Muzak in the realm of retail theatre.
By David Owen – April 2, 2006
If you blindfolded Dana McKelvey and led her into a retail store, a restaurant, a doctor’s office, or a bank, she could tell fairly quickly whether the music playing in the background was Muzak. You may think that you would be able to tell, too, but unless your job is creating Muzak programs, as McKelvey’s is, you probably wouldn’t. The syrupy orchestral “elevator music” that most people associate with the company scarcely exists anymore. Muzak sells about a hundred prepackaged programs and several hundred customized ones, and only one—“Environmental”—truly fits the stereotype. It consists of “contemporary instrumental versions of popular songs,” and it is no longer terribly popular anywhere, except in Japan. (“The Japanese think they love it, but they actually don’t,” a former Muzak executive told me. “They’ll get over it soon.”) All of Muzak’s other programs are drawn from the company’s huge digital inventory, called the Well, which contains more than 1.5 million commercially recorded songs, representing dozens of genres and subgenres—acid jazz, heavy metal, shag, neo-soul, contemporary Italian—and is growing at the rate of twenty thousand songs a month. (Some record labels now upload new releases directly to the company, which, like a radio station, pays licensing fees for the songs it uses.) The Well includes seven hundred and seventy-five tracks recorded by the Beatles, a hundred and thirty by Kanye West, three hundred and twenty-four by Led Zeppelin, eighty-four by Gwen Stefani, a hundred and ninety-one by 50 Cent, and nine hundred and eighty-three by Miles Davis. It also includes many covers—among them, versions of the Rolling Stones’ song “Paint It Black” by U2, Ottmar Liebert, and a late-sixties French rock band with a female vocalist (who sang it in French) and approximately five hundred versions of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” which, according to Guinness World Records, is the most frequently covered song in the world.
“There are so many songs out there that if I listened to just one I’d never know whether it was Muzak or not,” McKelvey, who is twenty-six years old, and has the kind of soft, persuasive voice that would sound good on late-night radio, told me. “But I could tell if I listened to the flow of a few. The key is consistency. How did those songs connect? What story did they tell? Why is this song after that song, and why is that one after that one? When we make a program, we pay a lot of attention to the way songs segue. It’s not like songs on the radio, or songs on a CD. Take Armani Exchange. Shoppers there are looking for clothes that are hip and chic and cool. They’re twenty-five to thirty-five years old, and they want something to wear to a party or a club, and as they shop they want to feel like they’re already there. So you make the store sound like the coolest bar in town. You think about that when you pick the songs, and you pay special attention to the sequencing, and then you cross-fade and beat-match and never break the momentum, because you want the program to sound like a d.j.’s mix.” She went on, “For Ann Taylor, you do something completely different. The Ann Taylor woman is conservative, not edgy, and she really couldn’t care less about segues. She wants everything bright and positive and optimistic and uplifting, so you avoid offensive themes and lyrics, and you think about Sting and Celine Dion, and you leave a tiny space between the songs or gradually fade out and fade in.”
Muzak’s corporate headquarters are in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Naturally, there’s an awesome sound system, which extends into the parking lot but not (for deeply felt symbolic reasons) into the elevator. McKelvey works in a section of the building called the Circle, a curved arrangement of cubicle-size offices, which are the only Muzak work spaces that have doors. She has spent many hours behind hers, listening to hundreds of songs and thinking about how best to employ music to further the marketing ambitions of the hundred or so clients she manages at once. At the time I visited, she was working on a proposal for a prospective customer, a French-owned chocolatier in New York City. “They want the program to include music from everyplace in the world where cocoa grows,” McKelvey told me. “It’s a challenge, to say the least, but it’s fun.” Shortly before we talked, she had been listening to lounge and rhythmic music from Brazil and West Africa, and to a number of less exotic songs, including familiar jazz tunes that she felt conveyed a mood of chocolate-appropriate romance.
