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Fast-Food Joints Are Brainwashing You With Their Music

Taco Bell music
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

You're being brainwashed when you sit in a Taco Bell and mindlessly shovel Doritos Locos Tacos into your mouth. That's right -- the music playing in there is designed to make you feel good.

OK, maybe it's not that scary. But fast-food brands know that when you feel good, you stay longer. You buy more. You associate positive things with the restaurant. And it turns out there's a company that programs all of that music: Mood Media.

We spoke to Danny Turner, their Global SVP of Programming & Production, to find out how they figure out what to play in your favorite fast-food joint, who has the lucky job of selecting those songs, and why the music you hear there in the morning is different from what's playing at night.

 

A photo posted by Taco Bell (@tacobell) on

95% of fast-food chains' music is chosen by one company

That's right. Mood Music's team is responsible for the soundtrack to more than a whopping 95% of your dine-in fast-food experiences. Whether that whopping 95% includes Whoppers is up in the air: Mood Music couldn't disclose any clients for this story other than Taco Bell and Jersey Mikes, the latter of which has a suspicious lack of Springsteen.

Brands have "audio identities"

Selecting the music for a fast-food restaurant isn't as easy as creating a Spotify playlist and hitting play. "Anybody and their brother can put together a list of 100 fantastic songs. But finding 100 songs that are right for a brand and speak to the brand attributes is a very deliberate and different process," Turner says.

For example, Jersey Mike's has 1,000+ locations, and they wanted music that lends a "positive, welcoming, and upbeat" feel to the place. Granted, no restaurant wants a "negative, downbeat" vibe other than maybe a death metal-themed BBQ joint (if one exists, we're guessing it's in Portland). But there's still something different about the "audio identity" that Mood creates for Jersey Mike's as opposed to another brand. You'll find "current pop, classic rock, and beach vibes" at the popular sub shop.

 

A photo posted by Taco Bell (@tacobell) on

Want to find great new music? Taco Bell might be better than Spotify.

The Mexicanish fast-food spot differentiates themselves with menu items not found anywhere else on Earth, and also in the music they play. For real: Sitting down for a chalupa might be the fastest way to get exposed to a new artist short of accidentally talking to some hipster in Brooklyn. Right now, artists played in Taco Bell is way different than the classic rock bands you might hear in Jersey Mike's. To wit: currently at the Bell some of the artists in rotation are Catey Shaw, Saint Motel, Neon Trees, and Mayer Hawthorne. That's a solid playlist. And unlike Spotify, the music is paired up with nacho cheese at T-Bell.

And they pay these new bands in burritos

Mood helped the brand start FeedTheBeat.com, which awards up-and-coming musicians $500 gift cards. That free food probably comes in handy, as it's tough being a musician these days; the last time anyone under the age of 30 paid for music was… never.

Here's how it works: Bands submit their music through the site, and if the restaurants' overlords like their tunes, the company will award them the gift card and, even better, potentially play it in commercials and in its brick-and-mortar locations.

 

A photo posted by Taco Bell (@tacobell) on

The music changes with the time of day

Depending on when you dine in Taco Bell, the music playing will change. "Mornings are more pop-leaning for the breakfast crowd who may not be the typical Taco Bell devotee," Turner says. "We keep it fun at lunchtime with a mix of new and established artists. And in the evening for dinner, we start getting adventurous and going for more of a discovery sound." Above all, Turner says the playlists have "some popular artists so that there's a nice mixture of recognition and discovery." Like any good DJ, Mood knows to play a healthy mix of what you know and love, and some of what you should know and love. He says you're "never more than one song away from something you're familiar with."

Musicologists select the music

The folks who select the music for the brands are called Music Designers. I'd also call them Lucky Ass People because that sounds like a fun, fun job. And some of them are also doctors! "One of our favorite music designers at Austin just this week got her doctorate in music anthropology," Turner says. Not everyone has a fancy degree -- most are radio or club DJs, music critics, and musicians. That's one of the prerequisites for the gig: You must have some sort of career in music to get hired. Currently, there's about 60 of them spread out over the entire world, from Barcelona, Paris, London, Charlotte, Miami, and… Juliet, IL? Ah yes, the Nashville of Illinois! (Not really.)

So next time you hear a song at Taco Bell, Shazam it, and realize it's this musician named Foy Vance you've never heard of, don't take it for granted. Someone at Mood Media wanted you to hear that song at 12:45pm on a Tuesday and hoped you'd enjoy it, hang out in your booth a little longer, and maybe order another one of those Doritos Locos Tacos.

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Lee Breslouer is a senior writer for Thrillist, and has spent many hours in a booth at Taco Bell. Follow him to burritos: @LeeBreslouer.