ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX: Um, hi PJ.
PJ: Hey Alex. What are we doing here?
ALEX: Uh, this week we have a Super Tech Support,
[Super Tech Support Theme Music]
ALEX: And it's not your average super tech support. I feel like normally with a Super Tech Support, someone comes to us with a problem. We triangulate a solution. Maybe we're not always perfect, but we usually figure out pretty well what's going on. This one is much more confounding because the more I worked on it, like the less certain I became of the answer. And I basically come out on the other side believing two contradictory things, simultaneously, which is absolutely painful for my very linear brain which is incapable of abstraction of any kind.
ALEX: Um, so my hope is, if I tell you the story, you might be able to help me come closer to understanding where the truth lies.
PJ: Okay, I can't promise that I will like insightfully find the truth, but I'm excited to — I’m excited to see if I have an opinion.
ALEX: Think of this less as a super tech support and more as a philosophical journey on the nature of truth.
PJ: Alright. Do you, do you want to wear like a professor jacket with tweed elbow patches?
ALEX: I was actually thinking...
PJ: Do you want a tiny pipe?
ALEX: I was actually thinking in the tradition of the classic philosophers, I would wear a toga and one of those rings of like leaves that they wear around their ears?
PJ: Okay, what's the story?
ALEX: So we heard from a listener named Brian Dean who got in touch with us just after Christmas. He lives in Savannah, Georgia. He, uh, works for Gulfstream, the company that makes the airplanes.
ALEX: Hey Brian, can you hear me?
BRIAN: How you guys doing?
ALEX: Good how are you?
And this story actually starts a few years ago when Brian got a new piano.
BRIAN DEAN: Extremely excited about having this piano and to celebrate that, I had a couple friends who, you know, played the saxophone and the drums and bass and have recording equipment, and I said, "Let's do a Christmas album," just through the joy of having a piano. So we recorded a Christmas album in my living room.
PJ: That's such a wholesome friend activity.
ALEX: I know, right? So that was back in 2016, and he uploaded to Youtube, he burned a couple copies for family and friends, and he basically forgot about it. And then, this past Christmas, Brian is driving back from a family visit to Chicago and on the way back their daughter has to pee.
So they stop in Macon, Georgia, which is about three hours from their house, at a Kroger because um—and I didn't realize this but Brian is like, "The grocery store is the best place to go to the bathroom because no one is ever in the bathroom."
PJ: Love a fucking grocery store bathroom.
ALEX: So they get out of the car, they hustle into the grocery store. And sort of like midway down the aisle, he stops and looks up.
BRIAN: I was in the, like, frozen food department and they were playing Christmas music. This is December 31st.
ALEX: He stands there staring at the speaker that’s above him because it’s playing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. With a piano part that feels very familiar.
BRIAN: The first thought that went through mind mind was, "Oh, I thought I made up that piano lick on 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas', but I must have stolen it or heard it from somewhere because here it is playing," and then as I listened a little more, "Oh my god, I didn't steal this lick, this is me."
ALEX: Brian is convinced that the version that he heard at Kroger is the EXACT one that he made in his living room.
PJ: That's so weird.
ALEX: And what's going through your mind when you hear yourself on the speakers at the Kroger?
BRIAN: I mean, just complete disbelief, just shock. Absolute shock. But by that point, I had made it to the bathroom so there was literally another guy in there, and I couldn't contain myself, you know, and broke bathroom etiquette law number one and was like, "Dude, I gotta say something. This is crazy, but I did this in my living room."
ALEX: That is so funny.
BRIAN: I think he actually said something like, "Well, that's, that’s cool man."
How could this possibly happen that, one, I'd be playing there, and two, I'd literally be there to hear it? It was — it was a bizarre experience.
PJ: So he is hearing his own version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in a Kroger.
PJ: But he didn't publish it or sell it to Kroger Corp. or anything like that?
ALEX: Do you want to hear it?
ALEX: Alright, here we go. The other thing you should know is that this is view number 37, of this song on YouTube and at least five of those views are us.
ALEX: Looking at it in preparation for this.
PJ: It's kind of a jazzy version.
ALEX: Yup, he's a jazzy rascal.
PJ: I was wondering how he would be able to recognize it was his but I feel like it is, actually, distinctive enough that I would recognize it.
PJ: That's so weird. Okay. So it's like the grocery store is either pirating his music off of YouTube or one of his friends stole the music and sold it to the grocery store?