McKelvey, a creative manager at Muzak, is one of twenty-two “audio architects”—the company’s term for its program designers. All but two are in their twenties or thirties, and all have serious, eclectic, long-term relationships with music. (Eight of the architects work in the Circle, ten work in the Muzak office in Seattle, two work in New York, and two work from home, in Connecticut and in California.) McKelvey was born in 1980 in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents weren’t musicians, but her mother liked to sing and her father worked as a d.j.; he now owns a night club in Charleston called Casablanca. McKelvey began playing the piano when she was two, could read notes on the treble clef before she could read words, and took up the violin when she was seven. Two years later, she joined the Charleston Youth Symphony, as a violinist, and performed through high school. At home, when she wasn’t practicing classical pieces, she listened mainly to eighties pop—Michael Jackson, DeBarge, the Jets—and to the music her parents loved, which was Motown and funk. “I never had a TV in my room,” she told me. “I always had a 45-player. My dad had an amazing record collection, and he still does, and it’s all first runs, not reissues. Whenever I’m in Charleston, I try to sneak records from him.” She says her current taste in music is too diverse to characterize.
People at Muzak sometimes speak of a song’s “topology,” the cultural and temporal associations that it carries with it, like a hidden refrain. When McKelvey works on a program for a client whose customers represent a range of ages—such as Old Navy, whose market extends from infants to adults—she has to accommodate more than one sensibility without offending any. The task is simplified somewhat by the fact that musical eras and genres are not always moored firmly in time. Elvis Presley (who is represented in the Well by fourteen hundred and five tracks) sounds dated to many people today, but teen-agers can listen to Beatles songs from just a few years later without necessarily thinking of them as oldies.
Spanning musical generations can pose technical challenges. If a track that was recorded last year is played immediately after one from the forties, fifties, or sixties, the difference in texture can be jarring. (Anyone who has downloaded music onto an iPod or other digital music player is familiar with the difficulty of maintaining consistency from song to song.) One of the techniques used at Muzak is dynamic range compression, which consists of turning down the loudest parts of a signal and then turning up the entire signal; it’s the reason that television commercials often seem louder than the programs they interrupt even though the commercials and the programs are technically limited to the same sound level. In addition, audio architects frequently use tracks as bridges between music from different eras—say, placing a Verve remix of a jazz standard between an Ella Fitzgerald classic and a recent release by Macy Gray. Tracks in the Well are catalogued not only by artist and title but also by producer, label, and date. Recordings from particular studios in particular eras often share a characteristic sound—like wines from particular vineyards and vintages—and some juxtapositions work better than others.
Covers can be useful when you have a range of ages, McKelvey told me. “You can play Vanessa Carlton and Counting Crows doing ‘Big Yellow Taxi,’ and it’s relevant to young people today because the message is still meaningful and they know who Vanessa Carlton and Counting Crows are, but it’s also relevant to their parents, who think, Wait a minute, I know this song—isn’t that what’s-her-name? They may not think of Joni Mitchell right away, but the song affects them because they listened to it when they were younger.”
McKelvey studied marketing at Winthrop University, near Charlotte, North Carolina, and went to work at Muzak not long after she graduated. She told me, “The first time I explained to my mom what I do for a living, she said, ‘They pay people to do that?’ Most people walk into a store and hear music, but they never think that somebody actually put thought into what they’re hearing. A song they like is playing, and they’re nodding along with it, or maybe they’re kind of dancing to it and maybe they don’t want anyone to see that they’re dancing. They don’t realize that the song was put there for a purpose, and that there’s a reason why they’re doing what they’re doing. But there is.”
The company that became Muzak was founded by George Owen Squier, a career Army officer, who was born in Dryden, Michigan, in 1865. Squier earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, in 1893, and he later devised a way to transmit battlefield radio messages clandestinely by using living trees as antennae. In the early nineteen-hundreds, he invented a system of “multiplex telephony and telegraphy by means of electric waves guided by wires”—transmitting multiple radio signals along the outside of electrical, telegraph, and telephone lines. Squier realized that his invention could be used to deliver music, news, and other programming directly to homes and businesses. In 1922 (after helping to establish a predecessor to the Air Force, and running the Army’s Signal Corps during the First World War), he sold a license to the North American Company, a public-utility conglomerate, which formed a new subsidiary, Wired Radio, to develop the idea. One of the first test markets was Staten Island. Wired Radio customers there were given a boxy receiver, which looked a little like a gramophone, and the programming fee was added to their monthly electric bill. In 1934, Wired Radio—following the example of Eastman’s brilliant coinage, Kodak—changed its name to Muzak. Squier died the same year, of pneumonia.
