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The Science of Nightclubs

This past Friday, we had the pleasure of welcoming nightclub sociologist Yale Fox to the studio. Those of you in Toronto may know Yale as a DJ, but he’s since uprooted to New York City and been named a 2011 TED Fellow for his research around why humans love music, particularly its effects on our behaviour in nightclubs.

We’re always interested in looking beyond the digital space to see how other kinds of experiences are being crafted. It’s especially fascinating to me since so much of the work we do is metaphorically derived from physical experiences and environments.

Yale provided some valuable insights into how people respond in environments where alcohol, drugs, sex, status and music are all in abundance. He joked throughout his talk that he won’t be booked at many clubs following the publication of his work, which tends to paint DJs and club owners in quite a calculating and manipulative light.

Play for the Crowd

While the first priority of any DJ is to play for the crowd, Yale highlighted another important responsibility — to play for the bar. To research this relationship, he observed activity at the bar, the dance floor, and the type of music played and found that as songs that people wanted to dance to played, there was a decrease in bar sales.

Experienced DJs have the ability to balance the big hits with slower songs to not only pace the crowd out, but allow people to order more drinks. They were also more aware of their responsibility to the club owners and the bar, rather than just to the crowd.

These multiple stakeholders felt very similar to our relationship to our clients businesses’ and their users. While we pride ourselves on our ability to create wonderful experiences for users, we also need to satisfy business requirements in order to be successful — it’s where the two sets of needs intersect that makes for an optimal experience.

Brands and Music

Yale’s research wasn’t confined just to the amount of drinks ordered in a night, but also the type of drinks that people tended to order. He noted distinct associations given the type of music playing at a bar.

For instance, house music yielded more sales in cocktails and vodka, and rock music tended to result in more people ordering beer. Molson are keenly aware of this, and have invested heavily in this association in Canada with their live concert series.

Brands have always tried to associate themselves with a particular lifestyle or experience, but it was striking to hear how strong this subconscious effect was with people.

In the same way that Coca Cola has invested into their brand to evoke a feeling of home and Pepsi a refreshing, sporty sensation, alcohol brands have a direct tie with a specific kind of music. Your favourite drink and genre of music probably share more in common than you might think.

The Brain

So why do we enjoy dancing at a bar or club with friends so much? Yale explained that dancing to music with a group produces an elevated level of Oxytocin in the brain, increasing trust and reducing fear and anxiety. It’s no surprise that liquor brands want to associate themselves with this physiological response.

Drink makers are so keen to do so that they often give away their product to high profile bars and clubs in exchange for a certain level of exclusivity. Club go-ers leave with subconscious associations between a great night out with friends and a particular brand of liquor. It’s easy to imagine what they’ll gravitate to in their next trip to the liquor store.

Table service at high profile clubs in New York City or Los Angeles usually begin at $2,500 and can easily climb into five-figure numbers as the night goes on. At these tables, it’s all about status and social hierarchy — those with the fattest wallets and most celebrity get the best tables and service and a certain type of bottle on the table says a lot about the patron’s worth.

In environments where our inhibitions are reduced by so many factors, it’s easy to forget that we’re being manipulated in such a calculated way. The practice of designing for cognitive biases and psychology has only recently come into vogue in user experience design, so Yale’s findings were a fascinating look at an industry where primordial psychological responses and biases are exploited with such mastery.

Adam Schwabe More posts by Adam Schwabe