The sounds of Boardwalk summer: What music plays all day and who decides?

Speakers outside the Boardwalk
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Yes, the tunes at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk are automated — but carefully thought out. The rules are clear: nothing with suggestive, violent or potentially offensive lyrics, nothing outside the mood and tempo of “Fun, Fun, Fun.” And the music maestro is Kevin Grewohl, the DJ — uh, audio systems supervisor — of it all.

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On a typical day in midsummer, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a feast for the senses, a nearly full-on immersive experience, no matter if it’s your first visit or your 387th. So, it’s understandable if the music playing over the loudspeakers isn’t exactly the first thing you notice when you arrive.

But don’t make the mistake to think that the music at the Boardwalk is an afterthought. It’s there to create a mood, a sense of joyful anticipation. It’s designed to carry you from attraction to attraction. And if you think the Boardwalk would use the same kind of piped-in, greatest-hits background music that you’ll hear at the local Safeway, well, you’d be mistaken.

What kind of music gets played at the Boardwalk? And who decides?

Some people might throw together a little bit of Beach Boys, little bit of Stones, little bit of Motown, let Pandora do the rest. Some people will stay up three consecutive nights, curating the perfect playlist as if they were DJing their own wake.

The person who actually has that job — the Boardwalk’s audio systems supervisor, Kevin Grewohl — takes a different approach.

With the help of a San Francisco music service for businesses called Rock Bot, Grewohl is the guy who oversees what plays when at the Boardwalk. But he doesn’t pick the music in “the park,” as employees tend to call the Boardwalk; he designs the entire sound experience.

Kevin Grewohl at work under the Boardwalk.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The first thing you notice when you go into the maze of offices and storerooms “under” the Boardwalk (cue the Drifters) is how cool and quiet it is. It’s here where Grewohl programs not only what you hear at the Boardwalk, but how.

Standing next to a snarling mannequin straight out of Freddy Krueger’s family tree as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Grewohl explained that there is no single kind of music at the Boardwalk, that, in fact, most rides and attractions have their own dedicated soundtrack. Putting it all together so it doesn’t sound like warring boomboxes is part of his job.

“So if you’re walking down the Boardwalk,” Grewohl said in the Entertainment Technology Office below the Boardwalk, “there are deliberately these sort of ‘dead’ zones where there’s no music playing. So as you transition from, say, the front of the Carousel, which is playing carousel music, to Octopus’ Garden, which is playing Boardwalk music, then to the Haunted Castle, which is playing its own music, we want you to enter those themed areas.”

Speakers under the Sky Gliders ride at the Boardwalk
Music at the Boardwalk can vary from area to area, ride to ride.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s Grewohl’s job to get those transitions just right and to set the music at just the right volume so that it’s enjoyable, but still allows you to have a conversation — an art that perhaps your teenage son has yet to master.

The music at the Boardwalk is also sensitive to the number of people visiting at any one time. “We try and match the crowd. We’re using this system called ‘ambient compensation,’” said Grewohl, “which is special types of microphones spread throughout the park. And as people are gathering in one area, the music comes up underneath it. If there’s a bunch of people around, and there’s a bunch of energy, we’re not trying to be on top of that. So we want to fall to the background a little bit. We still want you to hear the music. But now we’re not trying to create that energy. Now we’re trying to participate in it.”

Kevin Grewohl walks through a tunnel under the Boardw.
Kevin Grewohl walks through a tunnel under the Boardwalk.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

So, OK, Logger’s Revenge plays old-timey bluegrass music on a loop, while the Double Shot tower has the kind of ear-blasting, high-adrenaline music you want when you’re risking your life. But what about the music when you’re just amiably strolling down the midway trying to figure out how to take that first bite of a Slinky-shaped Tater Twist?

That’s Grewohl’s job, too, and there’s an element of design at play there as well. The norm is, of course, agreeably upbeat, profanity-free music of the pop/rock variety — not much avant-garde speed metal. But the music you’ll hear at lunchtime is fundamentally different from what you’ll hear at sunset. And the difference is a kind of demographic shift.

Grewohl himself said he is about to turn 40 and then proceeded to show his hand when it comes to his musical demographic profile — “I heard Mighty Mighty Bosstones this morning and that made me happy.”

The day starts with a lot of classic rock, stuff you might recognize from the 1960s and ’70s. But by midafternoon, a subtle shift takes place toward songs that are near and dear to those who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s.

Possibly taking me for someone who stopped listening to new music sometime around 1987, he said, “If you’re here from, say, 3 o’clock to about 8 o’clock, you’re probably going to hear a lot of indie pop music you haven’t heard before. If it has the energy that speaks to that (younger) community and gets people excited, that’s what we’re looking for.”

There are self-imposed rules on what plays well on the Boardwalk — nothing with suggestive, violent or potentially offensive lyrics, nothing outside the mood and tempo of “Fun, Fun, Fun.” In the pre-pandemic days, when the Boardwalk hosted free Friday night concerts on the beach, songs from that particular artist were taken out of the rotation on the day they were to perform. “No band wants to be opened by their own studio hits,” said Grewohl. And sometimes, the rules are thrown out the window. “If you’re here for a grad night,” said Grewohl, “a whole different playlist gets activated.”

Grewohl has too many other duties to act as DJ all day for the music at the Boardwalk (he’s among the crew that sets up the live music concerts and the live movies on the beach, as well as looking after the various animatronic creatures in the park). The music as it plays song by song is automated, but Grewohl has the ability to add to or subtract songs from the mix.

“We have a playlist that I just stick random songs into that I want to hear,” he said. “It’d be like, ‘Y’know, I haven’t heard the Police in a while. Let’s listen to the Police.’ But it’s even more than that, I heard a song from an artist who — I think Old Navy used them in a commercial — but it was a great song. So I looked them up, and she doesn’t have a lot of music at the moment. But I liked that one song and told the service about it. They acquired it on their end, and now it’s on our Boardwalk playlist and it plays every so often.”

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