PROVIDENCE — “Can’t you just imagine this song playing late at night when almost no one’s in the airport and all the baggage is coming off the carousel?” David Dalzell asked. He clicked play on a YouTube video of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists singing “Carolina Low,” a slow folksy ballad set to an acoustic guitar.
After a minute, he hit pause and scrolled down further, through a list of bookmarked YouTube links. He pulled up a video of Alison Krauss and Vince Gill collaborating on a song called “Tryin’ to Get Over You.” “Now this, this is so beautiful, just listen to that melody,” Dalzell says. “But this could never, ever play in an airport.”
Dalzell has spent more time than most people considering what should play in airports — specifically, what should play in Logan Airport. Indeed, this room in his yellow house in North Providence is where the music in Logan’s terminals originates. Surrounded by sound equipment, two Macintosh monitors, a PC, and books with titles like “The Electronic Arts of Sound and Light,” Dalzell personally selects the songs that travelers in Logan hear.
“I consider this to be the largest art installation in New England,” Dalzell said. Given the sheer number of people who hear his music choices, he may be onto something: In 2015, nearly 33.5 million passengers came through Logan; more than 17,000 employees work at the airport in some capacity.
Dalzell, 63, is a sound designer. He wears horn-rimmed glasses, has a large black Russian terrier named Felix, and is quick to laugh.He is deeply inspired by Brian Eno’s experimental “Music for Airports” (he recently put on headphones and listened to it in the Orlando Airport) though he says the Logan music “isn’t really like that.” Last Wednesday, he listened to Venice Classic Radio in his living room as he drank his coffee.
“My background is in dealing with how human beings are affected by sound,” Dalzell said. That has included designing sound systems for performing arts centers, sound-engineering for live bands, performing as a guitarist, and more recently, playlist curation.
One might expect airport music to be the cousin of dentist’s office music: loops of Muzak or an inoffensive Pandora station playing on repeat. But at Logan it’s the product of hours and hours of Dalzell’s Internet-scouring and difficult calculations about the impact each song might have on travelers. He says he listens to each song “stem to stern.”
A sample playlist he sent included a reimagined version of Miles Davis’s “Maiysha,” featuring Robert Glasper and Erykah Badu, atmospheric “Maybe You,” by Say Lou Lou, and the jazzy — and appropriate — “Airport” by Dzihan & Kamien.
“People are fragile in airports,” Dalzell said. “Not to be too abstract about it, but what you have there are thousands of people saying goodbye and thousands of people saying hello. Where else does that happen? There’s no shortage of playlists in the world, but none are really appropriate for airports, from a lyrical standpoint.”
Dalzell said he works hard to avoid songs whose lyrics deal with “the sadness of goodbye or the impossibility of hello” because he doesn’t want the music to amplify those feelings. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” will not come on over the loudspeakers at Logan. Despite its popularity, neither will Adele’s “Hello” — though he recently added a reggae cover of it by Jamaican artist Conkarah and his sister Rosie Delmah because of what he called its “righteous backbeat.”
Dalzell is a self-described technology geek, who says that he has equipment in his house to listen to audio no matter what format. He uses YouTube (“the sleeping giant of music”), the Smithsonian archives, Spotify, college radio stations, and industry sources to find new music. He also belongs to a jazz listeners’ club that meets monthly.
Despite his interest in technology, he’s in the camp that doesn’t think an algorithm can replace a human touch when it comes to music or airports. “Think about it in terms of airports, actually,” he said. “For air traffic control, would you rather have a machine or a human being? I’d pick a human being every time.”
A number of companies share his views about music. Dalzell said he handles playlist services for six major clients, though Logan is the biggest project. He spends about two hours a day listening to music, sorting it into different playlists and judging whether it might be right for Logan or another client. About once a month, he’ll go onto the server to add his new finds and delete old ones. At any given time, there are about 600 songs (or more than 50 hours of music) on the server, scheduled to play in a specific order at a specific time of day. Generally, the whole airport is listening to the same songs.
Though Dalzell is linked to Logan through a server, he doesn’t have much personal contact with airport representatives. In fact, he has never spoken directly to any representative from the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan.
‘It’s very difficult, because you can’t please all the people all the time.’
Although Brad Martin, deputy director of aviation customer service, describes himself as “one of the main people responsible for decision-making on what we call Logan Radio,” he and Dalzell have never spoken.
Dalzell got to Logan indirectly. The firm responsible for advertising at the airport, JCDecaux, took over responsibility for music there in April 2014. JCDecaux then subcontracted with a Shrewsbury-based company called Central Communications Inc., which handles the public address and mass notification systems at Logan, to integrate a music service. The president of that company is Vincent Maiuri, a longtime friend and colleague of Dalzell’s. About six months ago, Maiuri asked Dalzell to take over playlist curation.
Dalzell has gotten some direction from Massport, through JCDecaux. Martin and other Massport representatives met with employees at JCDecaux and came up with a list of genres that they wanted to hear. Stacey Kodak of JCDecaux said they gave him four genres to choose from: “modern day crooners,” “mellow adult alternative,” “dinner party,” and “adult pop soft.”
Those might sound like Spotify Radio stations, but they’re just general guidelines for Dalzell, who credits both JCDecaux and Maiuri with giving him artistic freedom. Kodak said JCDecaux works with him to incorporate customer feedback, but don’t give him much supervision at this point because “it’s up and running and going well.”
Dalzell has grappled with some challenges, however.
“When I started, I didn’t exactly knock it out of the park,” Dalzell said. “I went with a lot of ’50s and ’60s jazz, which I think is wonderful music, but it wasn’t universally welcomed.” So, after representatives from JCDecaux told him about the feedback from passengers he toned down the jazz. Not entirely: Travelers can still hear snatches of vibraphonist Milt Jackson in the terminals.
They can also hear more popular current songs, by artists like Twenty One Pilots, Hozier, and The Fray (selections overheard near the United security line in Terminal B one recent afternoon).
“It’s very difficult, because you can’t please all the people all the time,” he said. “The gravity of that choice pulls one into pop music. You know, it’s called ‘pop’ because it’s popular, and people like it.”
This question of how to please everyone is something that many large public spaces — and small private spaces — deal with on a daily basis. This desire to please the largest crowd — or not to offend — drove the popularity of “elevator music.” On some level, this challenge continues to drive companies like Spotify to create better and better algorithms. And it drives Dalzell to continually add and delete, listen and select.
“Not everyone’s listening all the time, but many people are incredibly attuned to their environment, to the heat and light and sound,” Dalzell said. “So I’m working with the sound part of that equation.”Sophie Haigney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-929-2560. Follow her on Twitter at @SophieHaigney