By Ricky O’Bannon

Dallas residents waiting for a bus or hanging outside the EZ Trip convenience store at Forrest Lane and Audelia Road were treated to some classical greats earlier this month — whether they wanted to be or not.

The convenience store is part of a strip mall that had a loitering problem, and loitering can sometimes lead to crime both petty and more serious. In July, a drive-by shooting killed a 15-year-old football player at the shopping center. Three weeks later, another drive-by shooting injured one at the same location.

Along with new security measures, owners of the EZ Trip responded by installing speakers outside the store, and recently, the convenience store started piping in a classical music-heavy playlist into the shopping center parking lot.

“The people was loitering around,” said manager Saniraza Saddiq by phone from Dallas. “That's why we were playing [classical] music, so they don't [stay] that long because it's kind of annoying to be around [the music] so much.”

Ez Trip 3

EZ Trip convenience store in North Dallas that played
classical music to deter loitering and crime.

 Saddiq’s store is part of a franchise, and he said playing classical music was actually a suggestion from the company he worked for. So far, he said it has been effective. The classical music is intended to be loud enough that casual conversation outside the store becomes difficult, and Saddiq said he sees loiterers leaving to get out of range of the Bach, Vivaldi or whatever else is playing.

The volume is a key component of the strategy, but so is the playlist. Teenagers are hardly scared away by listening to loud music, and it’s hard to imagine that the classical repertoire wasn’t chosen in part because it was unlikely to be its intended audience’s favorite music genre. But Saddiq said that the classical music also creates a peaceful, soothing atmosphere.

“This music keeps everybody calm,” he said. “It’s just calming music.”

The “classical music strategy” as it has been called — a strategy of using classical music as teen and loiterer repellant — dates back two decades. According to Lily E Hirsch’s book Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, 7-Eleven stores in British Columbia first experimented with the strategy in 1985. According to a statement Hirsch received from a 7-Eleven representative, the idea was the result of a brainstorming session between management and psychologists to help loitering problems.

“One of the ideas [from the brainstorming session] was to play easy listening or classical music in the parking lot,” Hirsch writes, quoting the statement. “The thinking was this kind of music is not popular with teens and may discourage them from ‘hanging out’ at the store.”

Since then, the classical music strategy has been adopted by convenience stores and public transportation authorities in MontrealFloridaPortlandOhio and London. A 2005 report on a program that started piping in classical music to notoriously problematic underground stops in London claimed that robberies had dropped 33 percent, assaults on staff by 25 percent and vandalism by 37 percent at those locations since the music started in 2003.

While the trend might fit into the growing list of (somewhat dubious) utilitarian claims that are often made for classical music (it will make your kids smarter, your plants grow faster and drive away anti-social delinquents), the classical music strategy is undoubtedly bad press for every marketer in charge of figuring out how to sell this music to new and usually younger audiences.

Many have suggested the strategy reinforces the class connotations that classical music has rightly or wrongly developed in the 20th century, and for others it brings to mind Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange in which the juvenile delinquent protagonist is conditioned to respond to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with physical illness as part of an experimental rehabilitation program.

For those who devote their energy to bringing in new audiences to enjoy the classical cannon, it is discouraging to see it used to drive some of those same demographics away. Classical critic Norman Lebrecht called it “culturally reckless, profoundly demeaning to one of the greater glories of civilization.” Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen lamented that fact on Twitter earlier this month when he heard classical music being played at a London train platform.

Esa Pekka Tweet

Undoubtedly loitering and more importantly the crime that is associated with it present real issues, but the classical strategy raises uneasy questions about both the tactics used to address those issues and the class baggage classical music carries. However whether it is in Canada, London or now Dallas, the classical music strategy doesn’t look to go away any time soon.