Starbucks' music is driving employees nuts. A writer says it's a workers' rights issue

Irritated Starbucks employees took to Reddit in a rage last month after being subjected to a constant loop of hits from the Broadway musical Hamilton. We ask whether the constant, repetitive music employees have to endure on the job — whether in restaurants, bars, or retail — should be a workers' rights issue, and what can be done to fix it.

Adam Johnson compared use of music at businesses to tactics used at Guantanamo

Starbucks workers took to Reddit last month to complain about how they had to listen to songs from the Broadway musical Hamilton on repeat all day at work. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
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You may not give a second thought to the tunes spinning on a constant loop at your favourite café or coffee shop, but one writer and podcaster who had to listen to repetitive music for years while working in bars and restaurants argues it's a serious workers' rights issue.

"[It's] the same system that's used to … flood people out of, you know, the Branch Davidian in Waco or was used on terror suspects in Guantanamo — they use the repetition of music," Adam Johnson told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"I'm not suggesting that working at Applebee's is the same as being at Guantanamo, but the principle's the same."

Earlier this year, irritated Starbucks employees took to Reddit to rage about how they had to listen to the same songs from the Broadway hit musical Hamilton on repeat while on the job. One user wrote that if they heard a Hamilton song one more time, "I'm getting a ladder and ripping out all of our speakers from the ceiling."

Johnson argues it wouldn't take years of research to understand that "yes, playing the same music over and over again has a deleterious effect on one's mental well-being."

Writer and podcaster Adam Johnson used to work in bars and restaurants, and argues repetitive music that gets on employees' nerves is a workers' rights issue. (Submitted by Adam Johnson)

Snitch line for complaints?

As a solution, he suggested health inspectors could enforce better working conditions, or a tip line could be created for people to report poor working conditions, like repetitive music.

Another solution? Communication, says neuroscientist Jessica Grahn.

She studies music, which science has shown to be one of the strongest influencers of mood, she said. It can calm dementia patients struggling with depression or anger, or increase our endurance when we're working out.

However, there are downsides to the power of music. Unlike how we can close our eyes to things we don't want to see, we can't close our ears to sound.

Jessica Grahn is a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor in the department of psychology at Western University in London, Ont. (Submitted by Jessica Grahn)

Control makes a difference

"So it can be a very effective way of the external environment impinging, without our control, on our sensory processing," Grahn said.

"Because we can't close our ears, it's very effective if somebody else has control of our sonic environment. We can do nothing about that, and that can be pretty debilitating."

Having control over one's environment can make a big difference, said Grahn, which is why she recommends employers and employees talk about why certain music is being played, or what they can do to switch things up.

Ryu Takahashi's composer friend couldn't stand the music at his favourite restaurant in New York. So Takahashi made the establishment a new one. He tells Anna Maria Tremonti how he did it. 1:17

"I think when people have input or a sense of being listened to, that control actually makes a very big difference in their response to what they're listening to."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Imogen Birchard. The audio contains: 
"Satisfied" by Renée Elise Goldsberry / Hamilton — Original Broadway Cast Recording / Warner/Chappell Music Inc. / Atlantic (Warner Music Group). 
"Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John / Writer's Block / EMI Blackwood Music / Sony Music. 
"Centerfield" by John Fogerty / Centerfield / Wenaha Music / BMG Music

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