Glasgow as a city is famous (and in some cases infamous) for being a party city and having a vibrant nightlife. Boasting numerous music venues and nightclubs to suit everyone’s individual styles and music tastes, as well as several hundred pubs and bars, the Glasgow nightlife economy alone contributes approximately £5.5bn a year to the Scottish economy. This came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis forced the UK to go into a complete lockdown and all social contact ceased. Scotland was silenced by the closure of pubs, bars, clubs, and venues and, as the lockdown prolonged, left us constantly reminiscing on nights out with friends as distant memories and wondering if it would ever be possible to go out and enjoy ourselves again.
However, in June 2020 Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that, from July, restrictions on pubs and bars would gradually start to lift giving Scots hope that things were getting brighter, but the silence still remained. The UK Governments decided that it would be too risky to allow even background music to play in hospitality venues as this might encourage people to sing and shout, thus increasing the risk of virus transmission. As time went on, when other British nations began to relax their rules on music in pubs, the Scottish government held out and maintained the ban until December, and even then, singing along remained a firm no-go.
So why in a city such as Glasgow, where music is a key aspect of social life, is it seen as such a risk to public health?
A study by researchers in sociology and popular music, Forsyth and Cloonan, suggests that pop music in pubs can be used as a marketing tool to attract particular clientele (or indeed repel others) and influence their behaviour- for example, popular music is likely to attract younger people whom, if they enjoy the atmosphere, will be happier and are consequently more likely to stay longer, buy more drinks and leave bigger tips. However, more drinks equal more drunkenness, which is a substantial problem Glasgow continues to face. It has been revealed in the Director of Public Health Report (2007/8) that alcohol problems are worse in Greater Glasgow and Clyde than in the rest of Scotland, the UK, and Western Europe. This particularly affects the city’s young adults, with sixteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds drinking most heavily compared with other adult age groups. Forsyth and Cloonan also note that the music choices and volume have an impact on alcohol-related violence. Playing music at a higher volume has the potential to lead to misunderstandings and communication errors which subsequently results in fights. Furthermore, in relation to COVID-19 transmission, when the general volume of the pub is raised, protective equipment becomes redundant as staff and customers lower their face coverings to communicate effectively. The volume and mood of music may also encourage dancing in a particular way, for example, sexualised music may lead to “suggestive” dancing resulting in people taking advantage of other customers through unsolicited physical contact and sexual violence. Police have reported that the number of sex crimes reported in Scotland soared to a six-year high as COVID lockdown rules eased between April and June 2021 and can be linked to the relaxation of restrictions in pubs and bars with a total of 3,720 sexual crimes being recorded during this period.
Therefore, while manufacturing the activities of customers by playing popular music in the background of pubs is beneficial to the companies that own the venues, it can negatively impact the customers and be a detriment to the Scottish economy. 42% of violent crime in Scotland is alcohol related and 36% of A&E attendees in Greater Glasgow have been intoxicated within eight hours of being admitted. This means that more money is being spent on public resources than is being contributed to the Scottish economy by the nightlife sector.
However, used in the right way, pubs and bars in Glasgow have the perfect opportunity to unite people and improve the wellbeing of customers through popular music. In 2008, Glasgow was the first city in the UK to be named a UNESCO City of Music, hosting an average of 130 music events each week, significantly more than any other Scottish city. Therefore, consuming music is of great importance to many Glaswegians and is a key part of social life and building relationships.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns it seems that loneliness in Scotland was an endemic in itself. Almost a quarter of Scots experienced feelings of loneliness impacting their mental health, and young people aged 18-24 in particular were most affected by COVID-19 related isolation, with more than four in ten reporting feelings of loneliness. In a study into the relationship between music and social bonding, Tarr states that people listening to music collectively, particularly familiar or popular music, triggers spontaneous and unintentional synchronised movements, such as dancing, swaying or tapping. Tarr concludes that “there is evidence that synchronization between people can influence their subsequent positive social feelings toward one another”. This means that listening to music as a collective in a shared environment, such as a pub or bar, encourages social bonding and can, therefore, act as a tool in tackling feelings of loneliness and isolation. Furthermore, the study suggests that, although passive listening in a shared environment benefits social bonding, the more active the engagement with the music through dancing and singing has a significant impact on socialisation and releasing endorphins, as the synchronisation between others is more overt. People are more likely to actively engage in music they recognise and enjoy listening to, therefore this presents a strong case for playing popular music in pubs and bars. Popular music is likely to be familiar and appeal to a broad audience, particularly helping engage and benefit young people in social bonding, a demographic who were significantly affected by loneliness during the COVID-19 crisis.
This report has discussed both positive and negative outcomes of playing popular music in Glasgow pubs and bars. I believe the only way to find a good balance is for pubs to take more responsibility and time to consider the potential effects of music they play, and how they use it. Instead of utilising popular music as a marketing scheme, venues should consider the social experiences of their customers. This would result in positive effects for the companies, their customers, and the status of Glasgow as a music city and its contribution to the Scottish economy as a whole.
Beer, A. and Greitemeyer, T. (2019), The effects of background music on tipping behaviour in a restaurant: A field study. Psychology of Music. 47(3), pp. 444-450.
Fitzgerald, N., Uny, I. et al. (2021), Managing COVID-19 Transmission Risks in Bars: An Interview and Observation Study. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 82(1), pp. 42–54.
Forsyth, A. and Cloonan, M. (2008), Alco‐pop? The Use of Popular Music in Glasgow Pubs. Available: https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/doi/pdf/10.1080/03007760601061902?needAccess=true
Forsyth, A., Lennox, J. and Cloonan, M. (2016), ‘I’m there to play music not break up fights’: gigging entertainers’ experiences of alcohol-related misbehaviour by audiences and its impact on performance.
Tarr, B., Launay, J. and Dunbar, R. (2014), Music and social bonding: “self-other” merging and neurohormonal mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.
Taylor, J., Twigg, L. and Mohan, J. (2014), Understanding neighbourhood perceptions of alcohol-related anti-social behaviour.
 Fitzgerald, N., Uny, I. et al. (2021)