clear than muzak was - but I'm not sure.
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Reply Sun 22 May, 2016 04:26 pm
Personally, I find most of this so-called music to be aggravating. It may occasionally be a pleasing little ditty which is being flushed out to the masses; however, in general it is an interference with and of my thoughts and often times a conversation- especially if too close to the sound exiters.

Over the past few years there have been occasions while in the comfort of my own home the noise intrusion has been an issue. In the next building over, there is a store which includes access to a small rear yard. For some unknown (to me and other local residents), reason, they have the music playing for sound exiters in the outdoors. Why? There have never been any customers out there.

To make matters worse, they have at times neglected to shut the thing down at night when they closed up. Not too bad in colder months when windows are closed or during the hottest times when an air conditioner is running. But during times when a window is open it can be bothersome. It's probably worse for those on lower floors or people who have better hearing.

Reply Sun 22 May, 2016 06:31 pm
I like, well, love music, even the plentiful music new to me. I just like it to be real, not like someone shaking a tin can with some nuts and bolts in it, the sound moderated to loud enough to annoy but soft enough to be indistinct. I'm thinking of you, Cracker Barrel..

Oh, how I hate that place. The service is fine, the food mediocre to ok enough, the noise, execrable. The country store in the lobby part, some people must like it.

But as the woman writing the Tribune article explained, this stuff is happening all over.
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