You’re out vibing at a bar a few minutes before they’re ready to close up shop. You have had a good time and it’s just about time to go, but the energy of the evening and space has left you oblivious. You need a clue that snaps you back into reality. Enter the closing song, a valuable tool that informs people to close their tab, get off their stool, and amble out into the night. This isn’t merely done by selecting and spinning a specific song; there’s nuance involved, and it builds off varying factors, from the bar’s ambiance to the bartender’s own disposition and sense of humor.
To highlight these nuances, we asked bartenders about their strategies for picking an ideal closing song, and what they actually play when it’s time for their patrons to make like Elvis and leave the building.
Here are the last-call songs 11 bartenders play at closing time:
“After our service has ended, the volume goes way down as a subtle point of saying, “The party’s over, y’all!” But that doesn’t always grab people’s attention, so lately, I’ve been on a kick of playing the goofiest songs I can think of. About 10 minutes past closing, if there are folks that aren’t taking the hint, I start blasting “Learning Songs for Kids” about learning to tell time or “Songs About Butt Cheeks” by Matt Farley — he has some great songs about food and toilets and all of the cities in America. By that point we’re not getting paid to be so subtle, but I never like to tell people to leave, so I let the music do it for me.” —Dylan Lopez, bar manager, Pony Up, Denver
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“At my previous job, my owners made a creative 36-hour-and-counting playlist. For the final 30 minutes of last call, though, we would switch it over to old-school emo music. This created a happy note and invited guests to come rock and party with us next time. Personally, I liked playing something in the screamo genre to give it that hard-hitting “goodbye and thanks for hanging with us” vibe. You know, one last rock out.” —Allegra Dunbar, former bartender, Killer Whale Sex Club, Phoenix
“I like to follow the vibe of the bar to choose the closing song. We have a structured playlist we use during service. To lightly give hints, we usually switch to something softer if a busy-sounding section of the playlist is going on, or switch to something much more upbeat if we’re on a slower part of the playlist. For the people that have been camping out at their table an hour past last call, then we’re going for annoyance songs. My personal favorite is “Chicken Train” by The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. It’s a real twangy number, and it’s become such a tradition that we all grab whatever resembles spoons to ‘play’ along with it.” —Sam Albertson, Partner, Be Better Hospitality/Penny Drip, Fort Wayne, Ind.
“Choosing a closing song is pretty important. I think balancing the ‘they need a hint’ and ‘it’s time to leave’ is fun to navigate. Everyone that works at the bar has their go-to songs depending on the vibe. For me, the song that comes to mind is “Bye Bye Bye” by *NSYNC. It says, ‘Yes – keep the party going!’ But after this song it’s, well, bye, bye, bye. The song is lighthearted and fun to sing along to, and for some of our customers, it’s the last song they’ll hear before they leave us and go to the club.” —Ashley Nichols, Bartender, Old Hickory Whiskey Bar, Pensacola, Fla.
“I usually approach closing songs based on what will get people out without telling people to get out, and butt rock or dad rock does it. Basically, anything you would hear in an Applebee’s. (Sorry, Applebee’s.) The second people start hearing Creed and Nickelback, people get the hint. Personally, though, my favorite closing songs change depending on how the day went. The two songs I come back to a lot is “Walkin’ After Midnight” by Patsy Cline or “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You” by Louis Prima.” —Edwyn Diaz, Bartender, Parlor, Kansas City, Mo.
