Corporate Takeover
The Collapse of the Muzak/Music Distinction

(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three)

I once heard a track off Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf playing at a store in a mall. I was both surprised and excited, because previously I’d either not paid any attention to in-store music or had disliked it. (Britney Spears’ “Toxic” again?) But at some point I began to worry. People used to ask me whether I’d still love Lightning Bolt if they were played on the radio. I usually dislike wildly unrealistic hypothetical questions, but in Lightning Bolt’s case I insisted that I’d be thrilled if more people could enjoy such brilliant music. I’ve since come to believe that there is something insidious about the pop machine.

To begin this discussion, I’d like to first talk about what Muzak is, how it processes our cultural inheritance, and what happens when it programs playlists for corporate environments. To find answers, I trawled the internet, pestered employees of mall outlets, and emailed Urban Outfitters. My conclusions in this feature’s first section, “Sensory Branding and the Circumscription of Musical Experience,” aren’t optimistic (e.g., Thurston Moore is vindicated for getting defensive about selling out). But driven by a glimmer of hope — that even if music-turned-muzak stays muzak, there might be some music resistant to corporatization — in the second section I insist on asking the question: Is there “An Outside the System?” I won’t spoil the finale, but I will say it involves an imaginary ironic guerrilla show, Smirnoff, and slogans that’ll make your stomach turn.

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Sensory Branding and the Circumscription of Musical Experience

Again, what is the strange difference between an experience tasted for the first time and the same experience recognized as familiar, as having been enjoyed before, though we cannot name it or say where or when? A tune, an odor, a flavor sometimes carry this inarticulate feeling of their familiarity so deep into our consciousness that we are fairly shaken by its mysterious emotional power. — William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1

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Muzak: Company or State of Being?

What is muzak? The general term is derived from the name of the largest commercial music distributor, Muzak Holdings LLC, founded in 1934, and refers to the orchestral arrangements of popular songs that Muzak produced for several decades. Once played in elevators, offices, factories, and retail outlets, at some point mid-century public opinion turned against what people began to hear as “symphonic mush.” Muzak’s notorious background music is no longer played in many workplaces or public spaces. Instead, employees are responsible for entertaining themselves during business hours and gladly take the initiative of counteracting the slumps of late-morning and mid-afternoon with internet radio and personalized playlists. The element of managerial control that was essential to the identification of muzak as functional music is no longer evident; in the post-Fordist workplace, the employees do the work of the former Taylorist manager.

In contemporary society, the central function of Muzak’s products is no longer to increase productivity but to increase consumption. Hence the movement from factories and offices to retail stores and restaurants, the decline of homogeneous easy listening, and the rise of custom-designed sound profiles, playlists that inspire brand loyalty and lifestyle associations — music that, instead of doing the generic work of lulling shoppers into a relaxed mood, resonates with them on a deeper, emotional level. Demand for this product was identified or created in 1968, when Yesco began offering commercial foreground music to compete with the background music offered by Muzak. The two companies merged in 1986, but it wasn’t until 1997 that Muzak’s transformation from background music producer to audio branding expert was complete. The adaptation necessitated an overhaul of Muzak’s own brand, which meant the empirical data that had been offered since the Second World War as evidence of background music’s productivity benefits was left behind with that product, and the marketing of foreground music was instead packaged in blurbs, photographs, and channel samples on Muzak’s website.

Why did background music become stale? Ronald Radano, in a paper that ends with a feeble call for reconciliation and adaptation on the part of consumers, argued that the orchestral arrangements of pre-1997 Muzak could induce a pleasant nostalgia, a rediscovery of old favorites through subliminal suggestion. Few opted to tarry with the emotional possibility of the symphonic mush muzak, which was why it was unsuitable for the work of corporate branding. Foreground music, however, retains in its putative originality the full emotional power of music, which can be employed selectively in combination to attract and repel specific demographics and lifestyles. Muzak states as much on its website: “Music. It’s the universal language. From Pop to Polka or Rococo to Rap, there’s a musical style perfect for every business.” That the company makes no attempt to disguise its intent indicates that the public has no or few reservations about the unification of business and music, whereas by the 70s people who had become aware of Muzak’s manipulation techniques disliked its piped music.

Manipulation is still there for all to see, should they care to. In the Why Muzak section of the website are the following pitches:

Overview. Audio Architecture is emotion by design. Our innovation and our inspiration, it is the integration of music, voice and sound to create experiences that link customers with companies. Its power lies in its subtlety. It bypasses the resistance of the mind and targets the receptiveness of the heart. When people are made to feel good in, say, a store, they feel good about that store. They like it. Remember it. Go back to it. Audio Architecture builds a bridge to loyalty. And loyalty is what keeps brands alive.

Creative process. It is as much an art as it is a science. The experiences we create are the result of an intuitive and intelligent understanding of design.

