Scott McNiece is trying to keep the art of conversation alive, one meal at a time.
Working out of an art gallery in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, McNiece runs Uncanned Music. The goal of his “ambiance music and sound design company” is to enhance the experiences had by diners and drinkers at restaurants.
McNiece and his business partner, David Allen, specialize in assessing the acoustics of a restaurant or bar while building playlists and designing auditory components to go along with the space. The music pairs with the cocktails and cuisine, adding to the experience clients have while dining. The whole thing, McNiece says, is a complement to the art of eating out, and once you experience it, it’s tough to let go.
“It’s an intangible feeling but it’s palpable,” McNiece says of the playlists and sound design he and Allen build for their clients. “People go into a space and they don’t understand why they love it. It’s like, ‘you’re hearing great fucking songs, man.’ The songs are really good. They’re tasteful, they fit the scene. It enhances the flavor of every bite of food you take. It creates a level of comfort. It creates a new experience in your mind.”
A veteran of the service industry, McNiece first asked if he could be put in charge of the music while working as a food runner for Chicago restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff’s Hogsalt Hospitality group. The feedback from customers was so strong that Sodikoff made McNiece a full-time salaried employee, in charge of curating the music at Au Cheval, Gilt Bar, Maude’s Liquor Bar, and Doughnut Vault.
Eventually, McNiece wanted to branch out, starting Uncanned in 2012. Now he and Allen manage around two dozen clients. It started off as a playlist curation company, but they quickly learned that there was more to the auditory experience of a restaurant than simply picking the right music.
“I knew I wanted to get into [music design] because some of my first playlist clients—I worked really hard on the playlists and the style and everything—and I’d be so happy with the work and then we’d put it in the restaurant and there’d be these little puny speakers and you couldn’t hear,” McNiece said. “I’d be like, ‘Man, this person paid me a lot of money to make this thing that’s really good, but it’s not good because you can’t hear it.’”
McNiece is quick to point out he’s not like the background music company Muzak, which will simply create playlists for customers. He collaborates with interior designers to get the most he can acoustically out of a space, and creates a playlist and sound system with care for his clientele. Allen, who lives in Portland, works on the engineering side of the business, implementing proper sound systems that work best with a particular space.
“Don’t just call us because you want something different than Pandora,” McNiece said. “What we’re trying to deliver is a total sound experience.”
Much of McNiece’s job entails working as an audio consultant of sorts for bars and restaurants in Chicago. His signature, however, involves setting up old-school reel-to-reel decks for restaurants to play their tunes. Playing music off a magnetic tape takes a little extra work for employees, but customers notice.
Take for example Minneapolis chef and restaurateur Ann Kim. When she walked in to Chicago’s Au Cheval a couple of years ago, it wasn’t the world-famous burgers that caught her attention. She was enthralled by the tape deck that rocked the walls and floor as soon as she stepped foot in the intimate diner.
After doing some investigating of her own, Kim found McNiece, the architect behind the music she heard and felt at Au Cheval. She cold-called him to see if he would be interested in building a music program for her then-upcoming Northeast Minneapolis restaurant, Young Joni. McNiece and Kim quickly meshed during their first conversation on the phone.
“I explained to them [Kim and her business partner Conrad Leifur] my philosophy about total sound product,” says McNiece, “and they believed and decided to invest.”
A few weeks after their phone conversation with Kim, McNiece and Allen were in Minneapolis working with their restaurant designer to implement separate acoustic design and treatment systems for the main dining room and speakeasy back bar at Young Joni.
The back bar features Uncanned Music’s signature reel-to-reel deck, but also a nod to Minnesota’s music history. One of the reel tapes is painted purple, and plays tracks strictly either by Prince, inspired by Prince, or songs that inspired Prince. Kim says she grew up with Prince, and the reaction customers have when they hear and see the deck is worth the care she and McNiece put into developing the concept.
“People will walk into the back bar and you can tell when they first hear it,” Kim says. “Their heads start bopping, it’s a moment they realize they haven’t heard something before, but they like it. Music is about creating that connection, connecting to a true artist. People will ask if the reel player is real, and we’ll stop it and rewind to show them […] people can’t believe it. They love it, that’s why they come back.”
McNiece concedes it’s difficult for a restaurateur to sink a sizable portion of their budget into something that may seem more of a luxury such as music design, but when his vision aligns with that of a client, worlds collide.
“This is the way to really make people walk into your space, and the music will give them a big hug. I think that’s really important. For me, that’s everything,” he said.
The results have been so good at Young Joni that McNiece and Kim are collaborating again to rework the sound system and music program at Pizzeria Lola, her first restaurant.
“[Young Joni] was our first test, and now it’s time to refresh and renew at Pizzeria Lola. Our guests have been loyal and they deserve something better,” Kim said.
Young Joni is a major success not just by the standards of the Twin Cities dining scene, but nationally as well. GQ named it one of the best new restaurants of 2017 and Kim recently received a James Beard semi-finalist nomination for Best Chef Midwest.
When confronted with these achievements, Kim is quick to namedrop Uncanned Music when mentioning the triumphs of the restaurant.
“For us it’s all about collaborating with people that we genuinely like,” she said. “You have to like the people you collaborate with, you have to be aligned in vision and philosophy. Without that, you’re going to butt heads. You have to complement and trust each other, riff off of each-other’s ideas […] Anyone can create their own iPod playlists, but [McNiece] curates a musical experience with artistry and a professional eye.
“For us, this whole musical acoustic treatment; it’s not cheap but we believe in it. We believe it was completely worth the investment and part of the success we’re enjoying today.”
Following his work with Young Joni, McNiece says he has received about half a dozen solicitations from other Twin Cities restaurants to utilize his services. He said he has no future plans of installing reel-to-reels for anyone else in Minnesota besides Kim, however.
After all, Uncanned Music is just a two-person operation, and it’s about the music and the experience, not the money, man.