Corporate Takeover [Part Two] The Collapse of the Muzak/Music Distinction

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

(Troubling) Implications

Background music probably lost its potency, or at least its invisibility, when people began listening to it with “a fresh, ironic ear,” (Lanza, “The Sound of Cottage Cheese [Why Background Music Is the Real World Beat!]”) thereby bringing it into the foreground, for which it was unsuited. The introduction of foreground music was a remarkable if almost predetermined adaptation to new awareness, because it cannot be identified as muzak except by context. In other words, there is nothing intrinsic to music that makes it art rather than muzak; purely aesthetic valuations are unable to distinguish between music/muzak because of the incredible scope of Muzak’s programming. A Muzak creative manager confesses, “There are so many songs out there that if I listened to just one I’d never know whether it was Muzak or not.” (In 2006, Muzak’s Well contained 775 Beatles songs, an astounding number given that the Wikipedia page “List of The Beatles songs” lists only 292.) Muzak’s audio architects’ skill is in organizing and ordering songs to create a cohesive identity, so where three songs apart could be anything, in sequence with smooth transitions they are, at least hypothetically, an identifiable Muzak product.

The relevant evaluative category is now functionality. Jones and Schumacher (in “Muzak: On Functional Music and Power”) explain:

By “functional” music, we mean music used principally to support and encourage some other primary activity, whether the production and consumption of goods and services or the reproduction of social and symbolic order in public spaces. While recognizing that all music has cultural and social functions, we use the term “functional” in this context to apply to music whose primary goals are utilitarian.

Muzak is functional music used to promote consumption. The difference between pre- and post-reconfiguration muzak is that the former was produced specifically for the purpose of being piped into public places in order to influence people. Licensed music might or might not have originally been recorded with the intent to distribute massively, but in many cases the music was not produced for the express purpose of being played in stores to increase sales. That is, many artists’ original goals did not include contributing to the creation of a brand (presumably). So if “Yesterday” by The Beatles is muzak when played in a retail outlet, where it’s played for the utilitarian purpose of inspiring consumerism, is it muzak when played on a home stereo system? Is “once muzak always muzak” a valid principle, or is it now possible for a song to be both music and muzak? Could it be that the distinction is no longer useful?

“So if ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles is muzak when played in a retail outlet, where it’s played for the utilitarian purpose of inspiring consumerism, is it muzak when played on a home stereo system?”

One answer lies in Radano’s advocacy for the pleasantly nostalgic character of background music. He writes (in “Interpreting Muzak: Speculations on Musical Experience in Everyday Life”), “Public broadcasts of the consensus repertory offer to each of us a familiar sonic world onto which we impose our personal associations and experiences.” Here participation is essential — muzak is only a familiar sonic world if the consumer is an active participant in mainstream music culture. On this view, Muzak can only be appreciated (or better, utilized) by those people who recognize the songs, who are already implicated in the matrix of associations. Foreground music might be more effective against consumers who have never heard the songs before, whose first and strongest associations will be forged while shopping. Assuming the effectiveness of sensory branding, once a person hears “Yesterday” played in a commercial context, the song becomes incontrovertibly muzak.

Now we can understand how it is that DMX, one of Muzak’s largest competitors — “Building brands through sensory experience design” — can claim to “[use] consumer lifestyle trends, market segmentation, and branding expertise to design compelling music experiences.” Shopping is no longer a task whose stressfulness can be ameliorated by the soothing, almost subliminal broadcast of a light arrangement of “Stardust”; it is rather an opportunity to engage with products while listening and discovering compelling music, music the consumer will want to take from the store into the home. This is the central movement: background music utilized the familiar sounds of domestic music to familiarize and make comfortable public spaces; foreground music utilizes taste and lifestyle to acculturate consumers about what they should listen to in private. And of course, if consumers have compelling music experiences in-store, they will seek to recreate them with their iPods at home, at work, in transit, at the gym, etc. If consumers are moved by music they hear in stores, they will willingly program themselves by listening to songs whose central associations are with commercial products.

Take, for example, the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir.” I would guess that for most people, the song recalls first and foremost TV commercials and Godzilla. Unless you don’t own a TV or a radio and you don’t shop in any large outlets, there are probably thousands of songs you have heard used in commercials or in stores to sell products. Arguably, you can no longer listen to these songs as music (i.e., as non-commercially functional music) unless you have forgotten their commodity associations. But who can forget the familiarity that comes with public exposure? Just as familiarity was essential to the efficacy of the old muzak in making laborers and consumers comfortable in public environments, familiarity is now essential to the viral efficacy of foreground music. The more familiar a person is with the song, the more likely s/he is to recognize the song’s associated product. Just as there was a nagging feeling of “I know that from somewhere” when the orchestral arrangement of “Stardust” came on the store speakers, there is a similar nagging feeling when “Kashmir” comes on the speakers in someone’s home. Business has infected our memories; commodities are part of the associative matrix recalled when we listen to music in private. The music itself has become a commodity through its functionality. The formula is: generate interest in the music, sell the music, sell the product. What can remain music as opposed to muzak is reduced to the domain of the unutilized and unutilizable.


Research and Investigation

In an interview with Fortune in 2003, the founder and chairman of Clear Channel Communications said, “We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.” Muzak, however, makes its entire business out of providing well-researched music. That might be one reason why people have complained about Clear Channel but not about Muzak in recent years: while some are unhappy about what they hear on commercial radio stations, they either like the music they hear in retail outlets or realize they have no say in the matter. Given that Muzak designs stores’ music selections to correspond to consumer preferences — if you like the clothes, you should like the music — it seems that increased public awareness of Muzak’s methods and operations might not be as decisive or effective a solution as it might have been several decades ago.

