Worst French Import Since Brie: Bad Ambient Music in Chic Hotels

When the Bryant Park Hotel, its paint barely dry, opened on Feb. 10 at 40 West 40th Street, it did what every boutique hotel from London to Los Angeles is doing to raise its profile and give the guests that it likes to think of as sophisticated the feeling that they are, in fact, devastatingly chic. It seems that dark wood furniture, slim-suited bellboys, Kiehl’s shampoo and a celebrity-clogged bar just don’t do it anymore. So they hired a D.J.

But this wasn’t just any D.J. Stéphane Pompougnac, the 33-year-old resident record-spinner of the trendy Hôtel Costes in Paris–the man behind the grossly successful Hôtel Costes compilations, which have sold some 400,000 records worldwide–is the D.J. to end all boutique-hotel D.J.’s. With his particular brand of ambient electronica–a mellow, foreign-sounding mix of house, jazz and world music that’s more suited to posing than dancing–he has kept the hotel a favorite of fashion insiders for an almost-unheard-of five years.

“It’s the coolest music for chilling out, and it’s very European,” Studio 54 promoter Carmen D’Alessio cooed to the Times Styles section the following weekend. “Stéphane knows how to build a sexy, sophisticated mood that New Yorkers have to get used to.” And voilà! The hotel was now officially sexy and sophisticated.

If Ms. D’Alessio is right about the music (think of a more laid-back Moby peppered with varied cultural references), she also has a point about New Yorkers needing to get used to it. After hitting Paris, London, Los Angeles and even San Francisco, the hotel-D.J. phenomenon has finally been dragged here, with its particular brand of “house lounge” (itself a French reworking of the early-90’s lounge trend that had New Yorkers drinking martinis to baddies-but-goodies by Esquivel, Sergio Mendes and other Space Age bachelors).

“The Hôtel Costes did a CD which was No. 3 in France,” explained Ian Schrager, the man who put the “boutique” in “boutique hotel” and who brought us Morgans, the Royalton and the Hudson. “So it made everybody interested in doing it.”

To wit, the Cellar Bar, the Bryant Park Hotel’s plush downstairs lounge, has invited Mr. Pompougnac to fly over and spin for six or seven two- to three-night gigs a year, with other D.J.’s supplying the vibe every Thursday. (A Cellar Bar compilation is in the works.) At the Hudson hotel on West 58th Street, D.J.’s spin Tuesdays and Thursdays at the bar, with music reverberating throughout the hotel, from the escalators and bathrooms to the garden. (A Hudson compilation is also in the works.) And at the Soho Grand and Tribeca Grand, which recently hired D.J.’s to mix three to four nights a week, CD-listening hours are scheduled almost every evening from 6 to 7 p.m. to lure the discerning customer with a selection of mostly down-tempo, Euro-style offerings. (And a compilation should be coming out soon.)

Jet-Set Fantasy

Since when did people go to a hotel to listen to music? The money-making allure of drink-generating D.J.’s and their ensuing CD’s is one factor. The other is boutique hotels’ growing need to set themselves apart, now that it’s hard to tell the difference between the sleek little places you slept in in Tokyo and Milan (perhaps because many of them employed French architects, decorators and furniture designers). “If you think of a hotel as having a specific sound, people will think of you as specific,” explained Tommy Saleh, director of industry relations at the Soho Grand and Tribeca Grand.

The sound, in this case, fluctuates between being specific and barely there. Described as “American disco rehashed” by Rene Arsenault, a New York D.J. who, with his partner Michaelangelo Lacqua, spins at the Cellar Bar, and who put together the music for Tom Ford’s first Yves Saint Laurent show, it’s high-fashion Muzak, a canvas upon which to project our most sophisticated fantasies. “It’s not about music, it’s about lifestyle,” Mr. Arsenault added. “It’s not music you want to sit down and dissect; it’s like a soundtrack.”

If the music is a soundtrack, it’s set to a movie that involves lots of breathless to-and-fro-ing across the Atlantic, with much unwrapping of wrap dresses and cartloads of Louis Vuitton luggage–references to an age when travel still felt exclusive. “[The music is] very Pan Am, very Diane von Furstenberg,” explained Mr. Arsenault. “It’s a cosmopolitan, upscale-y lifestyle thing, very select–but not in a highbrow way.”

Much like Mr. Ford’s spring 2001 collection for Yves Saint Laurent, which was an empty tribute to a style that was fresh and successful in the 1970’s when worn by women like Bianca Jagger (and which needed music to give it allure on the runway), New York’s boutique hotels aim to transport us to a time and place we’ve never visited and probably wouldn’t have been let into. “It’s a platform to a lifestyle we’re trying to put out,” summed up Mr. Schrager of his hotels. “It has to do with clothes you wear, the food you eat and the music you listen to.”

