A few months ago, McDonald's owner Rick Barrett armed his golden arches with five speakers and a pre-amp as "a public service experiment" aimed at ridding the area around his store of gangbangers and homeless people. His McDonald's sits on a corner the P-I recently called "Seattle's seediest"; it's been targeted by the police as a hotspot for gang violence, there was a shoot-out a few weeks ago, and it's a frequent resting place for homeless people.
Barrett, banking on both the widespread hatred of Muzak and urban youths' preference for a heavy bass line, purchased a $400 contract with Muzak a few months ago. He started playing classical music, "but it didn't seem to be aggressive enough for the individuals we were trying to displace, so I changed it to a country-western theme."
Barrett isn't the first McDonald's owner to try this. At downtown locations around the country, managers are experimenting with Muzak to see which style is most unbearable. Tony Mareno, Assistant Manager at Newbury Park McDonald's in Los Angeles, says he first tried easy listening, but found that classical music works best to "cut down on gang members and graffiti."
Muzak was invented to reduce stress, increase worker productivity, and make people more relaxed about spending money. The idea of using it to drive people away was pioneered by managers at a 7-11 in Canada in 1985. Since then, more than 150 7-11s have installed Muzak systems, and some cities such as Minneapolis and Portland, Maine have experimented with it as a means of deterring loitering and crime.
How do the folks at Muzak feel about its new unintended use? Kenneth Kahn, Vice President of Marketing at Seattle's Muzak headquarters, is a little defensive: "Very rarely does a company use Muzak for a reason like that. This is the first time I've ever had this conversation."
Will a 24-hour loop of country songs drive "undesirables" off downtown streets?
Sergeant R. J. O'Neill, who patrols the area around McDonald's, says "this corner is the pit of the city," and noted that "it seems like people are hanging around less since the music began." The SPD didn't get back to us about any attempts to track the effects of Barrett's crime-prevention strategy.
As with all social engineering experiments, there is the law of unintended consequences. Barrett would surely cringe to see Claxton Glanville barrel toward McDonald's, clutching his Downtown Emergency Services card with a beatific expression on his face. "Usually I walk around, depending on my feeling, but this music stopped me right here. I'm going to stay here," he said jubilantly. "The music tells a good story; that's why I want to listen to it."
Sixteen-year-old Nikisha Briggs said that the McDonald's was still an appealing corner to hang out on. "We don't like the country music, but we bring our own radio and play it over this. This is the kicking-ist spot; we meet up here because everyone knows where it is."