As the quality and quantity of wireless radio broadcasts increased, eliminating the residential market for wired radio, Squier’s company concentrated on selling background music to hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, many of them at first in New York City. (Muzak is probably called elevator music because soothing melodies were used in early skyscrapers to make people feel less nervous about stepping into a contrivance that looked like a death trap.) In the forties, Muzak introduced a trademarked concept, called Stimulus Progression, which held that most workers would be more productive if they were exposed to music of gradually increasing intensity, in fifteenminute cycles. The process was said to be subliminal: Muzak affected you the way hypnosis did, whether you wanted it to or not. Only sanitized instrumental arrangements were used, because the absence of lyrics made the music less likely to intrude upon conscious thought. It was sometimes said that if the songs in a Stimulus Progression program were played in reverse order a listener would helplessly fall asleep.
Stimulus Progression acquired a vast supporting apparatus of baffling in-house research studies and impenetrable charts and diagrams. It was pseudoscience, but it remained alive at the company until the late nineties, partly because it was a useful marketing tool and partly because it seemed so plausible: most people really were happier and more productive when there was something humming along in the background. Recorded music was “piped” into insurance offices, ocean liners, hotel lobbies, and department stores, and Muzak built a network of franchisees to spread its business further. Today, the company estimates that its daily audience is roughly a hundred million people, in more than a dozen countries, and that it supplies sixty per cent of the commercial background music in the United States. (Modern Muzak is delivered to customers by satellite, over broadband, and on high-capacity disks.)
Until the late nineteenth century, people usually had little access to music unless they made the music themselves, and even in the nineteen-twenties, when Wired Radio began, most people’s lives were still tuneless much of the time. Muzak’s early listeners didn’t have clock radios, car CD players, MTV, home entertainment centers, in-flight hip-hop programs, satellite radio, or iPods, and when their telephone rang it didn’t play the theme to “The Godfather.” Muzak, for many people, was the first manifestation of a phenomenon that is now so familiar we scarcely notice it: the shifting, and frequently inescapable, soundtrack of everyday life.
In 1968, Yesco, a small company in Seattle, began competing with Muzak by offering businesses a product that came to be called foreground music: a program of popular songs that hadn’t been transformed into symphonic mush. Foreground music violated all the central principles of Stimulus Progression.
Until the fifties, “Music by Muzak” and popular music had a great deal in common, and a number of the company’s songs were recorded by the same big bands that played the hits on the radio. By the time Yesco came along, though, Muzak and popular music had diverged, and generational differences in taste were unbridgeable. When I was in high school, my father brought home a Muzak-like record called “The Beatles Songbook, Vol. 4,” by the Hollyridge Strings. He meant the purchase as a gesture of conciliation, but from my point of view the album might as well have been called “Why We Are in Vietnam” (or, more to the point, “Why I Am Not Going to Clean Up My Room”). As popular music acquired its increasingly rich topology of cultural, political, and sexual associations, Muzak’s bowdlerized hits seemed more and more like an affront. People began to use the company’s name as a generic term for anything bland, soulless, and uninspired—so much so that today many don’t realize that the word has a non-pejorative application.
Muzak was slow to adapt. It didn’t introduce an original-artist program until 1984, and that program, called TONES, was actually produced by Yesco. In 1986, Marshall Field V, the Chicago department-store heir, bought the company, and the following year he took over Yesco and merged the two. Truly modernized Muzak didn’t arise for more than a decade, when the company, which by then had another new owner, underwent a transformation that employees still refer to gravely as “the rebranding.”
