Does This Song Match My Sofa?
By Kate Murphy
October 30, 2008
New York Times
IMAGINE walking into an airy Upper East Side apartment with 18th-century antiques, gilt mirrors and chintz upholstery. Now imagine Metallica playing on the sound system. Music can alter a space as much as lighting, fabrics and artwork, but until recently, most people relied on their own judgment when it came to sound. Now, though, an increasing number are hiring personal music stylists to pick out tunes for their homes just as they might hire an interior decorator to select furnishings. While Muzak has for decades created what it calls “audio architecture” for commercial environments, it is just in the last five years that a handful of music consultants, mostly in New York and London, have begun to specialize in creating custom domestic soundtracks. From Aspen lodges to bungalows in Belize, they are compiling playlists to match their clients’ décor.
“Hearing the wrong music in the wrong space can be very disorienting,” said Coleman Feltes, a music stylist in New York City. A D.J. known for creating mixes for Versace, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana fashion shows, Mr. Feltes began his bespoke music service for individuals in 2006. Mr. Feltes and other music stylists typically visit clients’ homes or look at photographs of them to assess their decorating styles and to understand layouts. They may also peruse clients’ music collections to learn the genres and artists they’ve liked in the past. “Sometimes it’s truly awful stuff,” said Angus Gibson, another stylist, like “love and moonlight” soundtracks from Meg Ryan movies. His London-based company, Gibson Music, furnishes custom sound systems as well as the music to play on them for clients in Europe, Asia and the United States.
Even if the music a client likes isn’t insipid, stylists warn, it might be all wrong for a given space. “You’re not going to have Johnny Cash playing in a fantastic retreat in the West Indies,” Mr. Gibson said. “It just wouldn’t work.” Though they consider clients’ musical preferences, stylists said they are paid to be the final arbiters of what songs work in a space. “When clients hire me, they are buying into the Coleman brand of taste,” Mr. Feltes said. Stylists typically charge between $50 and $250 per hour of music, which they usually download onto iPods but which can also be delivered on CDs. Joe Wagner, 50, a commercial real estate developer and investor, hired Mr. Feltes last year to provide music for two homes with very different styles — a rough-hewn stone, wood beam and stucco lodge in Aspen, Colo., and a white brick colonial in Palm Beach, Fla. “I wanted music for both places that set the mood and reflected the environment,” Mr. Wagner said.
Mr. Feltes compiled about 48 hours of music divided into playlists particular not only to each residence but also the activity and time of day, like, for example, Latin jazz tracks for a lazy afternoon floating in the pool in Palm Beach or opera selections for a morning reverie while gazing at snow-capped mountains in Aspen. “When someone walks in and hears great music, it’s like looking at a wonderful painting on the wall that gives you certain emotions,” said Mr. Wagner, who gets his playlists updated quarterly. “I love that I don’t have to think about what to put on. It’s already done for me.” With so many genres and artists, it’s hard to stay on top of everything that’s available. ITunes, the online music store, has a catalog of over eight million songs. And there are countless new performers whose work is not so widely distributed.
“Our clients are the type who send people all over the world to find the perfect spoon, or doorknob or type of marble,” said Jeffrey Reed, a club D.J. and a founder of Audio Sushi, a custom music service in London with an international clientele. “My job is to find the perfect music.” Another service, Audiostiles in New York, helped Jessica Goldberg, 35, three years ago when she wanted music to match the apartment she and her husband, Billy, a doctor, had recently renovated in the West Village. With two small children, Ms. Goldberg said, “I’m not going to clubs anymore to hear what’s new.” The Goldbergs filled out a questionnaire about their daily life and their musical tastes. In a phone interview, they described their home, which has wide-plank wood floors, large windows and modern furniture. “It was amazing how they extrapolated from that what we liked and would fit our place,” Ms. Goldberg said.
Most of the tracks on the 10-hour compilation that she continues to play are by acts she had previously never heard of, like the contemporary pop singer Joshua Radin and the folk artist Brett Dennen. The playlist has an overall warm sound, Ms. Goldberg said, which harmonizes with her apartment’s open floor plan and casual, contemporary feel. “It was like they could read my mind.” Ms. Goldberg hired Audiostiles again earlier this year to create a playlist to listen to at home while playing with her children. She said she wanted tunes that were “kid-friendly” and yet “wouldn’t make me want to tear my hair out strand by strand.” The resulting list included Stevie Wonder, the Barenaked Ladies and Simon and Garfunkel. “It’s calming,” she said. Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal and the author of “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton, 2006) said background music, or “auditory wallpaper,” can not only change the way people see their environment, it can profoundly affect their mood. Pleasurable music leads to the release of “feel-good hormones” like dopamine, he said.
Dr. Levitin believes that the ways people use different rooms in the home may call for different music. For example, he likes to play Alison Krauss in his kitchen because her warm voice and melodic songs match the sense of “comfort and groundedness” he feels while preparing a meal. For relaxing in the living room, he prefers the “smooth and uplifting” music of Luther Vandross. Lori Hoffbauer, a personal music stylist whose company, Groove Gurus, is based in Brooklyn, said many of her clients want room-specific soundtracks. She recalled a bachelor who wanted particularly “cheesy” amorous music (like songs by Barry White, she said) for the bedroom of his vacation house in the Hamptons. “That was one of those times when you learned more about the client than you wanted to know,” Ms. Hoffbauer said.
See also: This Is Your Brain on Music