Shon Bayer does not take relaxation lightly. The owner and Spa Partisan of Austin’s milk + honey day spa and salon places everything—from the largest wooden architectural beam to the smallest accent stone—with a curator’s intention. Each detail is paramount in creating the sensory experience and rejuvenating atmosphere of milk + honey. Yet, of all the important choices Bayer makes to curate this atmosphere, the most important is not one that can be seen or physically felt—it’s one that’s heard. Music is essential to milk + honey, but it walks a tightrope, hovering just above the conscious awareness of the establishment’s clientele. Why spend so much time choosing something just to relegate it to the background? Because some of the best music, according to Bayer, is the kind that goes unnoticed.
Orchid: How does the audible environment impact a salon-goer’s experience at M+H?
Shon: Music is very important to the experience of our spa and salon clients. In essence, we have four zones of music that correspond to four different experiences that we create for our clients: front of the house, salon, locker rooms and lounges, and treatment rooms. The front of the house we sell retail products and check clients in and out. The music here is upbeat, warm, and welcoming—not loud or overbearing. This is the first impression that clients get when they enter the spa, as well as where they check out when they are done. The next experience is salon. Here the music is also upbeat, but more contemporary and energetic than in the front of the house. Our salon experience tends to be much higher energy than our spa, and the music is designed to set the tone for that high-energy experience.
Then there are the locker rooms and lounges. This is where the music sets the tone for relaxation. It should also convey to our clients that it’s time to put down the cell phone and only use quiet voices when communicating with friends.
In the treatment rooms, we have chosen music that is relaxing and sometimes trance-inducing. We try to choose music that blends into the background so that the client can focus on their experience, as well as music that masks ambient sounds such as steps in the hallway or other building noises.
Orchid: Spa music tends to get pigeonholed as being cliché and New Age woo-woo. How do you distinguish your soundtrack?
Shon: The first thing to think about is why spa music comes across as cliché. Is it because spas just use the same music over and over without care? Or does certain New Age “spa” music actually sound good while you’re getting a massage? It’s probably a bit of both. There’s definitely some New Age music that’s popular with the crystal crowd that is amazing when getting a massage. A lot of New Age musicians put a ton of thought into the experience that their music creates—some of it has even been scientifically proven to cause your brain waves to move to a deeper state of relaxation. So, at milk + honey, we embrace that. On the other hand, Tibetan flute music isn’t for everyone. The important thing for us is that we try to provide our clients with a choice of what they want to listen to. Do they want to listen to music with a beat? We can do that. Do they prefer something that is full of nature sounds? We can do that. By providing our clients with a choice, we can avoid the cliché if it bothers them.
Orchid: Are there any sounds you intentionally avoid in creating the M+H experience?
Shon: There are some nature sounds that are great, but we don’t really go overboard on trying to bring nature sounds into the treatment experience.
Orchid: Is there anything you intentionally avoid?
Shon: When you are undergoing a spa treatment, you’re often trying to get an hour or so of relaxation that you may never get when you are outside of a treatment room. So, we take relaxation very seriously. We pay very close attention when hiring and mentoring our therapists on the flow of their services and how they interact with clients. We try very hard to avoid distractions during a service—for instance, a massage therapist who is very loud when checking in with a client or a chatty esthetician. When you’re in a zone of relaxation, even music can be quite jarring. There are these amazing, trance inducing, ambient soundscapes that are 45 minutes long, but unfortunately, at about 35 minutes into the song, it might have the sound of a plane landing. The first 35 minutes are great, but hearing a plane land really upsets the moment. It can also be distracting when a song goes from very quiet to very loud in a short period of time. So, at milk + honey, we’re really careful that we listen to every moment of a song before using it.
Orchid: What about the use of lyrical songs in the landscape at M+H? How do you navigate that and is it ever okay to use lyrics?
Shon: Lyrics are generally a no-no during a massage or facial. It’s almost impossible not to hone in on the lyrics if they’re in a language that you understand. Obviously, in our salon environment, we love music with lyrics. In our treatment rooms we generally keep one playlist available that has lyrics, usually for clients who are receiving a waxing service rather than a massage or facial. That said, we play a lot of music in languages other than English. Brazilian Bossa Nova is great—as long as you don’t speak Portuguese. Sigur Ros is also great and very, very few people speak Icelandic.
Orchid: If you could use an image to describe the M+H sound, specifically in relation to its effect on the body, what would it be?
Shon: A warm embrace from someone who cares.
Orchid:There has been plenty of research that music has a significant impact on the brain and nervous system. Can you talk about what you’ve learned first-hand in the therapeutic arts that supports this theory?
Shon: Since I’m not a therapist I don’t have as much first-hand experience as many of our employees. But I read a ton of customer comments about the music portion of their experience. For many of them, having appropriate music is just as important as having a great therapist.
Orchid: Research has also shown that music can shape your experiences—leaving lasting impressions and the ability to instantly conjure a memory. Can you share with us your most memorable moment where music impacted you emotionally?
Shon: In the trailer for the movie “Where the Wild Things Are,” there is a moment where they play the song “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. The images of a favorite children’s book juxtaposed with one of my favorite songs brought tears to my eyes.
Orchid: Finally, what do you listen to when you want to relax?
Shon: Miles Davis.
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