Lively Up Yourself

The logical thing, at this point, would have been for Muzak to just go
under, like any number of American companies whose products fell out of
marketplace favor. And you might be forgiven for thinking that that’s what
happened to Muzak; after all, it’s been a while since anyone heard “Puff”
in a shopping mall.

But you would be wrong. Mere managerial incompetence, no matter how
colossal, could not possibly bring Muzak down. As usual, Muzak, Inc. was
riding a wave bigger than itself. This time, it caught the rise of
“business music,” music that’s designed to be played in places of commerce,
from back offices of banks to hotel atriums.

Late 20th-century Americans live awash in a sea of music, not only from
ceiling speakers but from MTV and CMT in bars, from other people’s tape
players in city parks, and in public buildings. It’s worth remembering that
only fifty years before Muzak was founded, recorded music was a novelty. If
you wanted to hear music, you had to make it yourself or attend a live
performance. Muzak helped to create its own demand. We expect to hear music
everywhere and all the time now. Shopping in a store without background
music seems as strange as watching a silent film. Just as movie music
“tells” us how to react to events on screen, Muzak provides the soundtrack
to the screenplays-in-progress of our lives.

“Business music — there’s so much of it that it’s sort of a commodity,”
says Sherman Alldredge, who distributes background music by Muzak’s
competitors in Portland, Ore.

Brian Eno elevated “ambient” music to high art, although when his eerie
Music For Airports was played in Pittsburgh’s airport, passengers
complained. Business music must never aspire to be art. Business music
functions as a design element, like a desk or a chair or a mural. Ideally,
it makes workers work harder and shoppers buy more, without their noticing
it. Muzak is meant to be heard but not listened to. “If your head goes up
to the ceiling” because of something you hear, says Muzak VP Bruce
Funkhouser, “we’ve blown it.”

By the 70s, Muzak was blowing it. Its arrangers and performers were
cramming Perry Como down the ears of the rock generation. On the day I
visited, Muzak engineer Brian Nelson summoned an old track from the
archives (Muzak in general was all too willing to share its dark corporate
secrets): a tune called “On and On” by Steve Bishop. Though it was recorded
in 1979, the year of the Ramones and Led Zeppelin and Elvis Costello, “On
and On” sounds like the Lawrence Welk Orchestra on a merry-go-round, drunk.

“That was really brutally done,” said an awed Nelson, as the track was
switched off.

It would be hard to imagine anything more obtrusive, and yet Muzak was
selling “On and On” as “background music.” No wonder, then, that during the
1980s Muzak faced its first real competition: an aggressive company called
AEI, also based in Seattle (listen for their stuff in the Gap), and 3M
Music Products, a division of the Scotch tape maker. “If you think about
it, this is a company that never should have had any competitors,” says
Alldredge.

Muzak itself changed hands several times, from Teleprompter to Westinghouse
to Marshall Field V, none of whom could figure out what to do with it and
none of whom managed to make it profitable. Field finally sold the company
to its management and a New York investment firm in a 1992 leveraged
buyout.

Muzak is now run by John Jester, a stolid utility-executive type formerly
of USWest, but its core managers came from a company called Yesco, a
smaller, more aggressive business-music provider that was merged with Muzak
in 1988. Yesco specialized in “foreground music,” compilations of original
artist recordings tailor-made for specific settings like bars and retail
stores.

Muzak has come back with a vengeance, combining Yesco’s original mixes with
its own stalwart background sounds. Now Muzak fairly bristles, with 16
channels in addition to the Environmental channel, including light
classical, 70s music, and oldies. Introduced this year were “Eurostyle ,” a
compendium of transatlantic pop tunes; “Urban Beat,” a mix of light hip-hop
and R&B; ballads (no gangsta rap allowed); and “Fiesta Mexicana,” featuring
mariachi and norteā€“o music for use in Mexican restaurants–all coded and
programmed according to Muzak’s rigid principles. In the works, as well, is
a classic rock channel.

All the channels except the Environmental Channel feature original artist
recordings; Muzak licenses songs (broadcast rights) for four years through
ASCAP, usually. That means its inventory turns over every four years or so.
The payment varies. So you can be listening to Muzak and not even realize
it. Which is exactly what Muzak wants. “It’s supposed to fill the air with
sort of a warm familiarity, I suppose,” says Ward. “If you were pushing a
cart through a grocery store and all you hear is wheels creaking and crying
babies — it would be like a mausoleum.”


Do you think the tides of Muzak are ebbing or rising? Are we witnessing the dilution of rock into mere atmosphere or is Muzak just an unfortunate musical tangent? Can you recover the essence of a song once it’s been Muzaked? Whether you’re a rocker, hummer, or hipster, you can take part in FEED’s online discussions. Just click on the Feedbag icon below and start posting!