Companies & Industries

The Ode: Muzak (1934-2013)

All things bland must come to an end.

(Photo: Ryan Harvey/Flickr)

(Photo: Ryan Harvey/Flickr)

In the 1900s, a U.S. army officer named George Owen Squier developed a method to transmit radio signals along electrical and telephone wires. He planned to use his discovery to send music directly into people’s homes, and in 1922 partnered with a utility company to found Wired Radio. But wireless radio took off instead, and the company shifted its focus to providing background music to hotels, restaurants and retailers. In 1934, it combined the words “music” and “Kodak” to arrive at a new name: Muzak.

Squier died of pneumonia that same year, but his company thrived. Muzak hired bands and singers to record covers of popular songs along with original compositions to build its library. Quality wasn’t the foremost concern. One early session featured the National Fascist Militia Band, then on-tour in the U.S. from Benito Mussolini’s Italy. There were sessions with well-known artists, too, including Rosemary Clooney and Fats Waller. Muzak amassed a collection of roughly 5,000 songs within a few years, more than any record label at the time.

In the 1940s, the company’s executives developed a theory called Stimulus Production. Armed with reams of pseudo-scientific studies, they claimed that workers of all sorts were happier and more productive when subjected to 15-minute sets of benign music that built gradually in tempo and intensity. The concept registered in the corporate world, and Muzak proliferated in office buildings. It was also around that time that Muzak’s mellow tunes became known as “elevator music.” Skyscrapers were popping up in big cities, and many people found using elevators to be a nerve-wracking experience. Muzak promised to make the journey pleasurable, even partnering with the Otis Elevator Co. on a print ad that compared riding an elevator to “gliding on the notes of a lilting melody.”

The principles of Stimulus Production caused Muzak’s recordings to devolve into inoffensive instrumental pap, but the songs remained ubiquitous. They were piped into grocery stores, shopping malls, and even U.S. embassies around the world. A serious rival emerged in 1968 called Yesco, based in Seattle. It promoted “foreground music,” and provided businesses with original versions of popular songs, not watered-down instrumental interpretations. Yesco ran contrary to everything Muzak was about, but the company clung to its formula for years to come.

The work “Muzak” soon became a joke, synonymous with all things bland. The company’s music, designed to quietly promote happiness, instead morphed into something intrusive and cloying in the public’s mind. Muzak changed owners numerous times. When it was up for sale in 1986, musician Ted Nugent offered to buy it from owner Westinghouse for US$10 million so he could “shelve it for good.” Westinghouse did not accept. The ultimate buyer, a Chicago department-store heir, also bought Yesco and merged the two. Still, it took until the 1990s for Muzak to fully ditch its Stimulus Production roots. The shift was led by Alvin Collis, a native of Victoria, B.C., who later became a senior vice-president at Muzak. He proposed the concept of “audio branding,” and the company was soon developing customized playlists for retailers to play in-store to sonically showcase their corporate identities. Many large companies signed on, including the Gap.

Satellite radio providers XM and Sirius ate into Muzak’s market share, however, and the company was burdened by debt. It filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009 and emerged the following year, only to be purchased in 2011 for $345 million by Canadian firm Mood Media. In February, the company announced its intention to fold all of its operations (which involve using music and even scents to boost sales for retailers) into one brand. The restructuring will permanently eliminate the Muzak name.