Muzak Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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In common parlance, muzak1 is any soft, ostensibly unobtrusive music played in stores, shopping malls, over phone lines and in public places where people are likely to buy something. In many places, it can go unnoticed entirely, sinking out of aural range amid the general commotion of talking, rustling and cash register sounds that are the true soundtrack of places of commerce. In one place, however, the muzak reveals itself for what it is. That place is the elevator, and muzak's glaring presence there has given rise to its perhaps unfortunate nickname, 'elevator music'.

Yet even muzak played in an elevator need not be soft. While most muzak tends toward diluted jazz or pop songs arranged for quiet ensembles (like Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' arranged for flute, classical guitar and synthesizer), anything played in a store - and chosen by that store to further its image - can be considered muzak. It is muzak, for example, when Hard Rock Café pipes oldies into its restaurants to help create a festive, nostalgic mood. It is muzak when Gap stores play popular rock or hip-hop to lure teenagers into the store to buy something. Muzak is any music appropriated by a business, and played on the premises of that business, to make itself more inviting to consumers. Thus, muzak is an integral part of the modern urban and technological experience. Where there is consumer culture and technology, there is muzak, and it has been that way for over 70 years.

A Brief History of Muzak

In no small way, the history of muzak is the history of a corporation called, unsurprisingly, Muzak. The official history of the company says that Muzak was founded by an American two star general named George Squier, who patented the transmission of background music in the 1920s. He arrived at the name 'Muzak' by combining the word 'music' with the name of one of his favourite companies, Kodak2. Muzak gained its reputation as elevator music not long after elevators were installed in skyscrapers. Stores and building owners found that many people became nervous while being lifted into the air in a little box, and so they played soothing music in the elevators to ease passengers' fears of falling to their deaths3.

The prevalence of muzak grew throughout the 1940s and '50s in workplaces and places of business, changing along with the advancements of sound technology and with business and consumer trends. Where the first muzak was played on a phonograph and transmitted through electrical cable, by the mid-1950s, muzak was pre-recorded on audio tape and sent to stores that wanted it. In the 1980s, Muzak began a satellite service, beaming music to subscribers. Around the same time, muzak also became more aggressive, switching from being background music to being foreground music as businesses sought more actively to lure customers into buying something from them. The trend begun in the 1980s and continues today.

The Controversy around Muzak

Proponents argue that muzak grew in popularity because businesses and offices found that most people liked it. Productivity in the workplace increased when music was played; upbeat music was found to boost company morale. Likewise, stores found that playing music attracted consumers and encouraged them to browse longer and buy extra items.

Muzak supporters also point out that as muzak and commercials become more overt and more like commercial radio, they also provide an outlet for musicians hoping to hit it big. Laugh away, but it's true. Nick Drake, they say, sold far more records when 'Pink Moon' was used by Volkswagen than he ever did while he was alive. In 2000, Gap's use of Badly Drawn Boy material in commercials and stores gave him far more exposure than the radio has.

Despite this, muzak has many vocal detractors. In 1999, h2g2 itself experienced a small run of entries on muzak that surely expressed the views of many:

Ah, technical help lines. Incredibly useful for solving your day-to-day needs, and weedling out life's complexities... But whose idea was it to pacify impatient callers with muzak whilst waiting to get through? Is there anything more annoying than muzak? By the time the caller has been put through he can no longer articulate his problem as he's chewed his hand off at the wrist, and is unable to operate the phone.
Muzak is a form of hellish torture, which employers use to keep employees in line... [Customers] hate it every bit as much as the employees do. The pleasure for customers comes from knowing that they are free to leave the store at any time they choose, and aren't stuck with submitting to such torture for a couple of dollars an hour.
Muzak is the brand name of music's equivalent of aerosol cheese. Produced in massive amounts at great speed by an unskilled process, it destroys the mind, the ears and the ability to keep your fists unclenched. If you hear muzak being played at you, cover your ears, hum loudly to drown out the sound, and make your way calmly to the nearest exit. Do not stop to collect personal belongings, unless they too are capable of hearing.

Beyond the sheer annoyance some experience at hearing muzak, others accuse it of far more nefarious, Orwellian deeds. People have accused corporations of using muzak as a form of mind control or emotional sedative, manipulating consumers into mindlessly and happily buying things they do not need. Others implicate muzak as the vehicle for subliminal messages, implanting spending habits into the brains of even the most stubborn and frugal among us. Muzak apologists counter that there is nothing inherently manipulative about music that soothes or excites, and that the customer, in the end, decides for himself whether or not to buy. Neither the debate - nor muzak itself - are likely to go away soon.

The Future of Muzak

How is muzak likely to change in the coming years? Muzak has grown more pervasive over time, and it tends to employ the most recent forms of telecommunication whenever possible; it also has become more diverse, branching out from light pop and jazz into classical, rock, rhythm and blues, folk, hip-hop... any musical style one cares to name, and any style a company requests of its muzak provider. Corporations, meanwhile, have increasingly made themselves a part of our lives, advertising themselves into as many minutes of our waking day as they can.

Given these conditions, one can speculate that we will see both a greater amount and greater specialisation of muzak as time goes by. One can imagine a large store in which different kinds of music play in different sections of the store, each one catered to the customer most likely to buy from that section. Perhaps barely audible yet soothing music will be played on public transportation to calm stressed commuters at rush hour (many bus, train, and plane terminals, of course, already employ this). As music technology develops on the Internet, a company's website may be accompanied by muzak aimed at each user's specific demographic. As knowledge of shopping patterns grows more sophisticated, the muzak of a given store may change with the hour of the day, based on who is likely to be shopping at that time and how much they are likely to buy. The growth of muzak is limited only by the growth of knowledge and technology, and thus is, for better or for worse, an inextricable part of our modern world.

1'Muzak' is a registered trademark of Muzak Limited Liability Company, but 'muzak' is the term used more or less generically to describe all types of background music.2Muzak thus joins that shortlist of lucky products whose brand name has replaced the common word for it. The fact that so many people use brand names as everyday words speaks volumes about their cultures. 3In this sense, muzak is a direct ancestor of 'ambient' music. Brian Eno (former keyboardist for Roxy Music, famous producer of the likes of Talking Heads and U2, and father of modern ambient music) wanted his first ambient album, Music for Airports, to be played in airports to help people come to terms with the possibility that they might die in a fiery plane crash in a matter of hours.

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