This big change was initially conceived by Alvin Collis, an unlikely agent of corporate revolution, who later became the company’s senior vice-president of strategy and brand. He is fifty-three, tall, and extremely thin, and he wears a nearly unvarying uniform: nice black T-shirt, unfaded jeans, high-top sneakers, coollooking wristwatch, designer glasses. Not long ago, we met in the courtyard of the Trump Tower, where he had just had a meeting with the marketing executives of a luxury clothier, which was considering hiring Muzak to create musical programs for its stores.
Collis, who recently left Muzak to become an independent consultant, is from Victoria, British Columbia. After graduating from high school, in 1970, he bummed around Canada and Europe for a couple of years, and eventually moved to Seattle without a green card. He thought of himself primarily as a post-punk musician, a performance artist, and a storyteller. In the eighties, he worked as a freelance sound engineer, and did jobs sporadically for Yesco, and then for Muzak after the two companies merged. Once, he and a group of other engineers were adding a musical soundtrack to a movie (a project unrelated to Muzak). They were working on a love scene, which they knew was supposed to make moviegoers cry. The first time the engineers watched the scene, though, they all laughed. “We were giggling like crazy, and I was thinking, This is going to be a problem, right?” Collis told me. The men spent the next three hours trying to find the right background song for the scene. “Finally, as one song was playing, I turned around and saw that all the guys in the studio were crying. These were all crusty old guys, and by that time we had watched that scene probably twenty-five or thirty times. Suddenly, I understood that the emotional content of a movie is driven largely by your ears. Your eyes can tell you what’s going on in a scene, but it’s hard to feel things through your eyes. Even if a movie has a really good director and a really good script and really good actors, if you watch just the raw footage, with no music, you think, Oh, no, it’s going to tank.”
Several years later, Collis was doing an engineering job for Muzak. He told me, “I walked into a store and understood: this is just like a movie. The company has built a set, and they’ve hired actors and given them costumes and taught them their lines, and every day they open their doors and say, ‘Let’s put on a show.’ It was retail theatre. And I realized then that Muzak’s business wasn’t really about selling music. It was about selling emotion—about finding the soundtrack that would make this store or that restaurant feel like something, rather than being just an intellectual proposition.”
In 1997, the company adopted Collis’s concept—the main element of which he called audio architecture—essentially in its entirety. Muzak went through an exhilarating period of self-examination and redefinition, and moved its headquarters from Seattle to Fort Mill—mainly for economic reasons, but also to sever itself from its stodgy past. In a relatively short time, it transformed itself from a company that sold boring background music into one that was engaged in a far more interesting activity, which it called audio branding.
A business’s background music is like an aural pheromone. It attracts some customers and repels others, and it gives pedestrians walking past the front door an immediate clue about whether they belong inside. A chain like J. C. Penney, whose huge customer base includes all ages and income levels, needs a program that will make everyone feel welcome, so its soundtrack contains familiar and relatively unassertive popular songs like “Kind and Generous,” by Natalie Merchant. The Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando, which appeals to a more narrowly focussed audience, plays “Girls, Girls, Girls,” by Mötley Crüe, and cranks up the volume. (Imagine how teen-agers would perceive the jeans and t-shirts at Abercrombie & Fitch—not a Muzak client—if those stores played country-and-Western hits.) Audio architects have to keep all this in mind as they build their programs. They also have to be aware of certain broad truths about background music: bass solos are difficult to hear, extended electric-guitar solos annoy male sports-bar customers, drum solos annoy almost everyone, and Bob Dylan’s harmonica can make it hard for office workers to concentrate. Audio architects also have to screen lyrics carefully. They removed the INXS hit “Devil Inside” from many of the company’s playlists after a devout Christian complained, and they are ever vigilant for the word “funk,” which almost everyone mistakes for something else.
