continues to provide the soundtrack to your life
back 18 or 20 years, a trip to the dentists office was
like a combination of Name That Tune and a game of Chicken:
Walk in, take a seat in the lobby, and try not to be anesthetized
by the soothing soft-rock sounds wafting through the air.
If you were able to prop your eyes open long enough, you might
pick up on a recognizable melodyalbeit a syrupy, bland
renditionfrom a popular song. And that wasnt the
only placesupermarkets, shopping malls, restaurants
and waiting rooms from coast to coast were alive, barely,
with the sounds of Muzak.
You remember nowschmaltzy instrumental versions of songs
that were usually pretty schmaltzy to begin with. (For example,
surely nobody was really looking for a toned-down alternative
version of the Carpenters Close to You.)
Sometimes this genre, if you want to call it that, was termed
elevator music due to one of its most common applications.
is, in that use, a generic term derived from the company of
the same name. But its often derogatory colloquial usage is
somewhat inappropriate: The Muzak corporation was the first
to see the potential in creating a soundtrack for your every
waking hour; behind Apple and their stylish Walkman, Muzak
is most responsible for the presence of music in so many aspects
of our modern life.
in Seattle in 1934, the Muzak corporation (Muzak Holdings
LLC) was the first franchise corporation in the United States,
according to Bob Finigan, Muzaks vice president of product
and marketing. For 50-plus years, the companys programming
basically defined how background music was used in everyday
life. At the start, the company was a pioneer in bringing
music to businesses, with symphonic reproductions of popular
songs making up the lions share of the programming.
And for the first two-thirds of the companys existence,
their bread and butter was in those cheesy instrumental takes
on pop musicenough so that the companys name became
synonymous with, as the Wikipedia entry on Muzak states, banal,
derivative, or repetitive music, for ambient music,
or to describe any music used to fill aural space
in corporate situations, such as on hold music
in telephone queues.
their aural space; we just live in it. But over the last 25
years or so, the space has changed. And the company again
led the field: Muzak started its first foreground music
channel in 1984, says Finigan, with the idea of tak[ing]
background music to the foreground . . . [and] playing original
Who woulda thunk it? How it took 30 years into the rock &
roll era to figure that out will forever be a mystery. But
royalties were a major issue: If someone plays music on a
radio or CD (or, in 1984 terms, a Type II high-bias cassette-tape
with Dolby B noise-reduction) in their store, technically
they are supposed to pay for blanket public-performance licenses
from the major performing-rights organizations, which are
costly, particularly in situations where the clerk just wants
to listen to Def Leppard while he counts out his till. Muzak,
for a long time, had the only game in town for businesses,
their contract-driven service being the only one to provide
prelicensed music thats safe for play in a retail situation.
Licensing popular music was the logical way to go, and Muzak
was again at the front of the pack.
satellite-radio-saturated market, Muzak has had to adapt its
mission to maintain an edge on the competition. This means
expanding and refining their usesand drastically changing
have almost 100 programs [in] every type of music genre,
explains Finigan. We serve businesses throughout the
country, throughout the world. That means roughly 400,000
clients every day and more than 100 million listeners, with
250 locations in the U.S. alone. (Every zip code is
served, Finigan adds.) So stores around the globe can
select from channels like Cashmere (adult-contemporary classics),
Screen Door (alternative country), Mojito (salsa/Merengue)
or Inkd (power rock/metal) to soundtrack their shoppers
the infiltration of the major satellite-radio networks (both
XM and SIRIUS have developed business-music branches), Muzak
has stayed viable by being pretty much anything their customers
want them to be.
do custom programming for a lot of national clients,
Finigan says. They may have a specific brand . . . and
we develop a custom playlist for their brand. These
custom playlists are assembled by audio architects,
of which the company employs 22, who work closely with customers
to give their businesses just the right mix.
reports show the company to be losing subscribers. According
to an August 2006 Charlotte Business Journal article, Muzak
has gone 11 years without turning a profit. The satellite
services continue to undercut Muzak in price, and the companys
debts have skyrocketed. But Finigan is upbeat about the companys
long-term advantages over satellite.
you compare the difference, its night and day. Satellite
radio is not a great product for consumer application. There
are DJ interruptions, advertisementsthings that are
not important to a brand. Satellite radio . . . [has a] small
playlist. I think our programming expertise is hands-down
the best in the industry. Their well, or
digital-music database, contains more than two million tracks.
All songs are carefully screened for things you dont
want to hear in your business, including profanity,
or references to religion or drugs.
how much the company has tried to adapt itself to the modern
music marketplace, Muzak held its own showcase and parties
at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW)
in Austin, Texas last week. To illustrate their unique playlist-design
capabilities, they premiered two exclusive programs, one of
which answers the question What does a red rose sound
like? (were guessing that list was Courtney Love-free);
the other suggested an eight ball slamming into the
pocket of a pool table, according to a press release.
All of which is fine and good, but that wont get you
into the Polyphonic Spree show.
73-year-old company is wont to do, Muzak will soldier on for
some time. But its in danger of disappearing, and that
would be a damn shame. Speaking of which, whatever happened
to the Muzak of old?
fearelevator music is still alive and well,
according to Finigan.
have a program which we call Environmental. The Japanese listen
to it. They seem to love that program.