Sunday, November 25, 2007

"NYC eateries groove with help from iPod DJs"

from - by Elizabeth Montalbano, IDG News Service, New York Bureau

A few years ago, Kavi Ohri's friends knew him not as the guy who brought the party, but the guy who brought the party music.

Whenever he was invited to a soiree at a friend's house, Ohri, general manager of multimedia production company Decon Media, would arrive not only with a bottle of wine, but with an Apple iPod full of music to set the right mood for that evening's festivities.

The former record-label A&R representative, who characterizes himself as someone "who always made mix tapes for friends," found his passion for turning his pals on to new tunes was a marketable skill. Eventually, some restaurateur friends of Ohri's asked him if he would mind programming iPods with music for their eateries, and a new business was born.

Savvy entrepreneurs have found a way to capitalize on the iPod by providing customized playlists to hip businesses that want to project a certain ambience to their clientele. Ohri's and his partner Emily Pritchard's New York music-consulting service is one of several that have sprouted up in the last few years that provide custom iPod playlists tailored to the vibe a business wants to exude.

The restaurant business is known to be merciless, and it's especially cutthroat in major American cities where the slightest misstep can make or break a new eatery. In culture-conscious cities like New York, the type of music any gourmet establishment plays is almost as important as its food when it comes to luring and retaining a hip, culinary-minded clientele who create buzz about a place.

The iPod has made the task of providing music far easier for the restaurateur, since they no longer have to worry about changing CDs or dealing with generic, piped-in music services that play the same songs over and over, boring customers and staff to tears. But it's still time-consuming and requires a lot of thought to come up with appropriate playlists that match the cuisine, decor and clientele that come in during different times of day.

Vicki Freeman, who co-owns three popular restaurants in New York -- Five Points, Cookshop and Provence -- said she used to provide the music herself, but it "took a million hours," so she eventually decided to outsource the task.

But choosing the right music is not something Freeman said should be left in the hands of anyone; to her, music is an integral part of providing the right atmosphere at a restaurant, and should be taken as seriously as the menu.

"If a restaurant is playing all Frank Sinatra, you feel like you're in an old-age home," she said. On the other hand, "if they're playing house music, you feel like you're in a club, and why would you want to be in a club [if you're having a meal]?" Freeman said. "But if they're playing something nice and sexy, that changes the whole mood."

Like Ohri, Jeremy Abrams, who also spent years in the professional music business, started his iPod programming company Audiostiles as a side project when friends began asking him to provide music for their businesses.

Three years ago, it became his full-time job, and Audiostiles has provided music for restaurants, gyms and hotels in New York and internationally. Audiostiles has as its clients the upscale Per Se and Bouchon restaurants in New York, Exhale spas in New York and Four Seasons hotels in the U.S. and overseas.

Providing a playlist for a gourmet restaurant is more than just having knowledge of and an ear for contemporary music. Ohri and Abrams both said they study the menus, design and customer patterns of a business, in addition to consulting with owners about their personal tastes, to come up with playlists that will work best.

Abrams especially likes to use his service to introduce customers to new music that might not be heard elsewhere as a way to help a business create a unique brand. "Like anything else, when art and commerce meet, it's having a good understanding of the creative, to want to be doing something different that people take notice to," he said.

One project Ohri and Pritchard are currently tackling requires them to use a combination of creative skills, not just their flair for finding music. Since last year, the two have been designing the music for a restaurant in New York that is changing its decor and menu four times a year to change with each calendar season, Ohri said.

The former Park Avenue Grill is currently called Park Avenue Autumn, but will shut down for two days before the winter season in the Northeastern U.S. begins in late December and reopen with a new menu, interior design and music as Park Avenue Winter.

For Park Avenue Summer, which opened in June, Ohri said he and Pritchard created a playlist that include a lot of Bossa Nova, reggae and salsa music, but "for autumn, we've toned it down a bit and made it warm and fuzzy, with soulful female vocals and electronic music," he said.

Ohri said the winter playlist will be "celebratory and little more elegant" and he's currently arranging a playlist of remixes of old jazz artists that sound more contemporary. Spring, which will open in March, will likely provide a "transitional" playlist that will segue gracefully from the elegance of winter and the playfulness of summer, he said.

One thing that will be left off the playlist for Park Avenue Winter? Traditional holiday tunes that become the omnipresent soundtrack of most restaurants and stores during the time before the Christmas holiday on Dec. 25, he said. "They didn't want to have music any other restaurant is playing," Ohri said. "Those are not part of their palette."

Elizabeth Montalbano is a senior writer for the IDG News Service.

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