O’Learys American-style sports bars are instantly recognizable, from their familiar menus to their green-and-white checkered table cloths. Music is what ties everything together.
Music at O’Learys
O'Learys is all about tasty food, refreshing drinks, exciting sports, and fantastic music.
"It doesn’t look very promising." Jonas Reinholdsson, a silver-maned 6’5’’ Swede drinks a Czech lager in an O'Learys, one of the restaurants in the chain of genuine American-style sports bars he founded some 30 years ago. Reinholdsson is trying to calm his nerves ahead of an upcoming Sweden-Belgium game in the European Soccer Championship*.
From opening its first restaurant in Gothenburg in 1988, the O'Learys chain now comprises 118 restaurants in 10 countries. But all the O'Learys sports bars retain the original focus on four things: food, drinks, sports, and music. Jonas Reinholdsson dreamed about starting a restaurant already as a 16-17-year old. A few years later, he learned the trade at Riche, a classic hotspot in the early 1980s Stockholm, frequented by the pop and rock stars of the time.
"The interest for music for restaurants took off during the late 70s and 80s," Reinholdsson says. He adds that getting the music and the mood right for staff and guests bumps sales. When Reinholdsson opened the first O'Learys in the late 80s, he played bar music on cassette tapes, but soon transitioned to CDs. Now, O’Learys has embraced streaming with Spotify Business, one of Soundtrack Your Brand’s products.
Alongside Jesper Willaume, a long-time colleague who now heads up O'Learys’ flagship venue in Stockholm, Reinholdsson holds a tight grip on the O'Learys soundtrack, which they describe as wide-legged American Rock with modern elements.
(Unfortunately, Sweden lost against Belgium. But Reinholdsson will never give up believing in Sweden’s chances to become European champions one day.)
Jonas, you’ve been around in the restaurant business for some time. Would you care to take us through how things have changed over the years for O'Learys?
Jonas: The big change for us is that sports have become much bigger compared to 20 years ago. Since we show many more games, we play less music. And contrary to what you may think, that means the importance of playing exactly the right music has increased. Also, O'Learys appeal has become much broader. Ten years ago, we had 17% female guests, now that share is over 30% and we’re aiming to get all sorts of people coming to us, including families. So that means what we have had to refine our concept while retaining those aspects that make people want to come to us in the first place.
What would you say signifies the music you play at O'Learys? Are you leaning in any particular direction, are there genres you typically avoid?
Jesper: I’ve taken Jonas musical inheritance 100% to heart. It’s timeless songs from the late 60s and onward. We don’t play metal and we don’t play rap, or modern R’n’B. It’s not that we have anything against those genres, it’s just that it doesn’t fit our concept at all. When you come here, you get to choose what to eat and what to drink. But you don’t get to choose the music, so we’ve got to get it exactly right.
You’ve grown into a big franchise organization where local restaurant owners typically have a lot of say. How much freedom do you grant individual restaurants?
Jesper: Everyone has a right to their own taste in music, and our staff aren’t robots. But just like with the food and the drinks, we want our guests to feel at home in the music we play. Our concept is very recognizable, down to the familiar menus and our green-and-white checkered table cloths. In many ways, music ties everything together. The wrong music can ruin the atmosphere, and by distributing our playlists throughout our restaurants with Soundtrack Your Brand we no longer have that problem.
Why did you abandon the CDs and start using Soundtrack Your Brand’s streaming service?
Jonas: In the mid-90s each franchisee had to buy some 50 CDs with the staples, the most played songs by artists ranging from James Taylor to Guns and Roses. Then we started burning CDs with playlists and sending them out to franchisees. We made a black binder with CDs of some 150 O'Learys ready-made playlists. I made 70% of those playlists myself. But it wasn’t really sustainable to burn records like that. And license-wise, I suppose it was pretty borderline.
"When you come here, you get to choose what to eat and what to drink. But you don’t get to choose the music, so we’ve got to get it exactly right."
— Jonas Reinholdsson
O'Learys Tips For Playing Music in Bars and Restaurants
1. Don't trust your personal taste.
You’re not playing for yourself. You're playing to create a consistent mood for your guests. That may include music you personally dislike.
2. Get a concept.
Find the sound that expresses your brand. Bambino's Great Italian Eatery, another restaurant concept in the O’Learys family, has a completely different sound than O'Learys.
3. Have guidelines, but be flexible
So you can adjust soundtracks and respond to events and happenings that are relevant to your place of business.
4. Watch out for the sports bar vacuum.
A challenge for many sports bars is how to retain customers after the match. Immediately when the game has finished, keep the atmosphere buzzing by turning on a classic anthem. That way you make guests stay and add sales.
5. Don’t relinquish control over what’s playing to the staff.
Have clear rules.
6. Mix intensity.
First play something that matches the conversation level, then play something with more energy. Then something calmer again. It’s like breathing in and out. That’s how you maintain curiosity and variation all the time.