ALEX: I mean, I have no idea but, right after he used the bathroom he rushed over to the customer service desk and was like, "What's going on here?"
BRIAN: And they were friendly but just kind of just came up with a, leaned over and yelled to someone else, "How do we play music?", and they said something like, "I had some muzak," and I kind of—I kind of got the feeling, "These people, I'm not sure I'm gonna be able push this with them."
PJ: What I want it to be is that 99% of the time they just use like some paid for legitimate music licensing thing, but then this one time just like somebody at Kroger just heard this and they loved it so much that they needed to hear it in the store every single day.
ALEX: I used to—do you know the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums?
ALEX: Mannheim Steamrollers is like a Prog Rock Christmas stuff. And it's—that sounds bad.
PJ: Mm-hmm. It does sound bad.
ALEX: And it is so much worse than you can possibly imagine. And I used to work at a convenience store where they played the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, from like November to January. It was the worst.
PJ: Yeah, I worked at a Halloween Adventure where they played like this one cassette tape that I swear to god only had "Monster Mash" and "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes", and that was it.
ALEX: Both good songs.
PJ: The first two thousand times, sure.
ALEX: So he has asked me to answer two questions for him. The first One, obviously,is like how did it get there?
ALEX: And the second is like, if this is being piped into Kroger grocery stores all over the country...
PJ: He should get some money.
ALEX: Like are they due any money and how much?
PJ: They're definitely due some money. You can't just take some people's music and play it.
ALEX: Right. So that was my mission.
So the first and most obvious thing that I wanted to look into was Brian says that the only place on the internet he put this song was on YouTube but he's just one of four members of the band that recorded this so one of those people could have, you know, published it somewhere or given it to someone who worked at the Macon Kroger. So I wanted to like get in touch with all his bandmates.And Uh, I got in touch with this guy John, who played—
ALEX: He played bass on it.
ALEX: Can you think of any reason why it would be there?
JOHN: I can only attribute it to someone's impeccable taste.
ALEX: But you weren’t sending — you weren't like secretly uploading this to Spotify or sending it to industry executives or anything?
JOHN: No, no no. I have a CD tower that I can dub and I think I've made about fifty copies, gave them out to six or eight people and that's it. And I don't know that I gave it to anybody who lives in Macon.
ALEX: And then there was John's son, Zach.
ALEX: Hey Zach?
ALEX: This is Alex Goldman...
ALEX: and he was also like “no, it wasn't me.”
ZACH: I did not pass it on to anyone. In fact, it was a couple years old. A lot has gone on. I'd almost forgotten that we'd done the project to be honest.
ALEX: So there was one last possibility, which is this guy named Miguel who played the drums on the track, but he didn’t even remember ever recording it in the first place. So I’m pretty sure it wasn't him who leaked it to Kroger.
PJ: Right. Okay.
ALEX: So if Brian and his bandmates didn't know how the song ended up in a Kroger, maybe the people that work at that Kroger might have some idea.
So I decided to give them a call.
KROGER: Floral department, may I help you?
ALEX: We called the floral department because our belief was that it wouldn't be so busy and they would have a moment to talk.
PJ: Ohh, I like that logic. Yeah.
ALEX: do you know where the music that is played over the speakers at Kroger's comes from?
PERSON 1: Oh, no. I do not. I mean, I'm assuming they have their own radio station they use. I mean, I really don't know.
ALEX: She transferred me to the customer service desk at her store. And they were like, "I have no idea where the music comes from. It's piped in from somewhere." So, I was like, “well, it’s probably piped in from Kroger corporate.” So I decided to call the national Kroger customer service line, and they were also like, "We have no idea."
CUSTOMER SERVICE REP: Honestly, I'm not sure if they get it off Pandora. I'm not sure they shuffle their music. I'm not really sure about it.
He didn't know the answer. I started sending emails to people at Kroger Corporate, and in the meantime I was just calling Kroger employees all across the country, just trying to get a sense of how music in the store even works.
JESSE: Hello, this is Jesse.
ALEX: Like, would it be possible for some rogue employee to like grab the aux cord and plug in their iPhone?
JESSE: There's really no way to do that. So unless you're using the, like the intercom.
JESSE: Like and you just pick up a phone and just like play something like over the phone.
ALEX: It's kind of like hold music that plays all the time in the store.
JESSE: So there's no for me to adjust like, the stations—I can adjust the volume and that's it.
ALEX: Got it.