Nevertheless, curious about the extent to which the public is aware of the foreground music phenomenon, I visited the Providence Place Mall (and the Urban Outfitters on Thayer Street) to try to get an idea of what some employees think of the music played in their workplaces. Half of those I talked to told me that they weren’t supposed to “do that kind of thing” (take surveys, answer questions) or that it was a waste of company time. The other half agreed to fill out a survey. All seven respondents notice the music played in their workplace, but, despite the fact that they listen to some songs between two and ten times in one shift, all answered that the music does contribute to a positive work environment. Surprising, perhaps, given that some of the employees told me that they “tune it out most of the time” or that they “hear it so much it doesn’t stick out anymore,” and most had trouble listing artists and songs they had heard that day or ever, even in stores with Top 40 playlists. Even greater was my surprise that given the choices “dislike very much,” “dislike,” “no opinion,” “like,” and “like very much” regarding their opinion of the in-store music, two employees answered “like very much,” four “like,” and one “no opinion.”

In Hollister, a pleasant if weary employee told me that a screen that displays the song currently playing in the store used to be interactive, such that the employees could design the store playlist in real-time. That feature hadn’t survived the previous fiscal year, to the disappointment of this employee, whose answer to the question “On average, how many times does a particular song play per day?” was “Too often every hour” and who answered “like” regarding her preference for the music. Despite the presence of the screen, she could name only two of the artists she had heard that day and spelled both their names incorrectly. She was also the only respondent who had purchased a CD or downloaded a mix offered by a retail outlet. She had bought “something corporate” from HCO (Hollister, Co., presumably).

“Not only are our experiences circumscribed by advertising — our music, which was arguably once secure in its spontaneity and idiosyncrasy, is now threatened by marketing that has assimilated its opposite and converted resistance to kitsch into kitsch through branding.”

Of the seven respondents, five associate the songs played in-store with their companies’ products, two do not. Perhaps significant is that of the two employees from Urban Outfitters who took the survey, the one who does not associate the music with the products was the only one of the employees surveyed who has “no opinion” of the in-store music. The other UO employee “likes [the music] very much” but also associates it with Urban Outfitters’ products. Curiously, the three words she used to describe the store’s ambiance were “HIPSTER,” “Laid back,” and “comfy.” The word “hipster,” in all caps, she almost certainly used pejoratively. She probably does not think herself a hipster, and yet she works at the store, likes the music a lot, and associates the music with the products, which leads me to believe that she likes the products as well, or at least does not dislike them. So does the store’s ambiance not supervene on the products, design, and music? What other quality is present that enables this employee to associate herself with the company but not with the target lifestyle?

Although these results are insufficient for statistical significance and easily discarded as unreliable because of their inconsistencies, I think they’re quite suggestive. If most of the employees polled realize that the music is meant to function as a branding tool to sell the products, if they are subjected to playlists that change only monthly or, in one case, quarterly, why are they not driven mad by repetition? It isn’t so terrible, apparently, since the employees enjoy the music despite its overexposure (or, if they lied about that, they at least remain at work). And why should they not enjoy it? If it did seriously irritate them, they would apply for a job at a different store with music more suited to their taste. Their seemingly superhuman resistance to repetition (“tuning it out,” the best solution, I’m sure) aside, the employees are not so different from the customers — the music attracts the ones who are better-suited for the brand and repels those who are worse-suited.

Although awareness might have been sufficient for the ossification of background music, it is unlikely to be sufficient in the case of foreground music. Foreground music might in fact be perfectly adaptable, because its content is not formulaic. It tracks changes in musical taste.

However, we might hope that shock will lead to an increased consciousness of the manipulation of foreground music. We can indulge in the following thought experiment to test this hope. We form a band and write a few songs that parody in-store songs. We paint posters that say “Listen while you shop” and “Jam for Corporate Ownership of Music 2010.” After preparations are complete, we set up outside an Urban Outfitters and play an ironic promotional show, intended to make passersby and customers aware that the music played in-store is there not for their musical edification (or not merely, because awareness of the musical mainstream is necessary for the optimal functioning of foreground music’s emotional appeal) but for their emotional manipulation. Our guerrilla show fails, as it must. Those passersby who do not simply see it as a nuisance will suspect that the show is a marketing ploy. They are justified in their belief, because companies have already fully incorporated the values of America’s youth: spontaneity, celebrity, uniqueness, experience. If we were to pull our stunt in the UK, people would associate it with Smirnoff.

Marketing can absorb anything. Mohawks and Jackson Pollock and cliff diving are all associated with Beck’s Beer (“Different by choice”). Smirnoff’s “Be There” campaign “invites you to be restless, to be inventive, to be extraordinary, to be able to say ‘I was There [sic].’” Smirnoff claims as its domain experiences like a group of youths hauling ice to the top of a hill, stripping to their underwear, unrolling a slip ‘n’ slide, and waiting for the sprinklers to turn on. Not only are our experiences circumscribed by advertising — our music, which was arguably once secure in its spontaneity and idiosyncrasy, is now threatened by marketing that has assimilated its opposite and converted resistance to kitsch into kitsch through branding. There are products for those who are alike and there are products for those are different. Everything is commodifiable.

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

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