How the Music Industry Capitalized on Foodie Culture — and Why the Culinary World Is Turning the Tables

By
Share:

Illustration by Brett Nuckles for Flavorwire.

A few months ago, in a foreign city I’d never visited before, I found myself fondling raw steak in a pitch-black room. Despite the disconcerting situation, all I could focus on was the conversation taking place several tables away: an argument between two men over a friendly bet. It sounded like they were wearing lapel mics. When one or more of the five senses is impaired, our remaining abilities overcompensate — a fact that sits at the heart of Montreal restaurant O.Noir’s light-free concept — but I hadn’t imagined my hearing would be the sense to take over when I sat down to dinner.

With all due respect to my dining companion — my oldest friend — I can’t remember a word he said that night. I do, however, remember the smug tone taken by one of the men arguing at the table to my northwest, just past the bathrooms. I remember chewing in time with his companion’s slow, methodical verbal cadence. Déjà vu — another one of the brain’s mysteries — struck.

A few months earlier, I had attended the third Supper Studio event at Manhattan’s Centre for Social Innovation, where singer-songwriter Mirah performed eight songs while 70 diners feasted on a five-course meal designed to mirror the textures and themes of her acoustic folk-rock. As I ate a poached cod, saffron, and tomato stew, I became aware that I was actively trying to match my chewing to the melody.

What I experienced is one aspect — perhaps the only one that still could be considered emergent — of a larger trend that attempts to tie food and music together. It spans from tiny, highly curated events to mega-festivals, DIY projects to major corporations like British Airways and Häagen-Dazs. Event producers in the music space have dabbled in the culinary world with increasing frequency over the last decade, as the foodie movement has gone mainstream among those with disposable income.

Why? Well, the ongoing music festival boom has meant that tourist festivals have been jostling for the same kinds of consumers amidst a ballooning marketplace. As more festivals pop up each summer, you start to wonder why anyone would travel long distances to watch the same ten bands they could see 100 miles away at a local event. All the other stuff that goes into making a music festival feel distinct starts to seem a lot more crucial. When we talk about a tarragon-spiced lobster corndog at Lollapalooza (a music festival) or The Roots at GoogaMooga (a food festival), we’re referring to strategies to build or retain business. But some build their entire businesses around the notion that food and music can complement each other in ways we don’t fully understand: the senses. Scientific research supports this theory; in fact, crossmodal studies are just starting to be applied to the mass food industry.

Run by Dr. Charles Spence, Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Lab is one of the world’s leading sources on how our senses work together. Earlier this fall, Spence and fellow researcher Betina Piqueras-Fiszman published a book titled The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining. Among its many considerations are nebulous but fascinating observations like this: the right musical pairings can make food taste, on average, ten percent saltier or sweeter.

“You can just take regular music that we’d all like to listen to, and if matched appropriately to what you’re tasting or smelling, it can enhance the experience,” Spence tells Flavorwire. “But you cannot create through sound a taste that isn’t there. What I think sound works best at is when you have a complex flavor experience where there are lots of things you could be paying attention to. If you draw a diner’s concentration to the high notes in a wine’s aroma or the sweetness of a dessert by saying, ‘This is a very sweet product,’ or by coloring it red — or by echoing those sweet sounds in music — then [their] food experience will change as a result.”

Xenia Rubinos, and a brussel sprout dish from chef Carolina Santos-Neves at the most recent Supper Studio on September 13, 2014, at Brooklyn’s Humboldt & Jackson. (Photos by Evan Daniels)

The opposite approach — what can food bring out in music? — is at the heart of Vinyl Me, Please and Supper Studio, two small-scale projects that use food and drink to interpret the sonic textures of the music they love. Scientifically speaking, less is known about what happens when you reverse these roles and prioritize sound over taste. Dr. Spence suggests research on this topic is just starting to emerge, but it’s a difficult premise out the gate: “If you look at the brain, more than half of it is given over to what you see, maybe 15 percent to what you hear, but only one or two percent to what you taste. So it’s going to be a hard job for that one or two percent of your brain to have a big impact on what is largely a visual organ.”

