Elevator Music

In music school back in the day we had a bad joke that went something like this: “I hope the fellow who invented Muzak isn’t working on something else”. Well the fellow who invented “Muzak®” was Major General George Owen Squire who also held the patent on multiplexing, the simultaneous distribution of multiple analogue signals over the same network. So indeed he was working on something else and it’s a good thing because that technology and several of his other patents helped to jump start turn of the (last) century communications. It also made Muzak possible.

Muzak like “Kleenex” has become a generic descriptor for a specific class of product, regardless of the actual brand. Unlike “Kleenex” the term Muzak is sometimes used as a perjorative, a snickering judgment made by musicians to an alleged bland and mindless reading of "instrumental favorites", frequently as the punch line to a joke.

Like Kleenex, its profits were nothing to sneeze at.

Also known as “Elevator Music” (to my knowledge the Muzak company never actually offered elevator music as a service; such is the power of pop culture to bend history) there was science behind the bland and relaxing message. Referred to as “Stimulus Progression” the music was programmed in 15-minute intervals followed by 15 minutes of silence. The effect (in theory) was to “stimulate” productivity in a relaxed environment that provided pacing and a soothing temperament designed to empower a good day’s work.  (Apparently there were also technical limitations to the length of audio they could play at one time: 15 minutes).

In later years, beamed from a satellite in geostationary orbit at 119 degrees West Longitude, Muzak was ubiquitous; a kind of audio Kudzu covering the music landscape, morphing into millions of cues across dozens of discrete channels of programming. And then, it died. The world had changed. 

The day the Muzak died (in bankruptcy court) was February 10, 2009. Today it lives again, beautifully and successfully reinvented with a new owner but the commercial moniker “Muzak” has been lost to the ages; its colloquial use endures. I like “Muzak”; I think General Squire was on to something.

In modern terms, he found a way to “monetize content”, cleverly devised ways to structure his data and created technology with which to distribute it. He actually used music as a loss leader for his technology, just the way trolley companies built theme parks to stimulate traffic on their rail lines. Brilliant. Originally piped into peoples’ homes (the service appeared as a line item on their electric bills) when radio came along the model was changed the company set its sites on business. In other words, they adapted. To survive. As the music world continues to change, musicians would do well to study his lessons of survival and evolution and as companies struggle with how to manage and leverage big data, they might best ponder it against the soft strains of dynamically limited but impeccably “in-tune” strings. 

Artistic integrity and profitability are not mutually exclusive; if they were Haydn would be considered a hack, a minion of the Esterhazy conglomerate and we’d laugh at Bach for having a day job. Nope. Background music is well produced and generally well performed. (When was the last time you heard a trumpet “clam” while walking through frozen foods?) Technical innovation – well managed content - broad distribution – sustainable profits.

 Sounds like business is humming.


©2015 Minerd Music Works LL