Written by: Doug Breen

An often overlooked, yet very important decision each day, is deciding what music you’re going to play on the barn stereo system.

Thumbnail for Humour: Music Management

Tommy Truong illustration

In any place of business, there are about 1,000 decisions a day, which need to be made to ensure the success of the overall operation. Somebody has to decide how much chicken to drop at the KFC (the answer is “always more,” by the way). Somebody has to remember to put water in the Zamboni. There’s a person who is responsible for making sure that the lighted “M” gets turned on at the McDonald’s (at least, there was when I was in high school – I’m sure that duty has been outsourced to a timer, which might actually remember to do it). A riding stable is no different. How many staff do I need today? Which horses are good to go, and who needs a break? Who’s “healthy as a horse” (to use a surprisingly appropriate phrase), and who needs a vet? Do I order hay today, or shavings, or pizza for the crew mucking stalls?

An often overlooked, yet very important decision each day, is deciding what music you’re going to play on the barn stereo system. “Music at Work,” is such an important concept, that The Tragically Hip actually wrote a song about it. People have lost their jobs by making poor choices in the music that they chose to listen to. I have witnessed countless arguments about what is, and is not, appropriate for the work/customer environment.

In the barn where I grew up, my Dad’s hired man showed up one day with a (possibly stolen) radio from a 1969 Dodge Challenger. It was AM only, and mono, which was just as well, because there was only one speaker (with no knobs, screwdriver scratches on the front, and suspiciously short wires hanging out of the back of it). They had to buy a transformer, to convert the 110 volt AC power source to 12 volt DC, to make it work. The transformer generated more heat than the radio generated volume, and was more than likely a fire hazard – but that’s what we had. It was perpetually tuned to country radio from Hamilton. Not the “new” or “urban” country of today; it was non-stop Conway Twitty and George Jones. But it was his barn, his quasi-legal radio installation, and his choice.

Most barns I go into now are powered by someone’s stereo from college. It will be in generally decent working order, usually with a broken cassette player door (no one still has cassettes anyhow), and a CD player that skips like a young Charles Atlas at the gym. It will also have one semi-blown speaker, from too many late night sessions listening to Black Sabbath at extreme volumes. But are you seriously going to consider bringing your Beats Pill into that environment? All in all, it’s a major upgrade from what I had as a kid, but the management decision in play here is what music do you put on in the barn?

What normally seems to occur is a cross-generational/cross-cultural power struggle between the various groups of people who hang around the stable. There is the retired professor who thinks nothing important has ever been broadcast on stations other than CBC or NPR. Occasionally, they’re willing to “slum it” by listening to an oldies station – a station that plays two songs an hour, surrounded by ads for retirement financing, drug ads, and testimonials promoting the advantages of compression socks.

There are the tween girls, who have deluded themselves into thinking that anyone will ever be listening to the present pop music beyond the end of this month. Lately there’s been a surprising shift among the late teens, away from the hip hop that they were listening to last week, and onto country music – next week they’ll be doing something else. And there’s usually one guy working around the barn who will find a station that plays whatever rock music was popular in the year that he graduated from high school.

Nobody ever asks the horses what they would like to listen to, but I think that it’s safe to assume that they like having music on in the barn. I remember reading about a study, where they experimented with different types of music, to see if they could affect milk production in cows, or egg production in hens. The findings were “inconclusive,” which is science speak for “we wasted a lot of money on that one.” But what they did conclude was that production was improved with any music, when compared to the “no music” control group, which implies that the animals listening to music were happier.

So, chances are that the horses enjoy the music, and don’t care what genre is being played. But you can bet that the people in the barn will have strong feelings about it, and there will be conflict. Resolving this tension may, in fact, be the most important thing that the Barn Manager does all day.