ALEX: Also PJ — if you ever want to piss off a Kroger employee, just ask them about the Christmas music.
PERSON: Like you think of the worst Christmas music you've ever heard, that's all that they play.
ALEX: Can you give me some examples?
PERSON: Like "Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".
ALEX: Ohh, yeah. Okay.
PERSON: And every song, it wasn't like the song you know and listen to. It's a bad cover version by someone you've never heard of.
ALEX: One woman said that one time she was in the store and she heard like five different versions of "Jingle Bells", back to back.
ALEX: Can you imagine?
ALEX: It's so painful.
PJ: Yes. There's not even a lot room for a lot of jazzy improvisation in that song either.
PJ: You can't really make it your own.
ALEX: Also, it was a total long shot, but while I had them on the phone, I played them Brian's song to see if they recognized it
[Brian’s song plays]
ALEX: Is this familiar to you at all?
PERSON: Uh, it very well could have played over the holidays, but it does not stand out in my mind.
ALEX: But THEN there was this one woman, worked at a Kroger in Colorado.
ALEX: Does this ring a bell to you at all?
["We Wish You a Merry Christmas" playing]
PERSON: Yup. I have definitely heard that song.
ALEX: Get out of here. You've heard it?
PERSON: Yeah, they'd played it this last year at Kroger.
ALEX: Ahhh, that's amazing. How do you know that it was this one? How do you know that it was this one specifically?
PERSON: Is the person who recorded this gonna hear this? Because I'm about to be mean.
ALEX: I mean, ummm...
PERSON: Okay, those bells are just like uniquely annoying and loud over the speakers.
PERSON: Like they kind of make them go static-y and they, they always sort of hurt my head in the morning when I came in and heard it.
ALEX: But you're sure you've heard that before.
PERSON: I'm very sure.
ALEX: Oh my god, this is huge.
PERSON: Once the first few notes play, I can sing it along in my head.
[Alex sing the songs]
PERSON: Yup.Yup. Yup. Oh we get it. We get it. Yup.
PERSON: There they were, thank you.
ALEX: So remember, she’s in Colorado, and Brian’s Kroger is in Georgia.
PJ: That blows my assumptions out of the water because my assumption was this was a local Kroger going rogue. You know what I mean? That there's no way that a YouTube song would make it onto the official sort of corporate branded, here's your CD of Christmas music playlist.
ALEX: I know!
ALEX: But then I got an email back from Kroger and I was like "Finally, I'm going to get the answerfor this!" And they were like, "Sorry we actually don't make the playlist in our stores, we outsource that to another company. And it's this company called InStore Audio Network.”
PJ: They really went for a descriptive name.
ALEX: I mean....you know?
PJ: Right on the nose.
ALEX: I feel like their slogan could be like, "It does what it says on the tin."
ALEX: Um, they are a company that makes playlists or pipes music in not just to Kroger but they’ve worked with CVS, Wegmans, Walgreens. And also, if it's, you know, like you're in the store and they're like, "This week at Kroger's special on turkey, Boar's Head Turkey only $3.99.", you know those things?
PJ: I feel like you were just auditioning for that job. But yes, I do know those things.
ALEX: Do you think I'd get it?
ALEX: Thank you. Um, they also record those and put them in at random intervals.
ALEX: So understandably, I became very curious about this company, because why would they go to the 50th page of YouTube search results looking for a version of We Wish You A Merry Christmas. Why not use the millions of Christmas songs that I already hear every year?
PJ: That's true. Like whether it's a mistake or conspiracy, it is just weird. The thing that remains so weird is the obscurity of it.
ALEX: So I actually developed kind of a theory around it which is, I emailed the CEO of InStore Audio Network . And he got back to me, but then when I explained what I was writing to him about, like a song that mysteriously ended up on the Kroger playlist, he basically ghosted me. I tried following up with him a couple times, no response. And so I started thinking to myself like maybe the obscurity of the song is the point—
ALEX: Like if I were like a big music company and I was trying to save money on royalties and I wanted to get a song that I didn't have to pay out for, I would go for some super obscure song I found with 30 views on YouTube.
PJ: Right cause you're not going to get caught. Like if you steal a Frank Sinatra Christmas song, they'll find you in 3 seconds.
ALEX: Yes. So I continued to dig and I actually got in touch with someone who worked at the InStore Audio Network years ago.
PJ: Okay, interesting.
