Opinion: Muzak – the beat goes on

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I’ve long wondered what genius decided we can’t do anything unless we have music oozing from nearby speakers. Go anywhere, and there it is, following you through the mall, the grocery store, the dentist’s office and the bowling alley. Even the shopping mall parking lots are adrift these days with the soft strains of easy-listening music.

It goes by a lot of names, including piped-in music, background music and, of course, elevator music. But the most responsible party was a company called Muzak.

In 1910 U.S. Army Major General George Owen Squier was tinkering around with ways to make the Signal Corps more useful to the military when he stumbled on a way to send multiple analog signals across a single wire.

While the discovery would later be the force that joined early computers to routers and thus to the Internet, Squiers saw it as an immediate means to provide music to electric company customers, who paid a fee for the service as part of their electric bills.  It was immediately successful because the only other source of music in the home at that time was radio which was still in its infancy, and prohibitively expensive.

Squiers’ first company, formed in 1922 was called Wired Radio. Twelve years later he changed it to Muzak, a moniker that would become the all-inclusive ID for subscription music.

When radios got cheaper and entered the, “everyone has one,” category in the 1940s, Squiers changed the focus of his business to one of marketing assistant to retail, professional and industrial venues. He developed different kinds of instrumental music specifically designed, he said, to make people relax in the dentist’s office, alert in the workplace, and joyful while shopping. Overnight, Muzak was everywhere, and people began calling it “elevator music.”

In the late 1970s Muzak came out with “Music for Airports,” a short-lived sequence of weird, ambient sounds supposedly aimed at preparing the traveler for new horizons. To me it sounded more like a bunch of birds trapped in the air vents.

The media, meanwhile, dubbed Muzak “pseudo-science,” unworthy of serious consideration. And yet, it persisted for the simple apparent reason that it worked. People seem to be happy when shopping.

In the 1990s the industry went the next step with something called “foreground music,” a more in-your-face style tailored to enhance the persona of specific restaurants and retail establishments. In some of today’s trendier shops, the music fairly screams, “This is who we are.”

Unfortunately, constantly evolving changes in music trends and technology left Muzak unable to keep up. Falling further behind, business faded until the company declared bankruptcy in 2009.

Still, the beat goes on, even in elevators.

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