People often ask Muzak executives whether they worry about competition from the satellite-radio providers XM and Sirius, which carry a broad range of commercial-free music programs, divided among many genres. Bruce McKagan, who is Muzak’s vice-president for music and voice, told me, “Satellite radio is great, but they don’t do what we do. At Muzak, we take a brand and find music that is specific to what it’s trying to accomplish in the marketplace. That’s different from simply grabbing a channel and playing it.” XM and Sirius both sell packages to businesses, but neither company offers the degree of customization that Muzak does. Nor can a business legally use a consumer broadcast of any kind as background music, unless it pays a licensing fee. (The same rules apply to digital music. The ninety-nine cents you pay to download a song from iTunes doesn’t give you the right to play that song to customers over the sound system in a restaurant.) Muzak’s main competitor is actually another commercial background-music company, called D.M.X.
Last March, at a trade show in Las Vegas, Muzak demonstrated audio branding on a large scale. The company’s simple rectangular booth had a decorative theme for each of the show’s three days: a red rose, a Martini, and an eight ball from a pool table. Dana McKelvey had designed a soundtrack for each day that was meant to evoke the theme musically. While the songs played—Etta James and Diana Krall for the rose, Frank Sinatra and dZihan & Kamien for the Martini, Blondie and Wilson Pickett for the eight ball—audio architects interviewed visitors, and used their answers to come up with a “personal audio imaging profile” for each one; later, back in Fort Mill, the audio architects used those profiles to create personalized CDs.
I went through the same imaging process during my visit to Fort Mill. Steven Pilker, a twenty-five-year-old audio architect—he had worked in a record store while in school at U.N.C. Charlotte and, when he graduated, was offered a job by a Muzak executive who had been a regular customer—asked me seven or eight questions, none of which had anything to do with music. (“When you’re not working, what do you like to do?” “If you could choose an actor / actress to star in your biographical movie, who would it be and why?”) A couple of weeks later, he sent me a six-song program, which contained nothing connected to what I think of as my main musical phenotype (“classic rock”); in fact, five of the six tracks were by artists I’d never heard of. Yet I liked all six very much, and later bought CDs by two of them (Sufjan Stevens and Jamie Lidell). Pilker’s selections aren’t definitive, of course; another audio architect surely could have had another take on my “brand.” But I was struck that Pilker, after spending very little time with me, had created an appealing musical program that was based on his sense of who I was, rather than on any direct examination of the music I actually listened to if left on my own.
Some Muzak customers have specific musical requirements for their programs; Moe’s Southwest Grill, for example, wants only songs by Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix, and other artists who are dead. Most Muzak customers, though, are “imaged” in much the way that I was, except that in their case the investigation is of their corporate self. Dave Keller, who is the creative director of the company’s music department, told me recently, “Audio architecture involves looking at a client’s brand, and then matching music to the attributes of that brand. In its simplest form, you use keywords to define a personality for the brand. You might say that it’s bright, or energetic, or fun, or classic, or something like that. And then you find music with a subtext that reinforces that personality. This all really comes from Alvin Collis’s vision.” Collis himself said, “If you ask a client, ‘What kind of music do you like?’ the answer doesn’t get you anywhere, because musical taste is very subjective and very personal. You want the client to be thinking, Is this the right emotion for my brand?”
When the fit is right, the effect can be memorable. At a cocktail party in Manhattan recently, I met a man who told me that he had loved the music playing in a particular restaurant, and had asked his waitress where it had come from. “I said, ‘This is the best radio station I ever heard—what is it?’ And she said, ‘It’s not a radio station; it’s Muzak.’ ”
In the late nineties, when the Muzak rebranding was under way, Collis and another executive set a private goal of securing the Gap as a Muzak customer. Such an association was unthinkable initially: Muzak was the lamest kid in the class, and the Gap was one of the most astute and brand-aware marketers in the world. But Collis felt that Muzak would have a chance if it could first establish a successful record with smaller specialty retailers. It eventually succeeded, and today the four Gap brands play customized Muzak programs in all their stores. (In ascending order of volume and boisterous musical energy, those brands are Forth & Towne, Banana Republic, the Gap, and Old Navy.)
