Muzak History: The Background Story on Background Music

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When you hear the name Muzak, you probably think of the type of easy listening music one often encounters in elevators or while on hold at a call center. Where does the term Muzak come from, and where does the actual music originate? And why don’t we hear elevator music as much as we used to? Let’s take a look at a brief history of the smooth programming.

For a company whose name is synonymous with wimpy music, Muzak had a surprisingly tough founder: an Army general. Major General George O. Squier served as the Army’s Chief Signal Officer during World War I, and in the early 1920s he perfected a method for transmitting music across electrical wires. At the time, radio was still finding its footing, so the notion of sending businesses and residences music via wires was appealing. In 1934 Squier formally founded a company to develop his invention. Since he liked the sound of the name “Kodak” he borrowed from it to name his own company Muzak.

Unfortunately for Muzak, by the time Squier’s technology was ready for a full-scale implementation, radio had become firmly entrenched. Undeterred, Muzak went after a different market—the one for background music for stores, restaurants, and office buildings.

In those early days, Muzak didn’t have access to the huge libraries of licensed music that radio stations can pick from today, so the company brought in top bands and orchestras to record original selections and standards that could be piped into businesses. Thanks to this strategy, the company ended up with some pretty amazing archives. According to Muzak, the company owns some of the few surviving original recordings of jazz legend Casper Reardon, better known as “the World’s Hottest Harpist.”

Muzak to their ears

This early background music did fairly well for Muzak, but the company really started taking off in the 1940s. As World War II required more and more industrial production, company researchers made a surprising discovery: Muzak could apparently make workers happier and more productive. Muzak patented a system called Stimulus Progression that offered 15-minute blocks of instrumental background music that provided listeners with a subconscious sense of forward movement. When workers listened to these blocks, they got more work done.

In retrospect, the science behind these Stimulus Progression studies may have been a bit dubious, but it really helped Muzak franchise and sell subscriptions to businesses. Not even the White House was immune to the allure of Muzak’s agreeable tunes; the presidential residence was wired for Muzak in 1953 during Dwight Eisenhower's administration. (He wasn’t the biggest presidential fan, though; Lyndon Johnson actually owned Muzak’s Austin franchise during the 1950s.) Soon Muzak’s tunes were hitting tens of millions of ears each day.

Muzak Trivia

Muzak is still around today, but as elevator music’s popularity has waned, the company has shifted its focus. Although it still offers the “classic” elevator music to the few customers who want it, most of Muzak’s programming now comes from its library of millions of commercially recorded songs. Muzak’s “audio architects” design special programs of tunes to fit specific clients’ needs, whether it’s helping workers be more productive or inducing shoppers to splurge on that new pair of pants.

In addition to Muzak’s ability to tailor programs to a business’ specific needs, it also deals with the thorny issue of paying licensing fees on the songs a business plays. If a shop or restaurant just plugged in an iPod and let the tunes fly, it would need to pay licensing fees to the copyright holders for each song it played. While some businesses do just that, Muzak’s current services include all of the necessary performance royalties, a perk that the company uses as a selling point.

Related Question: Why is it called “elevator music” in the first place?

To answer that question, we need to go back to the early 20th century. As skyscrapers began popping up in urban areas around the world, the necessity of elevators shot up. As the story goes, early skyscraper denizens weren’t totally sold on this idea of getting into a tiny box and being pulled up a very tall shaft. To help calm riders’ nerves about getting into elevators, building owners would pipe in soothingly bland music, and soon “elevator music” became shorthand for any boring, non-threatening instrumental music.

July 19, 2011 - 7:31am
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