It’s a common scene throughout L.A., day or night: You jump into your Uber, which just arrived, and take off toward your destination. But when you hop into the vehicle, what music, if any, is playing?
Has your driver opted to mute the speakers, leaving room for an actual conversation (or awkward silence)? Did the driver play talk radio or elevator music the entire ride? Have you ever been scared or annoyed by the tunes being played by your Uber driver? Have you ever been impressed with the playlist, or discovered a new band, song or musical genre you'd never explored before? Or instead, have you ever requested that the driver plug in your phone and play your music? And who gets to decide the soundtrack for your Uber ride, anyway?
I have been an Uber driver part-time for almost a year, bringing with me a love for heavy metal and punk rock music, especially when driving. So this is a subject I've thought about a lot.
Early on, I was afraid to play anything too heavy, fast or extreme for riders. Instead, I kept it on talk radio and 91.5 FM KUSC, which is all classical music. But as time progressed, I began playing my own choices of music, which I only switch or turn off when riders complain — which has occurred a handful of times over the past 10 months.
Riders in my car get to hear random hits from all types of punk, classic rock and heavy-metal bands, with some surprises thrown in (Mos Def, Immortal Technique, David Bowie, Christian Death, Depeche Mode, Oingo Boingo, The Doors, Sublime among others). Most songs come from bands like Black Sabbath, The Misfits, X, Fear Factory, Slayer, TSOL, System of a Down and The Ramones. I try not to play any death, grind or black metal that is too scathing or abrasive. If riders are annoyed or offended in any way, they are more prone to give you a lower rating. It’s happened to me twice.
Last June in Hermosa Beach, with three very intoxicated college-age passengers, I was en route to Westwood around 1 a.m. on a Friday night. I was blasting several popular songs by Tool, Ozzy, Danzig, Type O Negative, Ministry and Slipknot. The volume was at a medium level, but just after we took off I heard a male voice in the backseat complain under his breath he "didn’t want to hear death-metal bullshit like Slipknot.” Another rider, a woman, asked me to change it to the radio. I obliged because she was polite. She asked me to leave it on KIIS-FM.
Some riders seem to not mind my music, or are too drunk or oblivious and talk among themselves, text or take selfies. Other times, the experiences can be positive. Some passengers have complimented me on the bands and songs they hear. “Wow, the Dead Kennedys!” or “We’ve never heard a driver play Motorhead/Sepultura/Anthrax before!” are some of the responses I have gotten.
One time, several drunk bros and their girlfriends in Hermosa Beach on St. Patrick's Day all got really into the songs, and began singing along to "Smoke Two Joints" and "Date Rape" by Sublime. Another man, going home to Marina del Rey and waiting in a Taco Bell drive-thru line in Manhattan Beach at midnight, asked, “Is this Danzig?” when the song "The Last Goodbye" by Agent Orange was playing. When I told him what it was, he simply replied, “Rad!”
I was curious whether any of my fellow Uber drivers have had similar experiences playing music to random strangers who also happen to be their paying customers. So I asked them.
Hollywood resident and music aficionado Manuel V., who drives Uber for extra income, says that he plays whatever people want to hear. “I always start to drive out of Hollywood near where my store is, “ he says. “Once a passenger gets in my car, whoever it is, if they request music, I play whatever they want to hear. They are paying for it. Most times people ask for Power 106, KIIS-FM or Star 98.7.”
Manuel owns his own music label, Records Ad Nauseam, which he and his girlfriend, Rio Warner, run out of their Hollywood punk/glam/goth/death-rock retail shop, Glitter Death. He says being an Uber driver is an easy, fun way to make cash and listen to music while doing it. “I will play anything really, from black metal to Art Laboe or pop music, Yoko Ono, really any bands I like or am into at the moment.”
Sometimes he plays CDs of bands on Records Ad Nauseam during his Uber drive time, and uses it as a tool to promote these underground artists. “It’s interesting to be able to get word-of-mouth for the bands by playing them for passengers,” he says. "Some people have definitely been drawn in and are interested. They say they will check them out."
Once near El Segundo, however, a rider became annoyed. “I was driving around this businesswoman, who was eating a salad and listening to a book on tape," he recalls. "I had it on KXLU, which was playing this intense, raw black-metal band. So I turned the volume up louder, then after just a couple of minutes, the woman said, ‘Can you please turn this off?’ I never found out who the band was.”
San Fernando Valley resident Spyke Thompson, who books punk bands all over Southern California, has been driving Uber for the past two months. “So far I’ve driven around 150 trips,” he says. “I don’t go too far usually, but did have to drive to Lancaster once — but I didn’t mind, I was getting paid."
When it comes to music, Thompson said he usually just keeps it on FM radio because of the ratings system. “I don’t listen to radio personally, but lots of people ask me to put it on 106.7, 98.7 for alternative rock, or 105.9 for hip-hop or whatever, and I do,” he says. “But sometimes, if they seem cool, I will try to expose them to punk bands, with Pandora stations like JFA, Reagan Youth, D.I., Aggression and Angry Samoans, and so far no one has complained.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
So the next time you take an Uber ride, and the driver is playing something you don't like — let's say Kenny G, Milli Vanilli, Creed or Limp Bizkit, because you have good taste, right? — there are certain protocols that, even though you are a paying customer, you should be following. First and foremost, be polite. Odds are that if you keep your cool and remain calm, your request will be honored. Yes, even if it's KIIS-FM.
If all else fails and your driver won't turn off "Nookie," just remember you can always give him a low rating in the end.