For those who care to suspend their disbelief (and have $23 to $27 a month to spare), mail-order record club Vinyl Me, Please pairs its vinyl picks with custom cocktails curated by Cameron Schaefer and Levi Sheppard, the duo behind the popular Tumblr Vinyl + Cocktails (and are now members of the Vinyl Me, Please team). At present the club has just over 2000 members; its membership process requires an invitation in order to keep up with the rate of vinyl production, which can be slow. Its focus is on thoughtful pairings and wide-ranging musical curation of albums both new and old. A few months back, a limited-edition mint-green pressing of The War on Drugs’ popular 2014 LP, Lost in a Dream, was paired with a vintage rye/vermouth/Campari cocktail called Old Pal. “There are hot albums and there are sexy albums, but at the end of the day we crave more from our music, as well as our cocktails,” read the shipping sleeve. “What we want is longevity and depth of character that mimic our most faithful human relationships… our trusty sidekicks… our old pals.”

“The Vinyl + Cocktails guys put [their combinations] together thinking about which season the record is being sent in, and what the general aura of the record is,” Matt Fiedler, one of Vinyl Me, Please’s co-founders, tells Flavorwire. “Is the album kind of hard and abrasive, or is it soft and melodic? They use those characteristics of the music to build the cocktail around that same feel and aesthetic. We did a punk record earlier this year, and it was basically a PBR and cigarette, just because that just matched the aesthetic of the record.”

“What we’re trying to do is instill a deeper connection to the music,” Fielder says. “Music connects to people on a really deep and emotional level, such that it defines your life in many ways and instantly takes you back to moments in time. In my mind, it’s really the only art form that has the ability to do that, in that kind of way. We were interested to tie in the other senses and really complement that connection and strengthen that bond because I think it drives the whole thing home. Listening to the album and drinking the cocktail, the idea is, ‘This is everything that I want at this particular moment.’”

With just four events under its belt in the last year and a half, Supper Studio has emerged as a thoughtful platform for high-concept interpretations of music via multi-course, seasonal meals paired with intimate performances from independent musicians like TEEN, Pearl and the Beard, and Mirah. For their most recent event this fall, which explored the work of Xenia Rubinos, Supper Studio partners Tracy Candido and Laura Leebove brought in a professional chef — Carolina Santos-Neves of Comodo and Colonia Verde — to lead the tasting menu. The idea was that a known chef would appeal to “food people” rather than “music people,” Supper Studio’s demographic up to this point. But the Brooklyn-based duo still see themselves as “music people,” and inherently DIY in their ethos.

“With indie rock, you can have a weird voice or potentially even a bad voice,” Candido tells Flavorwire. “Maybe you scream, or find some other way to make up for what is not traditionally considered ‘good talent.’ We kind of do the same thing with Supper Studio. We’re this punk-rock cooking duo where we just make what we think should happen and [it] commingles with the music. We do what we want because we want to, not because we’re abiding my any standard. Who cares if we don’t have any training? Who cares if the food is delicious but amateur?”

Candido’s background is in event production and brand marketing, while Leebove (who, full disclosure, I also know socially) works in music and runs the food and music blog Eating the Beats. (“She wasn’t just creating Latin food for a Latin musician — she was really geeking out on it,” Candido says about Leebove’s site.) After finding herself “listening to the same Built to Spill records over and over again,” Candido was motivated to start Supper Studio as, at the very least, a way to make herself see more live music. While planning each event, she and Leebove spend several hours exploring an artist’s discography, finding themes and textures that overlap with food to “create deeper understanding through taste and smell.”