“One of the key things I look for when choosing the right closing song is track length. Nobody wants last call to end — except maybe the bartenders — so having a solid six- to eight-minute run time gives the people a real sense of closure. Another important factor is that the song is recognizable the moment you play it. You want something that resonates with folks, a song people associate with strong memories of nostalgia and know exactly what it is from the first note. Lastly, you need a track that builds, a song that starts off slow and gradually crescendos is a must to really bring it home. This is of the utmost importance when selecting a song to properly close a party. It’s why my all-time favorite last-call song is and forever will be “Purple Rain.” Everyone loves Prince. At 8 minutes and 40 seconds long, it seems to go on forever but you definitely don’t want it to end. And in true Prince fashion, the guitar solo crushes.” —Aleks Petrashek, GM, Barrel Proof NOLA, New Orleans
“I’m a big fan of having a playlist for service that reflects the flow of the bar and how many people are in the room. As the night winds down, I try to step down the music accordingly, pushing towards songs with slower beats and more atmospheric or technical choices. I also use the end of the night to bridge the gap between ‘music that fits the bar’ and ‘music I want to listen to while closing.’ This past summer, I adopted LCD Soundsystem’s “American Dream” as my ideal closing album. It’s unique and approachable enough that everyone can still listen to it, but steps down the vibe a considerable amount. In a cheeky way, it’s a recognizable enough album that every time someone asks what it is, I get to say, ‘This is my closing album,’ and they take the hint.” —Karynn Brown, Sommelier, Somm Time, Lower East Side, New York
“Throughout the entire journey aboard our ship, guests are guided by enticing and tropical sounds that bring the entire experience together. Towards the end of the voyage as the voices fade, the music remains. When the lights come on after closing, my music choices vary depending on the rest of the evening activities. At times I feel the smooth vibes of ‘90s R&B pulling at my heartstrings, providing a way for me to come down from the rush of the experience. But most of the time, I’m looking for something more motivating for that last push of cleaning. My usual go-to is 2000’s/2010’s punk, rock, or alternative – something somewhat fast-paced at a melody that drives my cleaning efforts to new heights, and something to help me reminisce on the shift and my life at large. My specific song changes weekly. This week, it’s “Becoming the Bull” by Atreyu, but last week it was “Dirty Little Secret” by All-American Rejects.” —Antonio “AJ” Jenkins Jr., Bartender, Undertow, Gilbert, Ariz.
“I generally choose a song that’s on the opposite end of the spectrum of what we’ve been playing all night. It helps jar guests back to reality as we start shutting things down. I tend to avoid the more obvious choices — looking at you, “Closing Time” — and sometimes trying to drive them out by blasting technical death metal can feel a bit too aggressive. My favorite song to close to? “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. I’ve been extolling the virtues of this yacht rock classic as a final song for years. The orchestral opening demands attention, then that soothing guitar line comes in, and when you start bringing up the lights with the first hits of those wind chimes, guests immediately get the idea. It’s hard to act belligerent when a song that pacifying is coming over the speakers.” —Trevor Carb, Bartender, The Mermaid, Los Angeles
“We always want to focus on having a strong welcome and a strong farewell for each guest. In our cocktail bar Queen’s Park, we want to extend the vibe but also play a song that fits without being too disruptive to guests who are on dates, with clients, or are just unwinding. My last song there is “I’ll be There For You/You’re All I Need” by Method Man and Mary J. Blige. It’s a beautifully written song that really encapsulates the relationships that we have built with our guests, our neighborhood, and our team. Our other bar, Neon Moon, we always play “Neon Moon” at last call. It’s so nostalgic and one that’s a lot of people’s favorites. We typically play the Kacey Musgraves version. It’s always surreal to hear an entire bar sing every word to a song in unison, and it just feels right to have the night end on such a positive note.” —Larry “Mudd” Townley, Owner/Operator, Queen’s Park and Neon Moon, Birmingham, Ala.
“Choosing a bar’s closing song is no small task. It’s an encore to the night, and just like that one band that saves your favorite song for last, I aim to end on a high note. Imagine Sade’s “Smooth Operator” gently swaying you toward the exit or hearing my personal favorite, Rick James’ “Mary Jane,” while the lights [go] up slowly with a cheeky wink. Maybe “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears has you spilling confessions over your last cocktail. And on those special nights, we might just hit you with “Texas Takova” by Big Tuck & Bun B, because who said last call can’t feel like a grand finale? After that one last song plays, there’s usually some silence and mulling around as the last customers leave and they wave their goodbyes. When they leave, the real party starts with TRL: Bartender’s Edition.” —Haley Merritt, Lead Bartender, Midnight Rambler, Dallas
*Image retrieved from – VTT Studio – stock.adobe.com