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PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen

Cue the Violins

Muzak continues to provide the soundtrack to your life

By John Brodeur

Going back 18 or 20 years, a trip to the dentist’s 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 melody—albeit a syrupy, bland rendition—from a popular song. And that wasn’t the only place—supermarkets, shopping malls, restaurants and waiting rooms from coast to coast were alive, barely, with the sounds of Muzak.

Ahh, Muzak. You remember now—schmaltzy 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.

“Muzak” 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.

Founded in Seattle in 1934, the Muzak corporation (Muzak Holdings LLC) was the first franchise corporation in the United States, according to Bob Finigan, Muzak’s vice president of product and marketing. For 50-plus years, the company’s 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 lion’s share of the programming. And for the first two-thirds of the company’s existence, their bread and butter was in those cheesy instrumental takes on pop music—enough so that the company’s 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.”

It’s 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 artists’ music.”
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 that’s 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.

In today’s satellite-radio-saturated market, Muzak has had to adapt its mission to maintain an edge on the competition. This means expanding and refining their uses—and drastically changing their programming.

“We 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 Ink’d (power rock/metal) to soundtrack their shoppers’ experience.

But with 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.

“We 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.

Still, 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 company’s debts have skyrocketed. But Finigan is upbeat about the company’s long-term advantages over satellite.

“When you compare the difference, it’s night and day. Satellite radio is not a great product for consumer application. There are DJ interruptions, advertisements—things 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 don’t want to hear in your business,” including profanity, or references to religion or drugs.

To show 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?” (we’re 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 won’t get you into the Polyphonic Spree show.

As any 73-year-old company is wont to do, Muzak will soldier on for some time. But it’s in danger of disappearing, and that would be a damn shame. Speaking of which, whatever happened to the Muzak of old?

Never fear—“elevator music” is still alive and well, according to Finigan.

“We have a program which we call Environmental. The Japanese listen to it. They seem to love that program.”

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