An ’80s music experiment to keep BC teens from loitering is now a global practice

In the mid-1980s, 7-Eleven store managers in British Columbia faced a problem they believed was hurting their bottom line: teenagers hanging out the door.

The company felt that teenagers who lingered outside stores chased away other customers. BC management met with store staff and psychologists to brainstorm ideas to address the issue.

The solution they came up with seemed surprisingly simple: Play classical or easy-listening music known as Muzak in parking lots to keep teenagers from hanging out.

The music was used in 10 stores in British Columbia and quickly spread to more than 150 7-Eleven stores in North America, according to Californian musicologist Lily Hirsch. In the years that followed, the practice of using music as a deterrent was used around the world.

WATCH | The Background Music Helping BC Convenience Stores Keep Loafers Away

The Background Music Helping BC Convenience Stores Keep Loafers Away

On September 3, 1990, CBC’s Ian Hanomansing visited a 7-Eleven in Richmond, BC, which was using a new tool to keep young people from loitering outside their store: Muzak.

Hirsch’s book Music in the Prevention and Suppression of Crime in the United Statesincludes a statement from the company indicating that it began the practice in several of its BC-based stores in 1985.

Hirsch writes that there are earlier examples of companies using music to keep people from lingering, but 7-Eleven says it’s “the first company to deliberately transform the core function of programmed bait music to repellent” and that it “appears to be the first company to have sanctioned such an approach as policy.”

“I think other people did it unknowingly around the same time, but 7-Eleven took ownership of it,” Hirsch told CBC News.

This approach, developed by 7-Eleven in British Columbia, continues to appear around the world. Hirsch says she regularly comes across media reports discussing variations on the same theme.

In 2012, the Washington Post wrote about classical music performed at the New York Port Authority. In 2019, a city in Florida collected watch out to blast the children’s song baby shark to prevent homeless people from congregating outside an event centre.

Opera music was played outside a reception area and safe consumption site in Prince George last year, a practice local social workers called ‘cruel’ .

WATCH | Repetitive opera music at the Prince George Visitor Center:

Opera music played to keep people away near the visitor center

Some outreach workers and volunteers are upset after the Fire Pit, a cultural drop-in center in downtown Prince George, started playing opera music as it tried to chase away people sitting outside the building, which also houses a safe consumption site.

7-Eleven did not respond to a request for comment on whether it was still playing music outside of any of its stores.

Victoria 7-Eleven criticized for using water drops

The convenience store chain recently came under fire after one of its stores in Victoria set up a system that deliberately leaked water from under an awning to deter people from loitering.

Advocates for the city’s vulnerable populations said the use of water drops to prevent vagrancy was demeaning, especially for the homeless.

A recent report in The Times-Colonist says the store, located on Quadra and Yates streets, has stopped using the tactic. CBC News has asked 7-Eleven for comment, but has not yet received a response.

Mark the space with music

Although the water drop deterrent didn’t last long, the company’s musical tactics seem to have lasted.

Hirsch said she first became interested in the subject after reading a 2006 news report about a suburb of Sydney, Australia using Barry Manilow music to repel teenagers.

Hirsch notes that most people have positive associations with music, making it a more subtle tool to avoid loafing. Dripping water is more intrusive than piping mandy through loudspeakers, she said.

“It was marking the space, communicating that this space isn’t yours, but they could use those positive associations with the music to create that kind of confusion and plausible deniability,” she said.

A 7-Eleven store in downtown Victoria has come under fire after installing a drip system to deter people from loitering. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC News)

In September 1990, CBC News visited a 7-Eleven store in Richmond, British Columbia, which played Muzak outside the store. Manager Kevin St. Denis said it was a hit with at least one neighboring household.

“They hear it in their bedroom and say it helps them fall asleep,” he said.

While the music played outside stores can be soft and melodious, Hirsch says the message it sends is loud and clear.

“Really what’s happening is you’re separating space.”

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