The history of Muzak

Banal at its best, stress-inducing at its worst, the phenomenon of background muzak can be traced largely to one man. John Evans tells the sorry tale

Upon an old elevator door stands a vintage sign indicating the floor

The year 1934 was a tragic one for music and not only because Elgar, Delius and Holst died – it was the year that muzak was born, too.

Actually, that’s Muzak with a capital ‘M’. In lower-case form, muzak describes the type of bland, background music you hear in shops and elevators, but Muzak is the name of the company that pioneered and developed the genre 80 years ago. It was founded in 1934 by George Owen Squier, a US Army major general who, in his spare time, was a pioneer of multiplexing, one of the wonders of the modern age that allows multiple electrical signals to be transmitted by a single wire or cable.

Prior to launching his company, Squier had been using electrical power lines to transmit
a choice of three channels of recorded music directly into homes and businesses in the US. Customers paid for the service in their electricity bill. For a time the service had the edge on radio but as wireless developed and its range of content broadened, so the appeal of Squier’s so-called Wired Radio service declined.

Not to be outflanked, in 1934 the major general began booking bands and orchestras to produce exclusive recordings of popular songs that only his customers could enjoy. He also changed the name of his service to Muzak; a combination of music and Kodak, the photographic company whose name he admired.

Unfortunately, along with Elgar and co, the enterprising Squier died that same year, but his dream of piped music lived on as, increasingly, Muzak turned its fire on New York’s restaurants and hotels, offering a choice of tailored music, free of jingles and DJs.

So far, so smooth, but it was in 1936 that Muzak came of age with the idea that music could make workers more productive. It began to programme 15-minute segments of music that would ease people into their work, free them of stress, boost their productivity and leave them on a high. The idea needed a pseudo-scientific name and in 1940 the company had it: ‘Stimulus Progression’. Bosses and even their workers testified to its work-enhancing effects and before long the US was toiling and, once it arrived in shopping malls, spending to Muzak.

The company’s masterstroke was to insist that Muzak should be specially recorded, arranged and programmed to fit each segment. Crucially, to avoid interrupting workers’ mindless, robotic activity, the performances were uniformly bland. So was born the sound that came to define Muzak. Very soon, the public demanded its own Muzak at home, not to inspire greater efforts at the sink or in the garden but to accompany a fondue with friends, or a daiquiri at dawn. And so muzak, as a term for that sonic syrup that leaves some people relaxed but many stressed to the point of a myocardial infarction, was born.

Backlash

The backlash begins with the arrival of pop in the 1960s and ’70s, muzak began to emerge from the shadows, loud and proud. Almost overnight Muzak, with its dodgy scientific principles, morphed into muzak, with no principles whatever. The company that once blazed a trail for the likes of today’s Spotify internet music service went bust in 2009. It was eventually bought in 2011 by Mood Media, based in Austin, Texas. Tellingly, it decided to drop the Muzak brand name, which had become so toxic, not least to one famous British composer.

Peter Maxwell Davies’s dislike of Muzak

After an exhausting day spent teaching in Canterbury in 2011, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the former Master of the Queen’s Music, was feeling a little peckish. He surveyed his options in the Kent town and alighted upon a trattoria called the Olive Grove. As he sat down at the table and perused the menu, something began bothering him.

‘It was idiotic pop music,’ he told a reporter later. ‘You just couldn’t hear yourself think, let alone order. It was deafening. I asked the waitress if it could be turned down – and it was, but then it came back up again. It was like something you would hear in a lift.’

Without further ado, Davies cast aside the menu, stood up and left the restaurant in search of a quieter establishment. The music he was referring to, and which so enraged him, shows no signs of going away. Muzak has gained such a hold that in late 2014, a small group of anti-muzak protesters met to honour the UK’s quietest, muzak-free places – and name and shame its noisiest.

Pipedown

The group, called Pipedown, was formed 20 years ago but this was its first awards ceremony. The judges included the actress Prunella Scales (who, as Sybil in Fawlty Towers, infamously called Brahms’s Third Sympony a ‘racket’) and the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Awards were given across a number of categories. The Quietest Supermarket award went to Waitrose and Quietest Department store to its parent company, John Lewis. Foyles won Quietest Bookshop chain and Wetherspoons, Quietest Pub chain.

At the other extreme, the Co-op was voted the loudest supermarket and HSBC the noisiest bank – all of its branches play HSBC Radio, broadcasting a mix of news, product information and music. A spokeswoman was unaware of Pipedown’s award but said customers enjoyed its service: ‘We play a live radio station in our branches and have always had positive feedback from customers and staff who say it lightens the atmosphere. Customers also tell us they appreciate some background noise when they’re discussing their banking.’

Nigel Rodgers, Pipedown’s founder, claims he and his fellow members, who number 2,000 in the UK, are not ‘killjoys’ out to silence muzak wherever it is played. ‘People should be given a choice,’ he says. ‘At the moment, there’s little escape from it.’ But Pipedown judge Julian Lloyd Webber was stronger in his condemnation: ‘I loathe and detest it. As a musician, I have been trained to really listen to music but muzak is another person’s idea of what I should be listening to. I agree it has its place in venues such as the Hard Rock Café where rock music is part of the experience, but in a bank? I’d have a juke box in a pub, certainly, but one playing John Cage’s 4’33”.

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    It started with Satie

    Back in Austin, Texas, thousands of miles from Pipedown’s awards ceremony in London, Mood Music Corporation, which put Muzak safely away at the back of a drawer, continues to offer bespoke selections of background, and foreground, muzak as part of its package of so-called ‘business music solutions’. The company did not want to talk to BBC Music Magazine but its website gives a flavour of the muzak it sells.

    Among its sample tracks are selections of classical music loosely bundled under titles including Mezzanine, Intermezzo and Sunday Pops. The latter segues from the first movement of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 2 in E major to Burt Bacharach’s ‘I Say a Little Prayer’. It’s a clash of musical cultures so bizarre that you’d buy that overpriced scent in duty free just to get out of the shop before it comes around again. Which was, perhaps, the idea all along.

    But one last thought: did Holst, Elgar and Delius really die the year muzak was born, or had they perhaps experienced it without realising? In 1917 Erik Satie composed a collection of pieces under the title Musique d’ameublement, loosely translated as ‘Furniture Music’. They were intended to be unobtrusive works performed between acts in a play, as the audience strolled around the theatre. As such, they were to be experienced more as muzak than as works to be enjoyed in their own right. The composer’s notes accompanying one of the pieces, Carrelage phonique, says that it should sound ‘ordinary’ and can be played during lunch.

    Being short works Satie suggested they could be repeated indefinitely while the audience relaxed between the play’s acts. Knowing his taste for mischief, and had the term existed, might he have called his collection ‘Muzak d’ameublement?’

This article first appeared in the May 2015 of BBC Music Magazine. Words by John Evans.

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