OUTSIDE EDGE / Duncan Steer on the background music men

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The Independent Culture
NORMAN HITCHCOCK went by a different name when he appeared on Top of the Pops and worked with Seventies celebs such as Mickie Most and the Bee Gees. He didn't know then that one day he would be one of the most powerful men in pop. And not just pop, but Latin American, light classical and Austrian Christmas music, too. As music manager at AEI Rediffusion, he supplies tapes and discs to 17,000 pubs, restaurants, hotels and shops across Britain, overseeing the recording both of original music and of various-artists' compilations.

'We don't just put together titles for the sake of it,' he says at the company's headquarters in Orpington, Kent. 'We take it really seriously. We look at the image our customer is trying to present and try to reflect it with the music. It's a marketing support tool as opposed to just an entertainment.'

Proscribed words at the world's largest background factory include 'background' itself (it's 'business' music), 'compilation' ('targeted programme') and 'wallpaper'. Norman and his colleague, marketing manager Alan Hall, paint their industry as a mixture of psychology and art from which everybody benefits. 'I've never heard anybody say, 'Don't like music, can't stand it',' Norman says.

Choosing the right music, though, is essential. 'It would be possible for you go out and buy your own cassette deck,' Alan conjectures. 'To pop down to the record shop, buy a bit of this and that and put it together yourself. Disaster . . . absolute disaster.'

He shakes his head at the nightmare scenario: no market research, no experience, no archive. There are 26,000 titles in the library here, including tapes from the days when full orchestras came to record. Despite the advent of original-artist compilations as recently as 1981, cover versions and ambient instrumentals account for around half the company's turnover. Norman Hitchcock commissions 75 hours of new instrumental music a year.

'In the past, we had an awful lot of synthesised music,' he explains. 'But since I've been in the job, I've been going back to solo instruments. There's also a regularly updated chart programme and a whole range of mainstream options.

And if music in public places makes you uncomfortable, it's probably just the wrong kind of music.

'Take music on hold,' Alan says. 'What we don't like is that annoying electronic jingle of 'Greensleeves'. We provide real music, the positive answer. We say: yes, the jingle can be annoying, but we're here, we can cure the problem.'