Do you remember when background music on buses was a thing?

In the last 40 years, bus operators across the UK have tried to find creative ways of making local bus routes pay. Route branding with dedicated liveries is one answer, positioning everyday bus routes as product lines in their own right. Another answer is advertising. Initially done by local contractors, most of today’s on-bus advertising space is managed by Global. Yes, the owners of countless commercial radio stations like LBC, as well as outdoor poster sites.

If you went to see a film in the 1970s or 1980s, there’s half a chance your cinema adverts were handled by Rank Screen Advertising or Pearl and Dean. There’s every chance you might have taken a 409 bus to the ABC or the ODEON. (Which up until 1975 covered ODEONs in Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham, and ABCs in Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham).

After being with Pearl and Dean, Bob Green headed a company called Sounds In Motion. Based in London, Sounds In Motion’s aim was audio advertising – music and advertisements on buses. To all intents, it is similar to a closed-circuit radio station or the piped music systems you got in supermarkets.

By 1978, Manchester was one of ten cities across the UK where you could hear music on the buses. Other cities that took part in Sounds In Motion’s scheme included Sheffield and Edinburgh.

How it worked

On the top deck, each double decker bus had eight speakers, four on each side close to the usual printed adverts and Conditions of Carriage notice. Passengers boarding the ‘9 bus had a choice of music upstairs or no music downstairs.

All the music was recorded on a sixty-minute long cassette. This was interspersed with local advertisements. Using Greater Manchester for example, The Diary of Horace Wimp could have been followed by an advert for the Fed Up café in Rochdale bus station. Sounds In Motion offered a range of musical genres: popular music, easy listening, and light classical music. In a nutshell, anything that BBC Radio 2 would have offered at the time.

According to Billboard Magazine (13 September 1980 edition), both the record companies and operators would have benefited. It was noted that record companies could get 63,000 plays per week on 300 buses in ten major UK cities. All for the princely sum of $450 (or £200). Each record, played twice an hour, would have cost the record label $1.50 (68p) a week. Furthermore, it claimed that the scheme had a potential audience reach of two million, which was roughly the same figures that Piccadilly Radio got in 1980.

In a customer feedback survey the company conducted, 94% of participants were in favour of the scheme. The other 6% wanted to see the back of it forever.

Here’s how an hypothetical programme would have worked:

  1. Together We Are Beautiful, Fern Kinney (1980);
  2. More Than I Can Say, Leo Sayer (1980);
  3. Video Killed The Radio Star, Buggles (1979);
  4. Ad Break #1: Peppermint Park, Piccadilly Gardens; Kendals, Deansgate; Chester’s Bitter;
  5. Lucky Stars, Dean Friedman (1978);
  6. When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman, Dr. Hook (1979);
  7. Stay With Me Till Dawn, Judie Tzuke (1979);
  8. Ad Break #2: NORWEB; ACDO washing powder; Vimto cordial;
  9. Together We Are Beautiful, Fern Kinney (1980);
  10. More Than I Can Say, Leo Sayer (1980);
  11. Video Killed The Radio Star, Buggles (1979);
  12. Ad Break #3: Brahms and Listz night club; Charterplan coaches; Cusson’s Imperial Leather soap;
  13. Lucky Stars, Dean Friedman (1978);
  14. When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman, Dr. Hook (1979);
  15. Stay With Me Till Dawn, Judie Tzuke (1979).

What happened next?

The 1980 – 81 recession put paid to the fortunes of Sounds In Motion. UK record sales had fallen from their 1979 peak which meant record companies chose to trim their marketing budgets. In 1981, after a spell of silence, on-board music returned to our buses. Sounds In Motion was purchased by Audio Bus Advertising.

In 1983, it was noted in the Financial Times that Lothian Regional Transport had the sounds-in-motion service, in their write-up on the Edinburgh Festival. By 1985, as seen on a specially branded former Aberdeen Corporation bus, Sounds In Motion was dubbed as “music to bus by”.

As to when Sounds In Motion/Audio Bus Advertising ceased in Greater Manchester, I think it could well have been in 1984/85. Maybe earlier, because the average Greater Mancunian bus user was fed up with hearing Dean Friedman’s Lucky Stars on the 343.

What if Sounds In Motion was still in operation in 2020?

In reality, the chances of that happening are zero. Today’s bus users are likely to listen to their tunes on smartphones with earphones. One passenger could be listening to Ed Sheeran whereas another one two seats away could be listening to The World At One on BBC Radio 4.

Supposing Sounds In Motion was still in operation in 2020, there’s every chance the likes of Global or Bauer would own the company. Instead of physical media, they would pipe the upstairs speakers with Heart or Greatest Hits Radio in crisp digital sound. Though with the same ten tracks running far more frequently than the 535 to Belmont. And the same adverts for maritime themed plastic money. In the light of recent events, there would be several Coronavirus-themed public service announcements.

Before I go…

Do you have any memories of the Sounds In Motion system on the buses? Could you remember listening to any other songs besides When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman or Lucky Stars? Could you remember any of the advertisements?

Feel free to comment. Before I finish, it would be rude not to leave you with this gem from 1978. For old times sake…

S.V., 11 November 2020.

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