In the mid-’80s, managers of 7-Eleven stores in B.C. faced a problem they thought was cutting into their bottom line — teenagers hanging around the doorway.
The company felt teens lingering outside stores were driving other customers away. Management in B.C. met with store staff and psychologists to brainstorm ideas to tackle the issue.
The solution they came up with seemed surprisingly simple: play classical or easy listening music known as Muzak in parking lots to keep teenagers from hanging out.
Music was used at 10 B.C. stores and soon spread to more than 150 7-Eleven location across North America, according to California-based musicologist Lily Hirsch. In the years that followed, the practice of using music as a deterrent has been used across the world.
WATCH | The background music that helps B.C. convenience stores keep loiterers away
Hirsch’s book, Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, includes a statement from the company saying it started the practice at several of its B.C.-based stores in 1985.
Hirsch writes that there are earlier examples of businesses using music to keep people from lingering, but 7-Eleven says it is “the first company purposely to flip programmed music’s primary function from lure to repellent” and it “appears to be the first corporation to have sanctioned such an approach as policy.”
“I think other people did it subconsciously around the same time, but 7-Eleven took ownership of it,” Hirsch told CBC News.
That approach, which 7-Eleven developed in B.C., continues to pop up around the world. Hirsch says she regularly comes across media reports discussing variations on the same theme.
In 2012, the Washington Post wrote about classical music being played at the New York Port Authority. In 2019, a town in Florida garnered attention for blasting the children’s song Baby Shark to keep homeless people from congregating outside an events centre.
Last year, opera music was blasted outside a drop-in space and safe consumption site in Prince George, a practice that local outreach workers referred to as “cruel.”
WATCH | Repetitive opera music blaring at Prince George drop-in centre:
7-Eleven has not responded to a request for comment about whether it still plays music outside any of its stores.
Victoria 7-Eleven criticized for use of dripping water
The convenience store chain recently faced criticism after one of its stores in Victoria set up a system that deliberately dripped water from the underside of an awning to deter people from loitering.
Advocates for vulnerable populations in the city have said the use of dripping water to prevent loitering was degrading, especially for homeless people.
A recent report in the Times-Colonist says the store, located on Quadra and Yates streets, has stopped using the tactic. CBC News has asked 7-Eleven for comment, but has yet to receive a response.
Marking space with music
While the dripping water deterrent didn’t last long, the company’s musical tactics appear to have staying power.
Hirsch said she first became interested in the topic after reading a 2006 news story about a suburb of Sydney, Australia using Barry Manilow music to repel teenagers.
Hirsch notes that most people have positive associations with music, which makes it a more subtle tool to prevent loitering. Dripping water feels more intrusive than piping Mandy through loudspeakers, she says.
“It was marking space, communicating this space doesn’t belong to you, but they could use these positive associations with music to create this kind of confusion and this plausible deniability,” she said.
In Sept. 1990, CBC News visited a 7-Eleven store in Richmond, B.C., that played Muzak outside the store. Manager Kevin St. Denis said it was a hit with at least one neighbouring household.
“They hear it through their bedroom and they say it helps them go to sleep,” he said.
While the music played outside stores may be soft and lilting, Hirsch says the message it sends is loud and clear.
“Really what’s happening is you’re segregating space.”