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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Muzak and Marketing

During recession the recovery of an iconic multinational and its escape from bankruptcy would generally be received as good news. But for many the salvation of Muzak, that US corporation who pioneered piped music, will not cause celebration. This is the organisation that heavy metal guitarist Ted Nugent attempted to buy so to destroy their entire catalogue. Muzak beamed bland music from orbital satellites claiming ‘Boring Music Makes Boring Work Seem Less Boring’ and ‘Music is Art, Muzak is Science’ whilst its scientific jargon, such as the Unique Stimulus Progression Programming,  lead them to rename the popular song Funky Town as S-3293 A-6.

The use of background music in religion, court, markets and warfare long pre-dates Muzak. For example, Mozart often composed for court, Telemann developed Musique de Table and the Dada exponent Satie created Musique d’ameublmement (furniture music) consisting of pieces like Phonic Floor Tiles – to be played at a luncheon. However it took US Army innovation to take background music into modernity with General George Owen Squire developing a wireless telegraphy that lead to the foundation of the Muzak Corporation – a name Squire coined to reflect music and sound like the corporation he admired, Kodak. Muzak arrangements typically consisted of popular songs re-arranged to fit easily into the background with heavy rhythms and vocals replaced by soft lounge piano, guitar, saxophone or vibraphone and then piped into shops, elevators, work places, bus stations, airplanes and eventually spaceships.

With the promise of boosted retail sales, Muzak soon became all-but ubiquitous throughout the business world. Muzak came to make outlandish claims not just relating to the boost in sales that clients could expect but also regarding worker productivity and they did so in their published reports such as Effects of Muzak on Industrial Efficiency and Research Findings on the Physiological and Psychological Effects of Music. Muzak would, they claimed, increase metabolism, speed up breathing, increase muscular energy, delay fatigue, facilitate attention and produce marked impacts on blood pressure and pulse.

By the 1970s Muzak seemed uniquely aligned with the US zeitgeist: President Nixon piped Muzak to the crowds during his Capitol Hill inauguration. Muzak could be heard at a Dog and Cat Hospital in Baltimore, a Bronx Zoo, a Turkish Bath in San Francisco, a High School in New Jersey, a mango plant in Florida, a mental hospital in Austin, a 39-storey, 21,000 tomb high rise cemetery in Rio de Janeiro and a dump in Minneapolis. There were plans to install Muzak into a police interrogation area and Muzak was used to keep staff vigilant at the US nuclear missile stations, the Pentagon, the White House and for crew members on board the so-called ‘angel of death’ Polaris missile carrying submarines and for astronauts on Apollo Missions. Muzak slogans then included ‘The New Muzak – A System for Security for the 70s’ whilst a Muzak bulletin put out by British franchisee Associated Television read ‘A Muzak transmission studio is a dream of 1984 automation’. Muzak often encountered opposition, for example 1969 UNESCO’s International Music Council passed a resolution in support of the International Council of Women denouncing these practices; as UNESCO activist and musical maestro Yehudi Menuhin commented “our world has become a sounding board for manmade sounds, amplified to suffuse and suffocate us”.

By the 1980s marketing academics were keen to conduct experiments demonstrating impacts of background music upon consumer behaviour following adjustments to tempo, pitch, rhythm and modality. A series of positivistic studies was conducted, often with contradictory results, in the spirit of perfecting retail space as sites of Pavlov-esque control. By the late 1990s, the practice had begun to shift towards developing background music amidst a more integrated retail atmospherics strategy that would fit with or reinforce organisational brand identity. The contemporary practice is increasingly to play cool music and sell consumers a hip idea of who they might be. Consequentially demand for formulaic bland music was replaced by an interest in licensing original recordings and gradually the demand for Muzak’s enormous back catalogue of “syrupy strings, homogenised horns and whipped-cream Wurlitzers languidly labouring to make us relax”, as described by Lanza, decimated. Instead we live in an age where marketers mine esoteric music in search for something dynamic, edgy and authentic, an age in which we are arguably more likely to hear interesting new music in advertisements and in stylish boutiques than we are on FM Radio, and more likely to hear edgy indie music in a bar than we are to hear Muzak’s kitsch.

The rise and fall (and rise again?) of Muzak reveals a fantasy at the heart of marketing in which marketers are cast as scientists that develop psychologically assessed and mathematically master-minded environment in which consumers are subliminally affected and controlled according to commercial agenda. The shift from playing bland to cool music registers a cultural transformation within marketing imagination. The goal of social control remains yet methods have shifted away from positivism towards a cultural charge, a transformation in which the marketer produces a new fantasy for her/himself: as historian Thom Franks put it, “no longer was he the other-directed technocrat, the most craven species of American businessman but the coolest guy on the commuter train, turned on to the latest in youth culture, rock music and drug-influenced graphic effects”. In any case the tale of Muzak reminds us to listen closely to our branded environment so to both see and hear marketing practice in action and transformation.

(for further reading see Conquest of the Cool by Thom Franks, Elevator Music by Joseph Lanza, Music in Everyday Life by Tia DeNora and the wonderful Paradise Programme by Haden-Guest)

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