“Even a lot of the food and music blogs, they bring on a chef to talk about music, or they’ll bring on a guitarist to talk about his grandma’s spaghetti,” Candido says. “Inherently, food and music are connected in that way, but they’re not influencing each other. I know that we’re coming at it from a more theoretical, conceptual plane, and I’m glad about that. Without that, at what point are they [food culture and music culture] exploiting each other?”

The centerpiece of Bonnaroo’s Hamageddon land has been affectionately dubbed Henri by Superfly’s Kerry Black, to satiate his dream of owning a teacup pig of the same name. (Provided photo via Bonnaroo)

Some might say this is what the festival industry has done with its newfound culinary interests. Kerry Black would not be one of those people, although he is adamant about the need for more immersive treatments of food at large-scale live events. Black is the biggest foodie among the four founders of Superfly Presents, the production company that launched Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and the Great GoogaMooga. The latter two events brand themselves as food-centric, although Black admits, “it definitely took some prodding in the beginning” for San Francisco’s culinary scene to see that Superfly was serious about local food culture following Outside Lands’ bumpy inaugural year in 2008.

Now Superfly works with more than 40 Napa Valley wineries under the direction of Peter Eastlake, one of Food + Wine’s top sommeliers of last year, and hosted 58 local restaurants as food vendors this year alone. It’s impressive, but also par for the course when you consider what Superfly’s biggest competitors are bringing to the table. Graham Elliot, of multiple Michelin star and MasterChef fame, has served as Lollapalooza’s Culinary Director since 2009. Just last year, Coachella turned up the heat on its culinary program by bringing in local LA restaurants — like chef Josef Centeno’s trio of spots, Bäco Mercat, Bar Amá, and Orsa & Winston — for pop-up eateries on its Terrace. For the more high-end consumer, farm-to-table event producers Outstanding in the Field curated a four-course tasting menu in the Rose Garden on Coachella’s grounds in Indio, California.

“It’s gotten to the point now that all festivals kind of have to have some sort of elevated food experience,” Black says. “It’s almost de rigueur now. So, what are the next steps? How can we take it to the next level? For me, it’s integrating it into the [festival] experiences.”

At Bonnaroo, this means food “lands,” most notably Hamageddon and BaconLand. With “a ten-foot tall Burning Man-style metal pig that breathes fire,” Hamageddon is kind of hard to miss on The Farm in Manchester, Tennessee, where Bonnaroo has been held every year since 2002. The festival has also hosted a recreation of the menu from Pulp Fiction diner Jack Rabbit Slim’s — burgers “burnt to a crisp but bloody as hell” and five-dollar shakes — under the guidance of Rick Ross’ personal chef, Jeremiah Bullfrog.

At this year’s Outside Lands, a new stage called GastroMagic scheduled lectures about molecular gastronomy from Top Chef contestants next to stand-up comedy routines and an artisanal chocolate demo soundtracked by Holy Ghost!. Big Freedia and Brenda’s Soul Food also put on a Beignets & Bounce brunch, where attendees twerked for their New Orleans treats. Referring to chefs as “the new rock stars” became an eye-rolling platitude of “the foodie revolution,” but now the music industry is embracing the idea — and I don’t just mean cooking shows from Kelis and Action Bronson.

“I think it’s been more of an explosion of the food world itself, more than anything,” says Black by way of explaining the food and music trend. “Chefs are becoming so popular, and going out to restaurants is really becoming what used to be going out to shows. But really, people are looking for both. When I go out to restaurants, I’m expecting there to be good music playing. When I go to any show — whether it’s at a club or a festival or an arena — I don’t want to go eat soggy chicken fingers. It’s becoming almost not an option anymore [for event producers and venues]. Even places like Madison Square Garden that historically didn’t have the best food are kind of stepping up their game in that way.”

