How Your Favorite Bar Crafts a Playlist

Bartenders and sommeliers share their secrets for setting the vibes

October 19, 2023 6:22 am
Anderson Paak on the turntables at dante's hifi in miami
Whether you're playing music digitally or spinning vinyl, these are some essential rules to follow.
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I’m sure you’ve got a great dinner party playlist. It’s probably full of vibe-setters and party-starters, big hits and deep cuts collected over years. But there’s a real art to making an excellent playlist. A slow song slipping on in the middle of dinner can drop the energy down and leave eyes drooping. A song with too many swear words? That can make guests uncomfortable. Essentially, a music playlist needs to perfectly pin down an auditory vibe — match the atmosphere, keep moods buoyant and help set the stage for a nice time.

While a bartender’s first priority is your drinks, they’re also responsible for setting a vibe in a space. “When I walk into a space, the first thing I notice — next to the lighting — is the music,” says Chandler Clemmens, Events Director & Vibe Curator at NYC’s SONA. “Does it fit the mise en scene? Is it appropriate? Is it sexy? If your job is to maintain the fantasy from start to finish, then you need to care about all aspects, including music.”

“When I’m building a playlist for a restaurant, I follow the idea that songs should be stylistically enough to make you tap your toe, but not so much that it doesn’t match the sonic tapestry of the place,” says Nick Perdue, Beverage & Entertainment Director at Tzeva in Sarasota, FL. “Think of it this way: a good playlist is like a great lead singer — they’re part of the band, not overpowering it.”

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If you want to up your game, follow these bartenders’ expert advice on building the perfect playlist to keep drinks flowing and moods lifted. (Editor’s note: Each week in InsideHook’s drinks newsletter The Spill, we spotlight a different bar’s playlist.)

Balance New and Old

“The goal here is to make the old feel trendy and the young feel upgraded,” Perdue says. “Groups like Satin Jackets, Poolside, Roosevelt and Washed Out tend to do that for people. It’s innocuous enough, but something about it really catches fire with a crowd and adds energy and a chic sense to the experience.”

Match the Time of Night

“It’s very important to us to have different playlist journeys depending on the time or day of the week and what we want the room to feel like,” says Jeff Laub, the co-founder of NYC speakeasy Blind Barber. “If it’s a rainy Wednesday between 6 and 11 p.m., we may have some Chet Baker in the beginning and Syd and the Internet or Janelle Monae in the middle before dropping back to something low-key to close out the evening. On a Friday, when we know the room will get busier as the night progresses, the playlist will go from that sexy cool cocktail vibe to something more upbeat to help ease in the expected energy of the night.” (Here’s his playlist for early evenings and his party-starting playlist.)

Keep the Tempo

“I’ve been DJing for years, so I’ve learned the importance of rising tempos in a playlist,” Perdue says (you can see a sample of his playlist here and below). “It makes you feel excited but not overstimulated. I use a lot of Hercules and Love Affair, Paradis, ODESZA and Juan Maclean for this purpose. It provides a good thump and it’s trendy with a known-but-unknown edge. Often for busy playlists, I go back to that fertile crescent of hipster nu-disco that provides a great bassline and beat, with some sassy light vocals and a good hook. It’s not heavy music — it’s light and fun.”

Both Laub and Perdue recommend flirting between different genres and tempos. “If you play all high-energy dance tracks or sleepy cocktail music, it’ll just blend together,” Laub says. “The playlist should be a rollercoaster — something that has peaks and valleys. It brings awareness to the music being played.”

Skip the Wordy Songs

I find songs (of any genre!) that focus too much on lyrics are a huge mistake,” Perdue says. “People are eating. They shouldn’t be singing or rapping along with food in their mouth. I see a lot of places make this crucial error. You’re not a nightclub — it’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I am trying to eat charcuterie.

And Skip the Club Bangers

There is so much incredible music to choose from,” Laub says. “There is no reason to play the songs we hear over and over and over again on the radio and in standard clubs and bars. Like, no one needs to hear ‘Here Comes the Hot Stepper’ anymore.”   

“If you are playing over-familiar songs — bangers — they need to be applied at the right moment,” says Michael Neff, owner of Bar Loretta in San Antonio. “Know when you play the songs everyone loves and employ them strategically. ‘Mr. Brightside’ can kill, but there have to be enough people around to make a feeling everyone can appreciate.”

It’s Your Playlist, but Not Your Playlist

Don’t play music just for yourself,” Neff says. “You need to have a connection to your music, but your music has to have a connection to your night — and your bar!”

Don’t Take Requests 

“Stick to your guns,” Neff says. “If you work in a bar that plays hip-hop and someone wants to hear a country song, know that those people aren’t your core clientele and aren’t worth changing your entire zeitgeist for. Either find a middle ground that caters to each or politely tell people that what they’re asking for is outside the realm of what the bar plays.”


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