After Collis and I had talked for a while, we walked across Fifth Avenue to the Gap store at the corner of Fifty-fourth Street. The first thing he noticed was that the music we were hearing wasn’t Muzak, it was the audio track of an in-house video advertising program, which was playing on a bank of plasma-screen monitors suspended from the store’s high ceiling. In a few minutes, the Muzak program resumed—with “Soul Meets Body,” by Death Cab for Cutie—and Collis and I moved deeper into the store, where we studied the speakers. Muzak prefers to use sound equipment manufactured by two companies, Bose and Klipsch, and it designs systems depending on the customer and the musical genre. Collis said, “If you are a company that sells candles, you want an experience that’s moody, low light, and very organic, and so you want a sound system that kind of envelops you. If you walked in, you wouldn’t see a speaker, whereas when you come into an environment that’s more youth-oriented, like this one, the speakers are right there, and they aim the music at you, so that you feel it and get a real sense of where it’s coming from. And at Old Navy the music would be even more in your face.”
Muzak’s audio architects do something analogous within programs, too: some customers want to establish different moods at different times of the day; some want current hits to repeat frequently, as they do on Top Forty radio stations; some want programs that are closely geared to the seasons. At some retailers, one of the biggest changes occurs at closing time, when the music becomes louder, more intense, and presumably more likely to include lyrics that could be mistaken for profanity. That’s an after-hours program, designed by Muzak’s audio architects for employees who restock the shelves.
When Muzak undertook its corporate makeover, executives had to decide whether to change the company’s name, which by then had acquired a surplus of what marketing types call negative equity. In the end, despite reservations, they elected to keep it and rehabilitate it—perhaps the ultimate audio-imaging challenge.
Background music is a tough business under any circumstances. Muzak—which is privately owned, although its bonds trade publicly—has lost money for a number of years. The company has tried many times to broaden its business, with mixed results. After September 11th, it made a major effort to sell closed-circuit-television security systems, but that enterprise proved almost immediately to be a dead end. (Collis told me, “With audio branding, you’re selling emotion, love, caring, feelings. With CCTV, you’re selling fear. Not a good combination.”) Other ventures have turned out better. Muzak has a large and profitable “on hold” business, which creates music-and-voice programming for commercial telephone systems. The voice division also creates in-store promotional announcements, which can be patched seamlessly into the company’s backgroundmusic programs. All in all, Muzak creates about thirty thousand voice spots a month. It also provides the drive-through ordering systems used by many fast-food restaurants.
The company’s most interesting effort to redefine its brand may be one that isn’t meant to be profitable. It’s the Muzak Heart & Soul Foundation, which contributes money to musiceducation programs around the country and conducts an annual summer camp called Noise!, whose purpose is to introduce musically inclined teen-agers to the less visible parts of the music business. LaFouji Alexander, a thirty-year-old audio architect, thinks Heart & Soul is “the cornerstone of the company.” (When I asked him to explain his last job, as a Muzak “music specialist,” he said, “Maybe a Chinese restaurant wants only a certain kind of traditional Chinese music, and if that means I have to order it from Tibet . . . ”) Most teen-agers, he said, have a distorted view of the commercial music world. “Shows like ‘American Idol’ give them the wrong idea,” he said. “Music isn’t just stars; there’s this whole huge industry behind them.” Campers at Noise! visit recording studios, meet professional musicians and industry executives, make business contacts that may be useful after college, and—not incidentally—develop favorable associations with the name Muzak. Alexander said, “I tell my boss all the time that if we directed more outreach toward the kids, doing more of the things that Heart & Soul does, we wouldn’t have a problem convincing America who we are.”
During Muzak’s early decades, office workers and others sometimes complained that public background music was an invasion of privacy. Some people feel that way today, although the first thing many of us do when we find ourselves alone with our thoughts is to reach for the handiest means of drowning them out—by putting on a pair of headphones, say, or by sliding a disk into the car’s CD player. Audio architecture is a compelling concept because the human response to musical accompaniment is powerful and involuntary. “Our biggest competitor,” a member of Muzak’s marketing department told me, “is silence.” ♦