But what if you start with food and incorporate music as some sort of lifestyle add-on to boost brand visibility? If Dorito’s picks up the check for some of SXSW’s most elaborate parties (remember Snoop Dogg in a vending machine?), how is a standalone music festival so different? Sweetgreen, the East Coast counter-service chain best known for their farm-to-table salads and sustainable philosophy, drummed up business for their second DC store in Dupont Circle back in 2009 by simply going to Guitar Center and buying turntables. Partners started spinning sets of indie and electronic music that would boost sales and grow into something more: a series of free parking-lot block parties with local acts, on-brand activities like yoga, and upwards of 500 attendees.

With help from DC’s most prominent venue owner and live music promoter — Seth Hurwitz of IMP and the 9:30 Club — Sweetgreen has developed its Sweetlife Festival into a one-day destination featuring Lana Del Rey, Kendrick Lamar, Avicii, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Hurwitz and Sweetgreen’s in-house production team (led by director Laura Rankin) made the jump to one of the DC areas’ largest venues, Merriweather Post Pavillion, for 2011’s festival, where The Strokes were among the headliners. It was The Fader Magazine and Cornerstone founders Jon Cohen and Rob Stone, who Sweetgreen co-founder and co-CEO Jonathan Nemen refers to as advisers and mentors, who introduced the burgeoning chainlet to the band’s team.

“[Music] was part of the DNA of the brand from the very beginning, so it wasn’t trying to layer music on later — it was always a part of the experience, from day one when we opened the first restaurant [in 2007],” Nemen tells Flavorwire. “How do we create an experience for all the senses? Music was a huge part of it. For us, getting the restaurant was almost accidental. We were in college [at Georgetown] when we decided to open a restaurant but really didn’t know what we were doing, and there’s a good chance a music career could’ve been in the works [otherwise]. I was always interested in it, so when we opened the restaurant, it was our way of fusing the things we were passionate about.”

Despite multiple critiques in the Washington Post for musical blandness, 2014’s Sweetlife Festival sold out for the first time, hosting upwards of 20,000 attendees and 15 performers across three stages. As usual, they also hosted a full farmer’s market with help from Fresh Farms. Like their competitors, Sweetlife hosts a number of local chefs whose work ties in to their sustainable ethos. But being a food company, Sweetgreen clearly has an advantage in selling their own product at their banner festival. The model seems to be working: they’ve expanded to six states and nearly 30 locations, and just last month, received $18.5 million in funding from investors including top New York restaurateurs Danny Meyer (Union Square Hospitality Group, including Shake Shack) and Daniel Boulud (Daniel, DBGB).

Sweetgreen made environmental and social responsibility the lifestyle hook for their brand, and built up music over time as an extension of that. Sometimes, it doesn’t work quite so seamlessly, even for those who know what they’re doing. Case in point: Superfly’s Great GoogaMooga. Launched in 2012, the two-day festival at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park flipped its focus in a subtle but ultimately damaging way: they catered to New York foodie culture first, and music fans second. In its first year, GoogaMooga’s “headliners” among its 75 food vendors, 35 brewers, and 30 wineries were announced more than a month before its musical lineup — including Hall & Oates and The Roots — emerged. Their initial tagline — “an amusement park of food & drink” — failed to even mention music.

Despite having marquee chefs like Tom Colicchio as partners and the bulk of New York’s trendiest restaurants on board, GoogaMooga and its “haute-bourgeois” angle seemed to rub even foodies the wrong way, particularly after the execution got messy. A two-year run resulted in fistfights over Blue Ribbon fried chicken, cell service outages, glitches with the cashless payment system, long lines amidst general disorganization, some vendors running out of food by midday, a damaged lawn for Prospect Park’s 26-acre Nethermead, and a rain-out. Even among New York’s media elite, GoogaMooga seemed to represent foodie culture jumping the shark.