ALEX: And they didn't want to have a recorded conversation with me, but they were willing to talk to me on background and based on what they told me the idea of getting stuff off of YouTube actually started to make a little bit of sense. What they said was, building Christmas music playlists is like it's own special nightmare and is incredibly hard. One of the hardest parts of the job.
ALEX: Because it’s just a much smaller pool of music to work with and the employees are constantly complaining about these songs.
PJ: I'm sorry sir, like, I'm sure it's hard, and I wouldn't want to have to do it. Of all the things that there are too many songs about, Christmas—Christmas is pretty covered.
ALEX: I don't know, man. If that's the case then why do I hear um, why do I hear "Simply having a wonderful Christmas time" 600 times, every Christmas season.
PJ: Yeah, actually that's true. That's true. There are too many Christmas songs...
ALEX: It's the same 150 songs, maybe. And if you're working in a store...
PJ: Yeah, it's a weird—there's too many and there's not enough.
ALEX: So I asked the former InStore Audio Network employee like, "Okay, would you guys just download stuff off YouTube?", and they were like, "I could totally imagine them getting music from YouTube."
PJ: Huh, would not think that.
ALEX: Yeah. And they were like, "Listen, again, I worked there almost ten years ago. Their process is different now but at the time I was there, we could—I could totally imagine it."
ALEX: So I'm like, "Oh, okay. Well that's hella suspicious.” So I’m getting more and more skeptical of ISAN. But we have this breakthrough, we find out that for the last five years ISAN has been partnering with a different company called Eversong. And Eversong are the people who are actually responsible for picking music for Kroger.
PJ: Wait. The one thing InStore Audio is supposed to be doing, they're not doing?
ALEX: No, what they're doing is the ads. Like, like, "Fresh romaine lettuce, $1.29, now in the grocery aisle."
PJ: It requires two separate companies to make....
ALEX: They have completely different jobs.
PJ: Yeah, how could a company ever produce audio and the ads that go on audio, at the same time. [laughing]
ALEX: I'm laying out facts. You know, you draw your own conclusion.
PJ: It's just like, it's already surprising to me and like everything in the world is more complicated than an idiot, like me, thinks it is. And I'm sure this stuff is hard, but it's like, it’s like, "Oh probably the grocery store has somebody whose job it is to pick the songs.” Oh no, that's actually a whole other industry and a whole nother company. And actually they don't fully handle it. There's another company that has to do like, the ads part of it. It's just like everything is just like a weird little...thing.
ALEX: Yeah. Everything is a weird little. I agree with you.
PJ: And I'm sure it's like complicated and hard in ways that I can't picture, but I have no idea what those are besides Christmas songs.
ALEX: Just like thing you need to know is that ISAN used to do this stuff, but now they outsource it to Eversong. So I reached out to Eversong and they were like, "We're happy to talk. It's just that we're really busy right now because we're getting a bunch of change orders." And I was like, "What the fuck is a change order?" And —
PJ: Oh, I have a theory what a change order is.
ALEX: Go ahead.
PJ: Oh. Is it like, there's all these songs on these playlists that are suddenly inappropriate because of coronavirus?
ALEX: That is exactly right.
ALEX: And they were apparently trying to deal with those songs for like a couple weeks and then finally, the co-founder reaches out, and he’s like “Ok, I can talk.”
ALEX: Where are you right now?
BRIAN: In South Carolina.
ALEX: Oh, okay.
BRIAN: Yeah, I actually there’s a family member that I had to go and check on.
ALEX: Oh my goodness. Is your family member okay?
BRIAN: Yeah, yeah. Everything's okay but we just, you know, at this time, you don't take any chances.
ALEX: I know.
BRIAN: So we just decided to go.
ALEX: It's such a weird scary time.
ALEX: This is Brian Cullinin from Eversong. I'm sorry, but there are two Brians in this story now. And part of the reason they have been so much work — and maybe you wouldn't guess this when you talk to Kroger employees… but the amount of thought that Eversong put into the songs they play is bonkers.
BRIAN CULLININ: Generally the music that we play in grocery stores isn't very somber to begin with.
BRIAN CULLININ: You know? Scientifically, you know, if you want to geek out for a moment...
ALEX: I do, always. That's what I'm here for.
BRIAN CULLININ: [laughing] We measure the beats per minute of what we thought a shopping cart pace was. And we usually try to keep inside those parameters, and that's with the songs that we use.
ALEX: Oh my god.
BRIAN CULLININ: So in other words, you're not getting a song that's too fast or too slow.
