Barring the illicit tryst, hotels are not inherently exciting structures. Homogeneity breeds familiarity and most people just want a safe place to sleep at night without fear of bedbugs piercing your skin and other people’s bodily fluids saying hello via the bed sheets. And while the term “elevator music” may be more ubiquitous, “hotel music,” that bland catch-all for generic chillout beats heard in countless lobbies around the world, isn’t far behind. Enter Tom Middleton, whose work with Aphex Twin and Matthew Herbert alongside mixes such as the classic Global Communication have made him a dance music stalwart for more than two decades. Having already earned the titles of classically trained musician, composer, performer, producer, DJ, remixer and curator, Middleton can now add Sound Architect and Hotel Proselytizer to his resumé after signing up to compose and compile the music for the recently opened Yotel hotel in New York.
“Most people ask me, ‘Why are you putting in so much work and going into such detail for a hotel?’, says Middleton from a conference room in the hotel’s lounge. “Just put on the Café del Dull soundtrack [wryly mocking the Café del Mar compilation frequently used by hotels]. No! Someone has to take a stand against this really dull soundtrack to hotels and do something fun and thoughtful. I want to bring art back into it and add value.”
Approached by Yotel CEO Gerald Greene earlier this year, the timing was serendipitous, as Middleton had just written a one-page document to his manager lamenting the musical homogeneity in hotels. “The go-to solution was this middle-of-the-road world/chillout safe, dull music that does nothing to increase the guest’s emotional experience,” says the producer.
Armed with 20 years of DJ experience and a massive spreadsheet detailing hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal trends among hotel guests, the 39-year-old DJ set about observing both hotels and guests to determine when certain emotional ranges and moods occur. Nothing was overlooked, with the DJ-cum-sociologist poring over and calculating data including average time spent on a hotel elevator and average time spent in the bathroom.
I want it to be on such a subliminal level that the transitions are so smooth in terms of movement through space and time of day that you don’t even notice, but it gives you a memory of a good time.
His pedigree was unimpeachable. He helped Aphex Twin secure his first record deal, helped define ambient techno, and hosted a radio show on Kiss FM. And now, given carte blanche to program whatever he wants, Middleton compiled 24-30 hours worth of music to start, utilizing sound design, sound effects and various bespoke recordings. “I want it to be on such a subliminal level that the transitions are so smooth in terms of movement through space and time of day that you don’t even notice, but it gives you a memory of a good time,” says Middleton. “The music isn’t intrusive; it just complemented the vibe.”
A quick tour around the hotel reveals Middleton’s quirky, esoteric style. 1960s and ‘70s commercial jingles and the Pointer Sisters’ “Pinball Number Song” from Sesame Street are heard in the elevator. The crisp sound of a soda can opening is heard in the lounge. Pastoral noises of cows and sheep await you upon waking up. Even the toilets, based on Middleton’s experiences in Japan, utilize music to cover up other, less pleasant, sounds. Everything carefully calibrated to be, as Middleton calls it, “the soundtrack to the human experience.”
“I’m the evangelist in this scene,” Middleton proclaims. Spend some time listening to him talk about the “personality and character of the hotel” and the countless hours feeling out the “perspective of the brand” and it’s easy to believe that this was hardly a one-night project. For Middleton, the rhythms in music are not unlike those of a hotel. “There’s a natural rhythm to getting out of a car, checking in, getting in the elevator, getting some drinks and going up to your room,” he says. “It’s about observing the culture and reflecting back the appropriate soundtrack programming.”
Like Middleton’s past work, Yotel’s goal in bringing on the accomplished musician was to add warmth and soul to a futuristic design. Translation: Yes, a robot is the first thing that greets you when you step off Tenth Avenue into the hotel, but the female voice is intentionally comforting and sweet. In addition to sound programming, Middleton is planning his Sound of the Cosmos monthly residency at the property, with the hopes of introducing live disco and house singers to augment his soulful sets.
“My life has been a multi-disciplinary chameleonic experience and for this, I’m drawing on all these separate skill sets. It’s about having a deeply thoughtful process and strategy behind what I’m trying to do to achieve my end goal, which is satisfaction guaranteed,” says Middleton, sounding equal parts musician and salesman. “To get to that point, you can’t be selfish. It’s about adaptation and growing with the brand and the clientele that comes in. It’s all about being organic and finding that emotional integrity. If I can do that here, my work is done.”