“It’s worth asking what the point of this was,” Slate pondered in its critique, which declared GoogaMooga elitist, echoing the way many feel about foodie culture in general. “At music festivals, the bands hail from around the world, and the fun comes in watching bands that you might not otherwise get a chance to see live. But New Yorkers don’t need to wait for the stars to align to visit most of the restaurants that were featured at GoogaMooga. They’re already accessible — in fact, the distance between the East Village locations of Luke’s Lobster and South Brooklyn Pizza, to name two of the festival’s well-known vendors, is less than the distance between their respective GoogaMooga tents. What’s more, the tent-based version of their food is almost guaranteed to be worse than the restaurant version. It’s hard to make restaurant-quality food in a park; near impossible to do it quickly, consistently, and in sufficient quantities to satisfy thousands and thousands of judgmental foodies.”

Kerry Black takes a more optimistic view of GoogaMooga’s future, neither confirming nor denying 2015 as the festival’s relaunch year — with a new venue, of course.

“We’re certainly working on the next incarnation [of GoogaMooga],” he says. “We firmly believe that there are a lot of opportunities there. That there are a lot of great things that we did out there, and we’re excited to come back and do it again. We’re finding a new venue and where we’re going to take it, but we’re excited to do stuff in that world. We’re psyched to figure out how to do it right and make something really special.”

Perhaps those behind GoogaMooga could take a cue from certain high-end culinary circles, where the food takes precedence over the music but sound has become an experimental tool to maximize creativity. At celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray, England — routinely named one of the finest restaurants in the world — a dish dubbed “Sound of the Sea” places seafood atop a bed of sand (under glass, of course) and serves it up with an iPod placed in a conch shell.

The Crossmodal Research lab helped to develop the sonic elements of the “Sound of the Sea” and other high-end culinary experiments, but Dr. Spence and his team are also regularly tapped for similar pairings intended for mass consumption. Earlier this year, British Airways launched its Sound Bites in-flight menu, based on research from the Crossmodal Research Lab. The idea is to highlight certain aspects of the dishes with an accompanying playlist; Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” for example, was selected to boost the sweetness of a rich pudding dessert.

Last year, Häagen-Dazs launched its Concerto Timer app, which pairs two-minute works of classical music with ice cream flavors. This is ostensibly for the purpose of defrosting the ice cream for easier eating, but it’s also setting the tone — literally and figuratively — for the consumers’ eating experience. Spence adds that Ben & Jerry’s has been developing soundtracks to match ice cream flavors in recent months. You start to wonder where else the trend might be headed.

Could restaurants and food manufacturers use music as a manipulation tool?

One 2003 study referenced in The Perfect Meal suggests that food sales were ten percent higher in restaurants where classical music was playing, rather than pop music or simply no music. Another study pointed to increased wine sales at a downtown cellar in a large southeastern city when music with “upmarket” associations (classical) was played over Top 40. Another out of Dartmouth concluded plainly, as surmised by Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman, “The more they like the music, the longer they stay.” It would be naïve to think that restaurant owners wouldn’t want to take advantage of these variables — and increasingly, they are. This kind of research dates back to the 1960s, but it’s only in recent years that its effects are being considered by large-scale businesses, let alone average consumers.

Referencing an oft-cited 1986 study from Ronald E. Milliman in the Journal of Consumer Research, Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman wrote that when the tempo of music was manipulated in a medium-sized Texas restaurant, diners reacted in a way that translated to significant sales fluctuations:

The 1,400 diners who unwittingly took part in this study ate significantly more rapidly when fast instrumental music was played than when slower music was played instead. In the latter condition, the diners spent more than 10 minutes longer eating, bringing the total duration of their restaurant stay up to almost an hour.

The result: diners listening to slower-paced music ordered, on average, three extra drinks.

“If I told you [that] if you’d painted your walls red you’d eat less, or the food would taste better, you might not be tempted to bother to go and buy the paint,” Spence says. “If I talk about changing the fragrance of your house, again, would you do it? But music is a part of our lives — it is the single easiest thing to change, until you realize just how big an impact it has.”

Jillian Mapes is the music editor of Flavorwire. She previously covered the music industry for Billboard and has written about food for the Indianapolis Star.

Brett Nuckles is a Brooklyn-based illustrator.