The Perfect Cafe Playlist

Kash Cafe, Surry Hills, Sydney

Kash Kafe, Surry Hills, Sydney

The following plug won’t make any sense to people who don’t frequent the Surry Hills suburb of Sydney, but I’ll go ahead anyway. I’ve become friends with the proprietors of my favourite cafe, Kash Kafe, and it has given me the opportunity to devise a solution for someone with different needs to my own, which has been refreshing.

Let me make a number of assumptions: you play music only (no other audio type and no video). You use an iPod connected to an audio system that has a remote which gives you control over play/pause, fast forward/skip and rewind/skip back. The iPod is of reasonable capacity, i.e. 20Gb or more.

Let’s start with the desired music style. What do you want to play at your cafe? Chillout? Doof-doof? Rawk? Decide on a style. If your music library consists of nothing but that style, you won’t have to think about this first step.

Once you’ve decided on a style, you’ll need to filter that style of music out of your library. Easiest way to do this is by genre. For example, if you want chillout music, your first criteria will be Ambient, Electronic, R&B, etc. This is highly subjective (refer to my previous post on genre) but use whatever works for you. The selection will get more accurate over time.

The next factor is frequency. You don’t want to hear the same song every day, so we include a time-based criterion which excludes songs played within a certain timeframe. If you’ve got a lot of music, make it a month. If less, perhaps 1 week. While playing the playlist, if you notice that songs repeat a little too often, increase this timeframe. I’m assuming that a mixture of music, i.e. randomised, is desired.

You’ll want at least a day’s worth of music, so err on the generous side and specify 2 hours more than your open hours. If you don’t sync your iPod daily, then add one day’s worth for every day you don’t sync. For example, if you take your iPod home for syncing every 3 days, and each day you open for 6 hours, then you need 8 hours per day for 3 days = 24 hours.

Your selection of tracks won’t be perfect initially. Occasionally a raucous number will impinge on your quiet or a slow song will interrupt a perfectly thumping good time, depending on your taste. We need a mechanism to exclude these over time.

On top of it all, perhaps you only want songs that are above a certain rating. This presupposes that you have taken the time to assign ratings to a sufficient percentage of the songs to make it worthwhile, not easily done in a busy cafe! However, using a technique I will outline, you can get a general approximation of rating over time.

The Key

The key to my proposed system is the use of the forward skip functionality on the iPod. If you skip forward, this fact is recorded on the iPod and after syncing, in iTunes. The date and time the track is skipped and an incremental count is stamped on the song. From this information, certain assumptions can be made. The first is that the song is not liked or is not suitable for playing in the cafe. A small margin of error needs to be included to account for incorrect button-pressing or mood swings. If the skip count rises above a certain number, we can assume that you don’t want that song to appear in the cafe again.

Secondly, the lack of Skip Count but high incidence of Play Count (the song has played from start to finish) indicates that you like the song or that it is appropriate because you didn’t skip it.

Over time, songs that have been played through a certain number of times but skipped below a number of times are candidates for rating, which can be done on a number of songs in one action.

The busy cafe operator does not have time to rate songs on the fly nor to make decisions beyond “I don’t want to hear that now”. The skip forward button is all they need to increase accuracy over time.

The System

A set of Smart playlists are employed as it can’t be done in one playlist in iTunes.

Begin by creating a new folder called Cafe (File > New Playlist Folder) to keep these playlists together and organised.

The first playlist is entitled Cafe Music Genres. The purpose of this playlist is to gather together all the songs with the genres you want. The other playlists will use this pool of songs from which to create a day-to-day playlist. Select New Smart Playlist… from the File menu and configure thusly:

Cafe Playlist Source (Click to enlarge)

Cafe Music Genres Playlist (Click to enlarge)

The second playlist is called Cafe Music. This playlist adds the other criteria we need to produce the playlist that you sync to your iPod on your routine. Here I’ve assumed a moderate library (5000 songs) for a one-week repeat cycle and an 8-hour selection, which is assuming that 8 hours is a day’s worth and the iPod is synced daily. I’ve also filtered out any music videos that you might have, because you won’t be watching video. The Music Videos playlist is preconfigured when you install iTunes.

Cafe Music Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Cafe Music Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Additionally, the following playlist will show you all the unrated songs that you “like” (based on number of times fully played and a low number of skips). Select all the songs and select File > Rating > (desired rating) to rate them all at once. They will disappear from the playlist as they have now been rated. You can check this from time to time as songs appear.

To Be Rated Playlist (Click to enlarge)

To Be Rated Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Here is your neat little package of playlists. Click each playlist and drag it into the folder:

Cafe Playlist Folder

Cafe Playlist Folder

Once you’ve set up the system, other than a small amount of tweaking at the start, it should be good to use daily without further interference. I hope this system inspires operators of cafes and similar environments (hairdressers, restaurants, etc.) to provide a better mix of music.

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5 Responses to The Perfect Cafe Playlist

  1. Karen says:

    Thanks to you so much tg!!!
    You helped us out immensely during the time we had Kash Kafe. Being a lover of music & also a time poor barista….I think it is definitely difficult to arrange the right music at the right time in a cafe environment! Your post makes so much sense & I know it would benefit anyone who owns or runs a cafe, as ambience is just as important than anything else when running a successful cafe! Music is such a powerful thing & I think a lot of people forget that. Thanks again, Karen

  2. Bernard says:

    I have the same problem as Oliver. I am involved with a cafe which has 6 different playlists for different times of the day and for different events and I’ve found that when I or the supervisors or owners aren’t around, the staff tend to slip in their own ipods and play rubbish music. The staff also can’t be counted on to switch the playlists at the correct times, and I sometimes find they’d be playing the slower playlist during the peak periods where I want the more upbeat playlist to be playing.

    This is almost akin to the staff replacing the carefully curated decor with tacky furniture from their own homes. It’s extremely bad for business since I’ve very carefully designed the playlists to suit the cafe’s identity, customers and different moods of the day.

    If only there was a way to automate the switching of the playlist according to a time schedule. I guess that’s the problem when I’m not using a computer to play the music instead of an ipod. I’m sure many cafe and restaurant owners face this same issue!

  3. Oliver says:

    I have a Café in Sweden, and found this post whilst looking for a way to play different types of music in my Café at different times of day and on different days of the week, and that this occurs automatically, without involvement of staff members. I would prefer if this could be done on a freestanding media player or MP3 player to keep electricity costs down, but would be prepared to have a freestanding PC to do this job. Does anybody have any ideas for a solution to this problem. Digital signage is becoming increasingly popular, and in these solutions there is a built in function to schedule different messages at different times of day, so why not with music only? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • tunegardener says:

      I would do this with different playlists for each period you wanted to play. Unfortunately, it’s not something you could schedule on an iPod. You would have to change playlists at certain times of the day. I didn’t anticipate this need. My assumption was that you would play the same type of music all day.

      To achieve the scheduling, you would need to use a computer. If you’re using a Mac, you could probably script iTunes. Perhaps even the DJ feature of iTunes on Mac or PC would suit. Unfortunately, you probably wouldn’t have the time to manage it.

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