On a recent Thursday night at the Cellar Bar, 40 or so customers had come in search of a lifestyle. They sat on little leather poufs and low chairs, semi-obscured in candlelight as they slowly bobbed their heads to the latest Shakedown tune gently blipping in the background. They rarely raised their voices above the hum as pulsating red and purple lights lit up a screen on the back wall. “That type of music is underground, but with a mass appeal,” said Jason Swamy, a lanky, androgynous 26-year-old who got up every once in a while to take slow, hesitant dance steps. “You could play it to a grandma and she wouldn’t complain.”

At the Soho Grand the next night, the music was a mix of French-inspired electronica and New York-style hip-hop, the crowd an equal mix of the D.J.’s baggy-panted posse and the hotel’s pudgy out-of-town guests. “[Our sound] is ambient. It fills the room, but it has the vibrant colors of trip-hop,” said Mr. Saleh, who has music meetings with the hotel’s general manager twice a week. “It’s a sound you want to sit down and have a cocktail to: not boring, but not intrusive.”

Music for Checking In

The concept of site-specific music was developed in the late 70’s by Brian Eno with records like Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) to add barely perceptible texture to an environment. But in an ironic twist, the idea is now a clever marketing trick that was seized upon by corporations to give us music to drink lattes by or try on flat-front khakis to. Like the latest version of soundtracked experience–hotel music–these CD’s are mixed by D.J.’s and sold at the cash register so we can bring the lifestyle home.

“We’re the cut-and-paste culture: We take it in, it evaporates,” said Soho Grand DJ Paul Parreira. “Things fluctuate. Eno is more relevant now than he was in the 70’s.” Mr. Parreira, a Portuguese-born musician who composes for downtown dance companies, cited such film influences from the cut-and-paste culture as The Matrix and Moulin Rouge . He said he used to be into house and techno but has moved toward down-tempo fare. “It’s not like I’m playing to move a crowd. I’m a pit stop for the evening. It’s so transient, people don’t feel that they need to stay here all night.” That is, of course, unless they really are staying there for the night.

Around him, on the oversized chairs and couches, the scene was more boisterous than at the previous night’s pit stop. The Friday-night crowd jammed into the bar at the far end of the lounge was spilling into the lobby, drowning out the sounds coming from the platters. “You can look around and see Celine Dion in their clothes and attitudes,” said Mr. Parreira of the hotel guests. “But who cares? We’re introducing them to great music. It’s almost better than introducing trainspotters to it.”

With HMV’s filling entire sections with French House or Ibiza 2000 compilations, it seems plausible that Celine Dion fans could eventually stock up on ambient, New York Hotels 2001 titles. American ears have already been introduced to French electronica, albeit of a more melodious kind, with the recent success of bands like Daft Punk and Air, or D.J.’s like Cassius, Mirwais and Etienne de Crécy, thereby making this latest strain easier to market.

But some hotels, like the Hudson, remain reluctant to introduce their clients to the French style, despite having seized upon the D.J. trend. “We don’t play lounge music,” said Ben Pundole, who manages the business and creative sides of Mr. Schrager’s bars, and who used to manage the exclusive Met Bar in London, another boutique hotel that put out its own CD. “People in New York expect something different, more like party music. The music they play in Europe is a lot more intelligent and innovative, but in New York people like the good old party tunes.” So they’ve added D.J.’s like classic-rock-loving Samantha Ronson and Matteo Di Fontaine, who tours with Fun Lovin’ Criminals.

Yet Mr. Arsenault, whose business savvy was sharpened during six years at Columbia Records, seems to believe there’s a market. “There’s so much about French culture that is ripe and hasn’t been used,” he said. “No one in Kansas will buy it–it’s not ‘N Sync–but it could keep a base in four or five major [American] markets.”

For now, it seems to have kept a base in three or four major New York hotels. The last boutique hotel that will submit to the trend is André Balazs’ Mercer hotel in Soho, which has a compilation planned for in-room enjoyment only. “I view [music] as tantamount to putting a scented candle in the bedroom–part of the environmental experience, like fabric and color,” he said. Mr. Balazs explained that while there’s “no music whatsoever” in the hotel’s lobby, his more musically oriented Standard hotel in L.A. released a CD called Room Service , with Straight Up and Dirty to follow. “If Room Service is ‘go to your room,’ the other one is about who you’d like to take up to your room …. ” Making mood music might be acceptable, just don’t talk to him about packaging a “lifestyle.” “I would never use that word–that’s monolithic,” snapped Mr. Balazs. “The two CD’s, they are what they are–nothing more comprehensive than just that. Please, I think that’s pretentious.” Worst French Import Since Brie: Bad Ambient Music in Chic Hotels