Muzak (1934- ) is a company that provides 60% of America’s background music – the sort you hear playing in the background in elevators, doctor’s offices, shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, airports, etc. Every day over 100 million people in over a dozen countries hear their music.
It is called elevator or lift music because that is where people notice it the most. But in a sense that is where it is at its worst because you are not supposed to notice it – yet it is supposed to affect your mood. Muzak does not play music in its own elevators.
Muzak is infamous for producing lifeless, second-rate instrumental versions of old hit songs. They even had studies showing that it can make people work better and shop longer. But since 1997 they have been moving away from that sort of music.
Muzak was the invention of Major General George Owen Squier. In the 1920s he discovered how to pipe music along power lines. The electric company could provide music just as easily as electricity. Squier named it Muzak, which comes from music + Kodak. Kodak because he thought it was a cool name.
Muzak was used in public for the first time in New York in 1936.
At first Muzak wanted to pipe its music everywhere – not just to businesses but to people’s homes too. But Muzak could not beat the radio. It only got a foothold with businesses, particularly big ones, because by law they were not allowed to play the radio or any recorded music without the right licensing agreements. Muzak took care of those licensing issues.
Up till the 1950s, Muzak was pretty much the same kind of music you heard on the radio. Sometimes even the same musicians produced both.
But then came rock music. It was so different from what came before that it would not work as background music for those who had not grown up hearing it. So while Muzak kept up with the latest inventions in music distribution – from piped music to tape recordings to discs to satellite to the Internet – it took Muzak over 40 years to catch up to rock music.
The change in thinking that required means that now they deal in all kinds of music.
They have a library of over 1.5 million pieces of music – the Beatles, 50 Cent, whatever they can get their hands on. Each piece is categorized not just by year, artist and genre, but also by producer and recording company.
Their music experts pick out the right pieces of music and put them in the right order for the mood that each of their customers, like Banana Republic or J.C. Penney, wants to set.
The music can change with the season, with the the music charts or even the time of day. Closing-time music, for example, is often different than the music that is played earlier in the day.
Muzak still produces that terrible elevator music that they are infamous for. They call it Environmental. It is common still in Japan but not in North America.