Imaging. Think of it this way. You are a brand. Your clothes, your hair, your way of walking, talking, living — all of those elements are unique to you. It’s the same with companies. Each one has a brand all its own. Muzak translates that image into a language that speaks to the heart. We call our creation Audio Imaging. It is the convergence of art and science, of methodology and intuition, of pulling out the parameters and accelerating to something as true as it is engaging.

This language seems too obvious, too thinly veiled to persuade experienced businesspersons. Where is the collection of empirical data, the graphs that plot the increase in the amount of time customers spend in stores with Muzak playing, the charts that establish sales increases? In fact, the last of three unimposing Related Links on the Why Muzak page is “The Positive Impact of Music in a Business Environment,” a document that cites between one and three studies each in support of music’s ability to reduce stress, effect brand perception, improve satisfaction, increase sales, and promote employee productivity. This empirical support resembles studies cited in the days of Stimulus Progression and factory slump-busting, but it’s significant that the document is presented as a related link and viewed in a separate window. This downplay reflects Muzak’s attempt to distance itself from its pre-reconfiguration image as the progenitor of a calculated instrument of control.

“‘Emotion by design’ is a perfect summary of the foreground music product. And what could be more manipulative? Then again, who will notice, let alone evince concern, when what they hear is pleasant?”

The new muzak — licensed commercial music — is “as much an art as it is a science” and “targets the receptiveness of the heart”; so, Muzak’s pitches do the same: they appeal to the businessperson’s desires for hip branding, for loyal customers, for “something as true as it is engaging.” By “pulling out the parameters” (eliminating the empirical restrictions, perhaps), the project of Audio Imaging collapses the binaries art/science, intuition/methodology, heart/mind, music/muzak, and, unfettered by the constraints of a strict rationality not in keeping with current trends, accelerates to something true. This “something true” is an experience, not a subliminal absorption and automatic response, but a genuine empathetic relation.

From the DSW Shoes case study page, in reference to a fundraiser:

“Music is a powerful thing,” said Derek Ungless, DSW executive vice president. “You hear a song, and you remember where you were. Hopefully when we come calling again next year, people will remember what a great evening they had because they’ve been enjoying this CD ever since.”

Disregarding the problem of whether “this CD” is available to be enjoyed in its DSW fundraiser form by the average attendee, the executive vice president’s testimonial is proof positive (or so Muzak would have it) that people believe in the associative power of music, that they will recall where they were when they heard a particular song they liked. The executive vice president’s conviction is substantiated by the following quotation, which accompanies the Overview page of the music section: “I do not have a business but I am so impressed with the music that is being played at the 99 Cent Store and found myself shopping longer just to hear the music,” Linda L., customer.

How many customers are there like Linda L.? Although she has left the store, her praise is in present tense because the experience of hearing music she liked at the 99 Cent Store, ordinarily not a place where one would expect to be moved, has remained with her. Linda L. might have gone straight home after lingering in the 99 Cent Store or taken out her iPhone and searched for the song or songs she had heard over the store’s speakers and enjoyed so much. If we can’t help but remember our first kiss when we hear the song that was playing on the car stereo, then Linda L. will think first and fondly of the 99 Cent Store when she listens to the music she heard there: its music.

“Emotion by design” is a perfect summary of the foreground music product. And what could be more manipulative? Then again, who will notice, let alone evince concern, when what they hear is pleasant? Muzak’s library, the Well, has over 2.6 million songs, after all, and Muzak’s Audio Architects are “creative types” and well-trained, so the chances are good that if you fall into the demographic and lifestyle targeted by a store you’ll like the music playing there. Where is the element of control when “part of what makes the program [Destinations] great is Dean’s personal passion for global culture and the most cutting-edge world music?”

Not only are the employees passionate about the music they organize (and the cultures that produce them, supposedly), but Muzak also cares about the children. The Muzak Heart & Soul Foundation was established in 1998 to “redefine and expand the scope of music education.” The program educates high school students about the business of music, to complement their education in the art and performance of music. If you have no qualms about the business Muzak runs (namely, “capturing the emotional power of music and putting it to work for businesses”), then this program will seem socially responsible and charitable. If, on the other hand, you aren’t convinced that stores are legitimate sites of musical experience and that music should be incorporated into the matrix of commodity associations, then the Heart & Soul Foundation will appear as a dubious section of the company’s PR department, either a transparent ad campaign or a program of indoctrination. Muzak engineer LaFouji Alexander explains, “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.” And what is Muzak, if not the company that believes that “with audio branding, you’re selling emotion, love, caring, feelings”?

Alvin Collins, a former senior vice-president of strategy and branding, introduced the audio branding strategy to the company. He said of an occasion when he entered a store, “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.” Indeed, Muzak is able to make a store more than “just an intellectual proposition,” more than a site of commerce. It is able to make the store a site of experience. “Experience” is an important word in music business and appears all over the websites of the largest companies. An experience is something memorable, and memory is vital to the construction of a brand.

(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three)