25 Years In The In Store Music Business

1 May 2024

From VHS to WTF in 25 short years

Our CEO, Ross Penney, reflects on his milestone of 25 years in the in store music business. What’s he’s learned to do and what he’s learned to avoid.

“So what are you doing for us?”

It was 2003.  The project manager of the new flagship Birmingham Bullring Topshop/Topman stared at me at the project kick off meeting.  There must have been 20 of us, covering all trades.  I think I blushed.

“Er…the audiovisual installation”, I mumbled.

Truth was that whilst the company I worked for – Cube – delivered music and music videos to the Topshop estate, what I knew about audiovisual installation in a store the size of Topshop Bullring could be written on the back of a stamp.  But Topshop had asked Cube to handle the AV installation, and what the client wants, right?  Talk about a baptism of fire.

We got away with it.  We did the sensible thing and subcontracted the work to a large, expert and very expensive organisation.  More than got away with it, we did a great job.  A huge piece of work, it was so full on I missed my own stag do!  I learned a huge amount, and Bullring was the first of dozens of installations in Topshops across the country.

Work and clients

This year marks my 25th year in brand funded content.  25 years of instore music, live and recorded radio services, music video, installations of amps, processors, speakers, screens and digital signage networks.  If it’s audio or visual for retail, most likely I’ve done it.

25 years of clients, without whom I wouldn’t have lasted this long.  Too many to remember!  Ones that stick in my mind are Topshop/Topman, Lloyds Bank, HSBC, JD Sports, Toni & Guy, Superdrug, Subway, Lloyds Pharmacy, BT Openreach, Nationwide and Burberry.   Lots of wonderful people.

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:

  1. The most important thing is getting the music right for the brand.  This is so important.  When I first worked with Topshop in the late 90s their playlist was middle of the road (Elton John if you can imagine, and no offence Elton, you are great just not great for Topshop.)  Our music experts took it by the scruff of the neck, working with record labels and pluggers to turn Topshop into a tastemaker destination,  regularly featuring cool pre-release content that (crucially) was bang on the hip brand that Topshop was then.  If you get the match between brand and music wrong you create a jarring impression for customers, resulting in reduced dwell time/early exit from the store.  And the opposite is true too!  The right music reinforces brand values, creating a synergy and energy that inspire customers to stay longer
  2. Lock the controls away! You spend ages setting up an audio installation sounding great and leave proud and happy.  Next week the store calls unhappy with the sound.  Almost always this is because staff in the store haven’t been able to resist twiddling with the knobs!  Where possible we would set up the system and keep it safe in locked AV cabinets, away from curious staff
  3. Often client staff think they know what music is right for their brand.  This is almost never the case.  What they wanted us to programme was their musical taste
  4. Often clients don’t know what they want.  It’s our job to guide them and deliver an audiovisual or music experience that expresses and amplifies their brand
  5. Stand your ground. The team at Cube, then Immedia and now AVC are experts at matching brands and music.  It’s important to stand your ground with clients as because of our experience most often we are right.  A golden rule for instore music is to remove any swearing or offensive lyrical content.  Topshop once – against our advice – decided it would be edgy to leave the f’ing and blinding in.  Bad idea!  There were numerous complaints and the offending material had to be quickly removed
  6. Love technology. Back in the day when music was on CD, DVD or (for music video) VHS (!) this wasn’t a quick process.  Thank goodness for streaming; these days we’re able to add or remove songs in minutes
  7. It’s not about us. Whilst we stood our ground with clients to do the best job we could, we never forgot it’s not about us.  We are servants to our clients, delivering the right content and messaging for their brand with just the right tone and feel
  8. Radio is a skill. I have huge admiration for all the presenters and radio professionals I’ve worked with over the years.  How hard can it be just to talk into a mic?!  Very hard indeed.  You should try it sometime – I did, with embarrassing results.  When that red on air sign went on I froze then began to babble!  It’s way harder than you think to be warm, relaxed and conversational
  9. Pay attention to the detail! Always install ceiling speakers before the ceilings are closed (seems obvious!  For various reasons this hasn’t always been possible – for example one Topshop store was a week away from opening when the project manager realised there was no music installation!  Cue panic stations, but as always it was all right on the night)
  10. Cultivate good relations with the project manager on any installation programme.  When things go wrong (and they always do), he or she will help you if you’ve been nice to hang around with (lots of waiting around!) and generally helpful.  They have a tough job, so make it as easy as possible for them; be reasonable, flexible and do what you say you’ll do.  When things get tricky they will remember you and prioritise your work
  11. Most people don’t give in store music a second thought.  So often when I explain what I do the response is “wow I’d never thought about who does that! What a cool job!”  Working with music and brands is a cool job.  (Not sure my wife Heather would always agree, it’s an occupational hazard to notice all music in shops/bars and restaurants and comment on it!)

I’d like to thank all my colleagues and clients over the years.  I’d like to remember Nial Montgomery, who was the heartbeat of Topshop and Topman music for many years.  Nial knew everything about music.   It’s a tragedy that he succumbed to cancer earlier this year, far too young.

You know, I think we did a good job, and it’s been a blast.

Contact AVC Music


Image credit: By A P Monblat – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36903037

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