By Mark Dolce

After politics and religion, the next best subject for starting arguments is music, probably because it is so inextricably entwined with our personalities. Not to get all boozy and Freudian, but music is kind of like the Angostura bitters in the Manhattan of your id. It’s an essential ingredient in all of those pleasure-seeking impulses, which is why a friendly discussion of music can quickly become a bottle-throwing brouhaha.

Clearly music is not going to make or break your event, but it does add to the proceedings a certain je ne sais quoi, whatever that means. Conversely, a few poorly chosen selections can bring the festivities to a screeching halt.

And by poorly chosen, I mean tracks that don’t fit with the personality of the event.

A few years back I was at a high-energy event where the goal was to pump up the crowd, including the participants. After a few tracks that got the crowd movin’ and groovin’, Feels So Good by Chuck Mangione came on. Now for you youngsters out there, Feels So Good is a mid-tempo instrumental from the late 70s that rocketed to the top of the charts (yeah, the 70s were weird), and it belongs to a subgenre of music that I can only describe as Flaccid Jazz, a forerunner to today’s so-called Smooth Jazz. So, as I recall, when that incongruous song came on, everything stopped, and everyone looked around to see whose tragically unhip uncle had commandeered the sound system. Things got back on track, the event was a success, but for a brief, scary moment, that flugelhorn-playing, fedora-wearing Chuck Mangione became Dr. Buzzkill, MD. (Cue the hate mail from Mangione fans and Smooth Jazz aficionados.)

Choosing music for your event is not hard. What’s hard is creating a solid playlist that complements your event and enhances your guests’ event experience at the same time. To do that, the music has to be crowd-pleasing, but it shouldn’t sound exactly like your cousin’s wedding at that suburban banquet hall with the stucco exterior. It should be attention-grabbing, but it shouldn’t drown out the magic of the moment. It should surprise, but not shock. It should be energetic, but not spastic. Ay caramba, such a list reminds me of Rusty’s advice to Linus in Ocean’s Eleven.

Whether you farm out the job of creating the playlist to a DJ or DIY it (or form a committee, heaven help you), you should tailor it specifically for your audience and +for the time you have, whether it’s six minutes or six hours.

Here are a few suggestions to help guide you in the process:

Do a little at a time. Just like your junior year research paper, don’t leave it until the last minute. Do a little here and there and build a list over time. If you throw it together at the last minute, it will sound like it and while it won’t kill the event, it won’t help it either.

Playlists. Since anyone with a pulse and an internet connection can create a playlist, playlists are now  like locusts blotting out the sun in every corner of the web and on YouTube, Pandora, Spotify or iTunes. To cut through all the dross, find lists by prominent DJs or DJs who are music omnivores with encyclopedic knowledge, like Questlove.

Ask your local exercise instructor. You think I’m kidding? I’m not. The good ones, like my pal Rosemary, meticulously choose songs to achieve a certain physical state in the class, like raising heart rates. But it’s not just physical, the songs these instructors use also achieve a certain emotional reaction that acts as a counter to the drudgery or pain of exercise. And they often update their lists because who wants to listen to the same thing over and over and over?

Pay attention to TV and movies … and commercials. Usually television and movies are good sources for something new, or old/new that reaches a new audience or reinvigorates the oldsters. For example, on Stranger Things, Netflix’s sci-fi paean to the 80s, one episode ended with The Bangles’ rockin’ version of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter, which was originally featured in the film adaptation of Less Than Zero. Subsequently, videos of the song increased their views exponentially as people discovered and rediscovered it. Now, anyone who includes this otherwise forgotten 80s gem on a playlist will make yet another connection to their audience on event. (Along those same lines, check out this track from the extra-curricular montage in Rushmore and this track from the current ‘Be Legacy’ Stella Artois campaign.)

Edit that motha. Don’t be afraid to fire up Garage Band and edit the songs you put on your event playlist. Maybe you only want five-eighths of Flash Light. Or maybe your event playlist is just cryin’ out for some Krautrock, but you just don’t want all of Moonshake. Get out the digital Ginsu, my friend, and slice and dice.

Don’t be afraid of novelty. Every once in a while you can throw a curve in there just to keep people on their toes. If it’s the right choice at the right time, it can shake things up a bit, like a reset of sorts. Take Johnny Cash’s Five Feet High and Risin’ as an example. It’s a genial little toe-tapper with a simple refrain and Cash’s resonant bass, but more than that, it’s a great set-up for whatever your next number will be because it sure won’t be like the previous one, which brings us to the following item.

Embrace contrasts. While assembling your list, embrace the yin and the yang, the Marcia and the Jan, the sweet and the savory, the ebony and the ivory. Don’t be constrained by genres or ham-strung by the tyranny of the Top 40. Damn you, Seacrest!

Earth, Wind & Fire. If you don’t have any songs from this seminal group on your event playlist, then you need to take a warm shower and think about your life choices. Seriously, whether it’s well-known hits like September or  Serpentine Fire, or grooves like On Your Face or Sing a Song, Earth, Wind & Fire puts smiles on faces and makes you feel just a little more hopeful about the fate of humanity, no kidding.

Mark Dolce is a copywriter for the national MuckFest® MS event series. His hobbies include starting arguments about music and not wearing a fedora.

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