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Bad music at Starbucks: When does it become a workers’ rights issue?

Bad music at Starbucks: When does it become a workers’ rights issue?
[Photo: Asael Pena/Unsplash]

There are a lot of benefits to working at Starbucks, like vision insurance, tuition coverage, and parental leave. There are a few downsides, too: making Frappuccinos, talking to customers, and hearing the Hamilton soundtrack over and over again until you feel like filling your ears with whipped cream or “getting a ladder and ripping out all of our speakers from the ceiling,” as one Starbucks employee complained on Reddit. While music can make you more productive, too much of the exact same music can be very, very bad.

Last month, Grub Street reported that the Starbucks playlist was making some of its employees stabby, specifically when it came to the “Hamilton Takeover,” a playlist that took over the air at 8,000 Starbucks locations during the week of January 11. While Hamilton may have triggered this particular onslaught of complaints, retail workers have long complained about being exposed to extended stretches of the same music, especially around Christmas time. (Being readily exposed to instrumental versions of Maroon 5, Coldplay, or Train can’t be great for morale, either.) It’s a lot of monotony for employees to tolerate, all for the sake of background music and those Third Place vibes.

Now, CBC Radio program The Current is continuing the conversation about whether repetitive and occasionally outright bad (looking at you, Train) music is deleterious to the mental health of retail and food service workers.

“[The repetition of music is] 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,” Adam Johnson said on the program. Jessica Grahn, a neuroscientist who has studied the effects of music on mood, added that “because we can’t close our ears,” it can be “pretty debilitating” when “someone else has control of our sonic environment.”

We reached out to Starbucks for comment, but we haven’t heard back.

Since it’s unlikely that Starbucks will let employees rip the speakers out of the ceiling any time soon–and back in 2015 it unveiled partner-influenced Spotify playlists–Grahn recommends opening lines of communication between bosses and baristas to discuss the piped-in Starbucks soundtracks that are making them feel annoyed.

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