ALEX: So the beat of the songs that you're playing is the beat, is the tempo at which people's foot falls go so they're kind of in step with the music?
BRIAN CULLININ: That's right. [laughs] Because you don't want to get kind of out of cadence with the rhythm of shopping, if you will. So generally within that, within that range you're dealing with songs that are mostly kind of uplifting to begin with. However, there's some stuff lyrically or just even by allusion that you might, you know, that we’re cognizant of and, you know, the way we look at it is, "Hey, those songs can wait.”
PJ: Wait, what are the songs that are like, it's cool to get diseases?
ALEX: Yeah, it's cool to get diseases.
PJ: Come on everybody, let's cough on your friends. Like, what are the...
ALEX: He wasn't specific about it.
ALEX: But like, I dunno "Doctor, doctor, give me the news," you know?
PJ: Yeah, okay. I wouldn't want to hear that.
ALEX: Uh, "Hot Blooded". "Hot blooded, check it and see. I've got a fever of 103". Um, "Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu".
PJ: Is that a real song?
ALEX: You don't know that song?
ALEX: Hold on.
PJ: I don't need to hear it.
ALEX: No, you do.
PJ: Okay, yeah. This would hit differently right now.
ALEX: So you remember that we spoke to a former employee of the InStore Audio Network on background that told me like, the company was so desperate for Christmas music that the idea—
ALEX: That they would go to YouTube and grab Brian’s song was like not insane to them? Brian from Eversong DID actually confirm the first part of that theory, which is they are slammed every holiday season, but also he told me that the season just keeps getting longer.
BRIAN CULLINAN: I remember a study that we read that was testing a number of Christmas songs and kind of testing the appetite, public appetite for the very songs that we're talking about, the most familiar Christmas songs. And what came back was people, you know, 60-70% in that range of the people in the survey were saying, "You can't start early enough."
BRIAN CULLININ: And, you know, it was a little bit of a surprise for us, but it's—so people will say one thing, I think, and say, "It's kind of a trope, you know. Ehh Christmas music, I hate hearing it," but deep down inside they like hearing a little Christmas music in, in October, apparently.
ALEX: So if people like to hear the songs around October, like how early do you have to start thinking about Christmas season programming? Like what time, when...
BRIAN CULLININ: Ohhhh.
ALEX: Are you doing it in July?
BRIAN CULLININ: That's a whole process. It's like we mobilize for war in, around August, yeah.
ALEX: So i was starting to feel like I was on the right track… and I asked Eversong Brian, "Hey. Can I play you musician Brian’s ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’?" And when I did, Eversong Brian was like, “Oh yeah I recognize that.”
[Brian's song plays]
PJ: He recognizes it?
BRIAN CULLININ: I believe that was part of our Christmas mix that we put together. I want to say that that song was probably used within the last two years or so.
ALEX: He said that he was pretty confident that he had heard this before because uh, they listen to their holiday playlist in the office over the holidays.
PJ: They eat their own dog food.
ALEX: Yeah, basically.
PJ: That's like how Matt Lieber was like, wanted and won this argument but was like, "We should have in the bathrooms at Gimlet, we should have not premium, but free Spotify because we should have the experience of listening to ads because the listeners listen to ads," which was like the most—I don't think I've ever disagreed philosophically with Matt harder than that decision. And everytime I go to the bathroom it makes me mad, but I think it's the same mentality.
ALEX: Don't want to go too into it. Got into a big fight with Matt Lieber about that...
PJ: You did?
ALEX: Oh yeah.
ALEX: Yeah. I was like...
PJ: I thought I was a crazy person talking about it.
ALEX: Oh no, I got into a big fight with him where I was basically like, "I don't understand why you're doing this. You're making this a less pleasant place to work. Why are you doing this?"
PJ: That's how I felt.
ALEX: And he was like—and his response was like, "You yelling at me is making this a less pleasant place to work." And I was like...
PJ: He's probably right.
ALEX: And I was like, "First of all, this is on Slack. So I'm not yelling at you. I'm just talking to you very strongly."
PJ: You have a very—you have like—when you're yelling over text, it's very obvious.
ALEX: I have a yelling Slack voice.
ALEX: Uhh, but, but I thought that I could move him in any direction but he is so certain that this is a great thing he's doing.
PJ: Oh my god. The worst is Spotify now runs ads for Reply All, sometimes.
ALEX: Oh yeah, so I get to be pooping and hear my own voice. It rules.
PJ: It's like a nightmare from hell.
