I can never just ignore these background sounds that are meant to calm elevator passengers, amp up teen mall shoppers, or increase worker productivity. Memories of the light rock station that blared in my childhood dentist’s office and the loud Muzak that tormented me when I was a college student at my temp job stick with me decades after the initial sounds were heard.
Airplane music could easily suffer this same fate, but with the emergence of Virgin America as the hip airline for the “creative class,” more adventurous sound curation has come to the forefront.
I always scan the playlists of airplane radio stations when I fly, but was never truly excited about the music choices until I flew on Virgin America. They have a pretty sophisticated in-flight entertainment system called RED, which allows passengers to listen to both MP3s (they have a library of more than 3,500 choices across every genre imaginable) and radio (as well as watch TV, view movies, play games, order food, chat with passengers, etc.).
They offer 20 different “radio” stations, each providing about 2 hours of music across a more diverse range of genres than I’ve ever seen in the air. Most notable to me is their underground station (“Deep”), which plays music that you might expect to hear on an adventurous college radio show. Some of the artists on this station this month include Robert Rich & Ian Boddy, Zeitkratzer, Daedelus, and Dot Tape Dot.
They also have multiple stations focused on Asian pop (“J-Pop” and “M-Pop”), a reggae channel (“Rebel,” which they added based on listener response), and a more standard indie/alternative channel (“Edge”). Some of the artists on “Edge” this month include Chromeo, MGMT, Arctic Monkeys, Yo La Tengo and MC5.
One of their most popular stations, “Sounds of San Francisco,” offers up a range of artists local to the Burlingame-based airline, including hard rock from Metallica, folk beauty by Jolie Holland, poppy punk from Scissors for Lefty and driving gal rock from Von Iva.
Music programming is handled by both Virgin America staff members and their in-flight entertainment partner Spafax.
When I’ve flown Virgin I have often heard music that is new to me, so it’s frustrating that the playlists for their radio stations aren’t available. When I spoke with Patricia Condon, Virgin’s Public Relations and Events Manager about this, she told me that passengers often ask for details about the music played. When asked, Virgin will pass along information about the music and Patricia added that, “We are looking for ways to identify the artist and songs in our radio channels – and exploring doing it via our web-site.” She also told me that in terms of the MP3s available in-flight, they are “exploring the ability to save your playlist so it can be accessed for your next flight with us.”
This techy angle to Virgin America is also reinforced by the fact that they have power outlets at every seat and also offer Wi-Fi (I’ve even been on a few flights with free Wi-Fi).
Patricia also told me that the music on Virgin America is part of their broader mission to “create a cool and unique environment onboard.” She explained that, “when you step onto a Virgin America flight, you’ll first notice our mood-lit cabins and our boarding music – which currently includes music by Carmen Rizzo and Solimano.”
Kudos to Virgin America for taking a more adventurous approach to their in-flight music selections, allowing travelers to choose from creatively programmed radio stations or from thousands of MP3s. I’ve had a blast crafting my own lists in-flight selecting MP3s from the likes of !!!, Nina Simone, Kraftwerk, Sun Ra and Arvo Part; but was equally delighted to just listen in to artists unknown to me on their underground radio station DEEP.
By the way, Virgin America has a starring role in the new reality show “Fly Girls,” which premiered on the CW network last night. Virgin America flight crew members are the stars of the show (whose soundtrack, by the way, is more like the pop-infused “Hills” than anything you’d hear on indie or college radio).
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