Website Review: Muzak.com

My wife arrived home from a bread-making class the other night with nearly a dozen still-warm, fragrant loaves. Within the next ten minutes, I found myself humming the following:

If a picture paints a thousand words

Then why can’t I paint you?

The words will never show

The you I’ve come to know

And when my love for life is running dry

You come and pour yourself on me.

 

As much as I’d like to consider myself a romantic, I don’t think this qualifies. Just about anyone who survived the soft-rock trends of the 1970s probably recognizes this as the song “If” by a miserable band known as Bread. Somehow, deep in an obscure neural pathway within my brain, I had made a connection between freshly baked bread and half-baked pop music from a quarter-century ago.

It’s probably a synapse much like this one that is responsible for the success of a company headquartered not far from my South Carolina home. Muzak, Inc. is now celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary, if it’s possible to “celebrate” on the brink of bankrupt dissolution. The firm responsible for making music as ubiquitous as the air we breathe is the subject of this week’s Website Review.

The original technology for Muzak was developed by inventor Maj. Gen. George Squier. For a time, it consisted of old-fashioned turntables playing records over a microphone, though the cost of sending out a repairman from the central office every time it started to skip quickly became prohibitive. Soon switched over to radio waves, it was pumped into factories during World War II to increase production, and later found its way into post-war offices with a signature bland background style that wouldn’t intrude on foreground tasks. This is where it acquired its label of “elevator music.”

When some members of the public discovered its attempt to manipulate behavior on a subliminal level, it was accused of brainwashing and hauled into court. It was later exonerated to such an extent that President Eisenhower had it installed in the West Wing and NASA used it to soothe nervous astronauts in space, where it’s well-known that no one can hear you scream. In 1989, rocker Ted Nugent offered $10 million to buy the company and shut it down but the bid was refused. Maybe showing off his collection of automatic weapons could’ve sealed the deal, though it’s too late for that now.

Today, Muzak is desperately trying to rid itself of a stodgy image, and claims at its website that it’s actually in the business of “audio architecture.” Clients can choose from a list of more than 80 programs, ranging from traditional categories like Environments (adult contemporary), Aura (new age) and Moodscapes (more new age) to modern offerings like Half Pipe (skate punk/hip-hop) and Ink’d (power metal). You can also customize a playlist that’s exclusive to your brand, as was probably done to torture detainees at Guantanamo Bay and dislodge loitering teenagers from convenience store parking lots. (It’s easy to worry that this weaponization of music degrades the beauty of the arts, but consider how the North Koreans might settle down if we laid a little dinner theatre on them.)

Muzak scientists can cite considerable research about how creating the right ambience in a business encourages clients to buy more, stay longer, spend higher amounts or even resist robbing the cashier. Customer Linda L. is quoted as saying “I’m so impressed with the music that’s being played at the 99 Cent Store that I found myself shopping longer just to hear the music.” So the addition of Hot Chocolate’s “I Believe in Miracles” to the retail experience has the potential to turn $1.98 in revenues into something approaching $4.95.

To broaden its appeal in our increasingly multimedia age, Muzak now offers not only music but also voice (professionally produced on-hold messages), video and, following a 2005 distribution agreement with ScentAir Technologies, fragrance systems that enhance the customer experience using smell. A press release at the time describes “aroma marketing solutions (that) create a unique in-store experience by engaging memory and emotions through patented scent-delivery systems.” Muzak uses a chocolate fragrance system in New York’s Hershey’s store, a leather aroma in Marshall Field’s furniture stores and, presumably, a cat-urine scent to keep people from tying up gas station restrooms for any longer than they can hold their breath.

As Muzak tries to evolve to meet twenty-first century demands, it faces more challenges than just the $438 million in debt that’s due to be paid in 2009. Fairly or not, it’s still saddled with a reputation that’s not exactly modern. The frequently asked questions portion of the website addresses this issue head on. “Is Muzak still elevator music?” is answered with a firm “No way!” A protest as vigorous as that is always suspect, and others in the industry acknowledge that although “they’ve been working hard at being perceived as hipper, Muzak has a giant elevator on its back.” Though being temporarily imprisoned in cramped box with strangers who could join you at any moment in a 50-story plunge to your death can be made marginally more enjoyable by Dexys Midnight Runners, it doesn’t seem like the best basis for a marketing campaign.

Muzak is also trapped by a level of brand recognition so high as to be almost detrimental. They are dangerously close to becoming the kind of term that passes into the public domain as a generic, much like Kleenex-brand tissue, Post-It-brand sticky notes and Syphilis-brand STDs. Nowhere in the website is there any hint of a possible name change – though CEO Steve Villa’s letter to customers mentions “many exciting opportunities” in the year ahead. If its proposed merger with rival DMX is ever approved, I suppose they could always work an “X” into their name. Perhaps Muxak, Muzax or Xuzak could create the kind of edgy, post-modern ambience that sounds and smells have thus far failed to deliver.

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2 Responses to “Website Review: Muzak.com”

  1. stinginthetail Says:

    okay – this one’s so strange i find it hard to believe, lol – i had no idea Muzak was an actual company…. wtf were they doing to get that much debt? What is wrong with these people?

  2. Yung Hamza Says:

    Awesome read! Appreciate you for this.

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