ALEX: [laughs] It sucks so bad. Umm.
PJ: Anyways, they play Christmas music in their office.
ALEX: Yeah including Brian Dean's song! So I asked Brian from Eversong how they got their hands on it.
ALEX: How would Eversong end up with programming a song like that?
BRIAN CULLININ: I think if I had to take a guess I would say, I would ask your listener if they uploaded the song to maybe the CD Baby? We have deals with a number of those smaller companies.
ALEX: I don't think that he did. He told me that the only place that he really put it up is YouTube. Is that a thing where...
BRIAN CULLININ: Hmm.
ALEX: Eversong or InStore Audio Network will look for songs on YouTube?
BRIAN CULLININ: If that were the—you know, I don't believe that we've ever just gone to YouTube. Um, no. So I would say that—hmmm. Did they have any CDs made of this?
ALEX: I think they burned their own CDs. Like they actually just had a—like one of those CD burning towers on their computers and just burned it that way.
BRIAN CULLININ: Yeah, that's interesting. I mean I'd have to go look, but I can tell you just by the way that we work it would have to come through an aggregator. 100% of our music comes from those aggregators. So...
ALEX: Brian was basically like, "These aggregators that we work with have just massive, massive music libraries. And so it would be stupidly labor-intensive for them to go hunting for new Christmas songs on YouTube, that weren't even in the format that they need them to be to play in the stores.
BRIAN CULLININ: You know, we, it's easier for us to be provided with a file that's in what they call a codec compression technology that's ready to go.
BRIAN CULLININ: It's a little bit of a mystery then.
ALEX: He was out of town when I had this first conversation with him but he said, "Look, I’m going to go back to our office. I'm gonna check in our database and then I will be able to tell you exactly how we got this song."
PJ: Oh cool.
ALEX: So the first interview was on a Friday. I call him back on a Monday. I'm super stoked. I'm like, “we're gonna figure out where this came from.”
After the break...Brian is tested.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show.
Ok so Monday morning I get back on the phone with Brian Cullinin, from Eversong. And he says, "Hey so, I went into our database. I looked at our Christmas playlist. We have 11 versions of "We Wish you a Merry Christmas" in our database and Brian Dean's is not among them.
ALEX: Yeah it was really weird. Friday he was like I recognize the song and Monday he was like I don’t know… I guess I made a mistake. Because It’s not there and I'm trying to think of possible reasons as to why that would happen. He said, one possibility is maybe it IS in my database but it’s just not coming up in my searches.
BRIAN CULLININ: You know, is there the possibility of something happened within our system—something rogue happened and somebody uploaded a song and they got the artist, the song title, and some of the other things wrong in the metadata entry? Sure it’s just that there's a whole cascading series of errors that would have to happen to kind of put a phantom song in there and get all the data wrong. And then just to have ripped off of YouTube in the first place, which is something that we don't do. The chances of that happening, it's kind of like a comet hitting a comet over your house right?
BRIAN CULLININ: So it's not impossible but it's, you know. Or, or getting attacked by a shark and a grizzly bear the same day. Like it's—you know. It's not impossible and I can't sit here and say that it's impossible but I mean it really—I racked my brain to think how it would be possible.
PJ: Huh. So what's the other possibility?
ALEX: Well he also said like, it's possible that it actually never was in our system but that someone at a grocery store like hacked into their, their system and was playing it off a CD.
ALEX: But he just said that was about as likely as a bear attack.
PJ: Yeah. If you're gonna hack into your corporate—I like his ability to rate probabilities according to horrific things that can happen.
PJ: If you're gonna like hack into like—when you have....
PJ: Every time I’ve had a retail job where it was like canned music, and somebody like figured out how to get their own music on, it wasn’t to play like more seasonal hits. It was to play music that humans liked.
ALEX: Listen, I am so tired of this Dean Martin standard.
PJ: What I really want is “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” from the YouTube players.
ALEX: So Eversong Brian had one last theory for what might had happened, which at the time I found very convincing. Which is that he said like -- ok imagine yourself in Brian Dean's shoes right at that moment he walked into that Kroger.
BRIAN CULLININ: you're in a grocery store, busy time of year, there's a lot of people. There's a lot of noise. You know? You're hearing bits and pieces, maybe, especially over the store speakers, which sometimes aren't the best and you know especially in a challenging environment. If you ask me to put money on it, I would say, you know, it was probably the case of the song being misheard in the store. MUSIC It's difficult for me to say that though. You know, I make music myself, and it's difficult to say because if you'd ask me that question I would be one part embarrassed and one part maybe a little bit annoyed that you would ask the question in the first place.
