Words by Annie Bacon
The Golden State Warriors got a message shortly before their early March visiting game against the New York Knicks that the first half of the basketball game would be played without any audio or visual entertainment. In other words, Madison Square Garden would be silent except for bouncing balls, whistles, and sneaker screeches. “Enjoy the sounds of the game,” the jumbotron read.
Afterwards, players and coaches on both sides of the court expressed displeasure with the experience. Draymond Green, the Warriors' power forward, told reporters: “That was pathetic. It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything.” Knicks’ guard Courtney Lee added that, “(Music) gets the fans into the game, it keeps them in tune with what's going on as opposed to it being quiet."
Nobody knows this better than music director and audio operator Lee Merritts, who orchestrates the beautiful noise of home games for the Warriors — as well as for the Oakland A’s, San Francisco Giants, Oakland Raiders, and Stanford Athletics — here in the Bay Area. Merritts knows that music is essential not only to the rhythm of the game for players, but to the enjoyment of the fans. From pre-game warm-ups to walk-up music, “stingers” (short instrumental bursts of songs squeezed between whistles or innings), and post-game playlists, as many as 100 pieces of music might be heard in a single game. It’s Merritts’ job to decide exactly which ones, and then like a “lone wolf” DJ, to weave them into the audio experience of the game.
Merritts’ early years were filled with a wide array of musical influences: One brother was deep into hip-hop, while the other only listened to heavy metal. His parents spun Motown records. This shaped his ears, and he taught himself enough piano and drums to begin experimenting with creating samples and loops. Merritts enrolled in San Francisco State University’s Department of Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) with an audio production emphasis. Later, he worked for Universal Music as a marketing intern for Hollywood Records' Urban Music department.
At the same time, Merritts was a lifelong athlete. He jumped at an opportunity for an internship with the Oakland A’s. It was in the sales department, but the interviewer immediately saw that he’d be happier with Diamond Vision, the team responsible for the audio and visual entertainment at the games.
“I got an interview over there and got the job,” Merritts says a few weeks ago over coffee in the Mission. “I could see it was (a lot of) video production, but then I see the audio room — I see a mixing board and audio gear, and it’s overlooking the stadium and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” That was it for Merritts. He worked closely for several years with long-time audio operator Eric Olson who mentored him on the art, eventually taking over for him at the A’s. Over the course of the next few years, Merritts also shadowed then succeeded Michael Addicott (aka DJ Add1) at the Warriors’ Coliseum. The Raiders and Giants followed.
Eventually, Merritts began to have double bookings and, being a contractor rather than a staff member of any of the teams, was responsible for finding a replacement for games he couldn’t direct. Being naturally entrepreneurial, Merritts saw an opportunity and founded Game Day Audio Operators to train and employ other audio engineers. A request from Stanford Athletics — basketball, football, volleyball, and baseball — provided a great low-stakes training opportunity. “Its not as much pressure, so it allows me to train somebody and show them the ropes, in terms of how I organize my music and the flow of the game. I can transition them to the Giants or the A’s and they understand my work flow,” Merritts told me.
The most recognizable song in all of sports continues to be “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” the 7th inning stretch classic originally penned in 1908 by Tin Pan Alley writers Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, who apparently had never attended a game before they wrote the song. It seems certain that someone like Merritts would be burnt out on the song, but he said, “Nah, it’s baseball. I’m a big baseball fan. So it’s one of those things that sounds [like] baseball. It helps to have a son that’s 6 years old. (The love is) just now starting all over again. (People) love signifiers.”
Asked whether there are ever any surprises in his world, Merritts chuckles and launches into a definition of “walk-up song.” In short, each player picks a song (either once a season, every game, or for life) and when it’s their turn to come up to bat, Merritts plays that song until they step into the batter’s box. “With the Giants,” he says, “you can tell there’s a lot of humor in the clubhouse. Guys will come up with Britney Spears or something like that and I wonder what happened. Did this guy lose a bet or something?”
But something has continued to bother Merritt — particularly in light of the Giants’ motto of “We are SF” — is that there was no Bay Area representation in the music he was playing. “My philosophy that I’ve come up with over the years is that the ambience and atmosphere should sound like the environment you’re in. Locally you’re here in Oakland or SF, (so) I feel like it should have more of a local vibe to it.”
Merritts quickly realized that he had better access to the Billboard Top 100 than the local music scene. “I realized I needed to come up with a plan to connect more, figure out local record stores, local record labels, I felt the urgent need.” He continued, “There’s so much good music around here. Why wouldn’t I play that here?”
So, he set a plan in motion — which began with reaching out to this reporter after reading one of our Bay Bridged Band to Band Relay posts — to connect with and highlight local music. Calling it “The Idea,” Merritt plans to roll out his experimental Ballpark Radio Pre-Game Show at AT&T Park this season. The pre-game show will include a 30-minute “Local Music Countdown” featuring local music of all styles sandwiched between more nationally-known music playlists. The local playlists will then be posted on his blog and promoted on social media. He’s working on more ways to get fans connected to the songs they’re hearing.
All he needs now is the music, and he’s putting an open call to all Bay Area artists and labels to send him music. He says almost every style works — from bluegrass and slightly more up-tempo singer-songwriters to hip hop, indie rock and pop — with only two guidelines: nothing explicit (these are family events), and all artists must be registered with a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) such as ASCAP or BMI. Sports organizations pay a blanket license to the PROs for all music played, so Merritt reports his playlists to them and artists receive payment in the form of royalties from their PRO (it is free to sign up with either organization). Interested artists can send music to scoregameday (at) gmail (dot) com, or via Merritt’s website.
As the conversation wore on, Merritts returned several times to the idea of music discovery. “There’s so much music used in these [games],” he says. “It’s such a big part of the presentations, and it’s being overlooked. [Stadiums are a] place where people are discovering music. If I introduce [local music] in a certain way, bringing it to you in a playlist, that’s the way to start.” If this experiment works, Merritts, has plans to expand this local music focus to all of his other teams.
Tags: Game Day Audio Operators, Lee Merritts
Annie Bacon is a musician (her life) and writer (her obsession) in San Francisco. She loves shouting out amazing local bands and finding new music (of any genre) that is emotionally moving or has depth. She also writes for The SF Critic, has her own band, and is raising a little drummer kid.