PJ: So he's saying, it's like your client's mistake.
ALEX: Right. What he's saying is like, if you're in a circumstance where it's loud, where your kid's distracting you, like it's possible to mishear your song.
ALEX: And like sure, it's possible that Eversong Brian is lying to me and like, I can't see their database, I have no idea whether he's telling the truth, but like, what's more likely: is it more likely that Eversong went on YouTube, found a version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" with like 25 views, ripped it in violation of copyright law, put it on their playlist to play in Krogers all over the country and then Brian Dean just happened to walk into one as it was playing? Or is it more likely that he just misheard the song? Like people mishear songs all the time. Also! Eversong Brian told us that there is a version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in their system, that does sound a like Brian Dean’s and he thinks that that is the likely culprit.
PJ: I don't know dude, I still just have a hard time imagining that the musician would not recognize a song they recorded.
ALEX: I mean if it was an instrumental cover, it would make some sense to me. BUT...there was one thing that was nagging at me which is like do you remember how I talked to all of Brian's bandmates? Well one of them, this guy Zach. I asked him directly like, "Do you think that Brian maybe could have just misheard his song?" And Zach was like, "Honestly, Brian has one of the best ears of anybody that I’ve ever met.”
ZACH: His ear is uncanny. I can't imagine that he would be wrong. Brian like, is the person who sends me clips of Rey's theme from Star Wars, next to the Emperor's theme to show how they're, how they’re similar and predicted the end of the latest Star Wars movie, at least a little bit, based only on the musical themes from the first Star Wars.
ALEX: He listened to the soundtrack and based on the recurring musical motifs, came up with spoilers for the movie?
ALEX: What a lunatic!
ZACH: I know.
ALEX: That's insane.
ALEX: So I just wanted to test Brian’s ear, like was he actually as good as Zach claimed he was. Now, what you need to know is that Brian, beyond just Star Wars, he’s like into film scores in general.
ALEX: So first, I called up musician Brian and told him what Eversong Brian had told me. That they couldn't find his song in the database. And at first he was like, really questioning himself.
BRIAN: Do you think I’m crazy? I'm starting to think I'm crazy and maybe all, I mean, a piano version with some drums and a bass of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" maybe sounds similar.
ALEX: We aren't sure if you're crazy and we want to find out.
BRIAN: Okay. [laughs]
ALEX: So, we have come up with a game that tests how good you are at recognizing music.
BRIAN: Oh jeez. Okay.
ALEX: And uh, it will help us understand why you think that it was your song that you heard in the store.
BRIAN: Okay, okay.
ALEX: Since I know that you are a John Williams fan and since Zach specifically mentioned your ability to pick out Star Wars music, I am going to play some Star Wars or not Star Wars music for you.
ALEX: You tell me if it is from Star Wars or not. Here we go. This is track number 1. Star Wars or not Star Wars?
[music selection plays]
BRIAN: I didn't think that was Star Wars. It sounded more classical than...
ALEX: You are right. That was from Gustave Holst, that was “The Planets”. That’s the Mars..
ALEX: Alright here we go. Number two, Star Wars or not Star Wars?
Brian: I’m nervous
[music selection plays]
BRIAN: That's Hook.
ALEX: I’m sorry?
BRIAN: That’s Hook right?
ALEX: Yes! Oh my God. Wow.
[music selection plays]
BRIAN: That's definitely Williams. I was getting a little Harry Potter there.
ALEX: That is "Platform 9 3/4" from the Harry Potter soundtrack. Excellent work. Alright.
BRIAN: Yeah, okay. Yeah.
ALEX: Excellent work. Alright, track number four.
[music selection plays]
BRIAN: Yeah that’s definitely Star Wars. All that Williams starts to sound alike. So that’s original trilogy I’d say yeah.
ALEX: So I would call that the breakdown after the beginning of the Imperial March.
BRIAN: Yeah, that’s what that is. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ALEX: Here we go. Number five.
[music selection plays]
BRIAN: I mean, I'm getting more of an Indiana Jones there...
ALEX: Oh my god!
BRIAN: But I don't recognize the—is that Indy? Okay.
ALEX: It's from Raiders.
ALEX: At a certain point it just started to feel like...should we even bother finishing the test? He's just way too good at this.
BRIAN: Okay, now that’s a fooler. But I’m going to go no on Star Wars for that
Yea that’s correct!
He got number 7, number 8, number 9.
BRIAN: I’m going no.
ALEX: You are Correct!
ALEX: and number ten. Here we go.
[music selection plays]
BRIAN: That’s Star Wars, definitely.
ALEX: Alright. Well, Okay so that—you’re ten for ten.
ALEX: Yeah, he is incredibly good at identifying music from Star Wars. So, we were like, okay, that’s great. But we wanted to be able to create a test that would be like a simulation of that moment where he was in the Kroger, he looks up, and he hears the song.
ALEX: What I'd like to do is I'd just like to sort of put your mind back at the grocery store.
[grocery store sounds]
ALEX: Got the background noise of a grocery store going. There's tinny speakers. You walk in. Your daughter has to run to the bathroom and suddenly you hear this song.
[supermarket test # 1 plays]
ALEX: Is that your song?
ALEX: Okay. What about this one?
[supermarket test # 2 plays]
ALEX: So PJ — this next one is is the version that Brian from Eversong thought that he might have mistaken as his own.
ALEX: Is uh, this your song?
[supermarket test # 3 plays]
ALEX: Okay. Is this your song?
[plays his actual song]
ALEX: [laugh] Are you sure this isn't it?
[supermarket test # 3 plays]
BRIAN: Yeah, no.
ALEX: So...Brian Dean aced this test
ALEX: And by the end of it, he was like...you know what, I’m convinced. I did hear my song in the grocery store. And honestly I’m pretty convinced that he heard it too.
PJ: I see why this is hard.
ALEX: Basically, what we're left with is, two things that I believe are true but both can't—it's impossible for both things to be true.
PJ: Which is that you both believe that—you believe that musician Brian walked into a Kroger supermarket and heard a song he almost privately recorded for himself playing over the speakers. And you also believe that corporate Brian, who is the person who is responsible for literally every song that plays over the supermarket speakers at Krogers, that he did not steal musician Brian's song, that he did not use musician Brian's song.
PJ: I mean it's still just possible that corporate Brian is lying to you. Like even if, not to say like "oh like he's a secret music thief," he could've just made a mistake and he could just not want to admit that on a podcast.
ALEX: I guess but if he ever got caught he would look so much worse than just saying "oh it was an oversight, it ended up on our playlist, here's some money." Like it just doesn't make any sense to me.
PJ: Right. How do you feel about—you're not someone who is like famous for your love of ambiguity or uncertainty.
ALEX: Oh, I'm totally fine with it.
ALEX: No, I'm not. I'm furious. I'm so mad. Listen, I can't stand this.
PJ: Do you umm—have you heard of negative capability?
ALEX: No, but it sounds like a dunk. Are you trying to dunk on me?
PJ: I'm not trying to—I'm trying to help you. I'm just here to help you.
ALEX: Are you trying to tell me that I have negative capability in solving this problem?
ALEX: Have you ever heard of negative capability? Well you embody it. Is that what's happening right now?
PJ: Negative capability, if I'm remembering this right, is like a thing—you know John Keats? The poet?
PJ: He called it negative capability and he was like he had this theory that the, the, the inferior poets and the inferior writers, they were like too — they wanted like—the were too in love with certainty and they own perspective and like seeing things one way and that to be a really great artist, you need the ability to simultaneously believe things that were contradictory without feeling the need to reconcile them. That, that was like what made Shakespeare so good and that's what made all the greats as great as they were. He thought that was like basically the responsibility of a poet was to possess negative capability.
ALEX: Okay, so now you're dunking on me by saying that I'll never be a great poet.
ALEX: For what it’s worth, even though I’m frustrated with this outcome, both of the Brians have found a way to fix it. Eversong Brian actually offered to add Brian Dean’s song to their Christmas playlist for next year. And Brian Dean said that he's flattered and he's going to think about it. And he said, if Kroger needs someone to record 10 more Christmas songs for their playlist, he's available.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. Our show was produced this week by by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, Emmanuel Dzotsi, and Lisa Wang. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Additional music production by Mari Romano.
Special thanks to Peter Breiner, Tiara Guy, Michael Huppe, Danny Turner, Dana McElvey, Kristelia Garcia, Jason Woodbury, Aaron Dalton and Tyler Wilcox.
Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Matt Lieber is still very nice even though he won’t turn the ads off in the bathroom. You can listen to our show on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you soon.