Last week it was reported that debt-ridden Muzak Holdings LLC had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This was no doubt a blow to the company’s 1,250 employees in Fort Mill, S.C., especially at a time when jobs are scarce. In recent years Muzak has repositioned itself as a leader in “audio architecture,” but at a time when businesses are having trouble holding on to their “brick and mortar” architecture, it is easy to see why Muzak is in trouble.
Muzak was the brainchild of Major General George Owen Squier, a West Point graduate with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. Gen. Squier may have been the most celebrated inventor of his day, had it not been for his contemporaries Thomas Edison and Wilber and Orville Wright. In fact, as one of the founders of the U.S. Air Force, Gen. Squier negotiated with the Wrights to buy the first U.S. Army airplanes. More important, Squier invented the multiplexing process (whereby multiple analog message signals are combined into one signal over a shared medium), was then elected to the National Academy of Science, and had a class of troopships named after him. Still, for all that, he will go down in history as the creator of Muzak.
It was in 1922 that Squier capitalized on his wartime telecommunications experience by founding Wired Radio, a service that piped dance music and newscasts into businesses over electric lines. The general was by no means the first to see the beneficial effects of background music on production — as early as 1915, Edison was asked to install several of his new phonograph machines in a cigar factory, and General Electric had been hiring piano players to play in its shops for decades. Squire, who was partial to the sound of the brand name Kodak, later changed the name of the company to Muzak. After Squier’s death in 1934, Muzak playlists evolved from dance tunes and newscasts to deliberately bland compositions performed by a company orchestra. It was these compositions that were introduced into elevators to calm the nerves of jittery passengers and earned Muzak the derogatory nickname “elevator music.”
Throughout the mid-20th century Muzak oozed into America’s airports, grocery stores, dentist offices and bank lobbies, reaching at its peak100 million listeners a day. But by the late 1960s, rival companies appeared on the scene, most delivering original rock tunes instead of square old Mantovani covers. By the 1980s, background music was no longer simply a strategy to boost productivity; it was ingrained in the culture. People grew anxious and edgy in its absence, not unlike junkies in need of a fix.
The inevitable Muzak backlash came in the 1980s, when rocker Ted Nugent tried — and failed — to buy the company for $10 million so he could “destroy it.” More and more, banks, doctor’s offices, and restaurants realized they could save a bundle by purchasing a speaker system and tuning into a local easy rock radio station or simply popping in a cassette tape. Today nearly every restaurant, lobby, department store, and supermarket has its own endless audio loop that seems stuck on Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” or some such diabolical earworm. As I’ve doubtless mentioned, I have a low threshold for psychic pain, which is why shopping causes me more than the usual amount of agony. In my younger days I actually worked in one of these evil aural environments and I don’t think I’ve ever recovered.
RECENTLY BRITAIN’S Independent newspaper called Muzak “one of the most reviled phenomena of the 20th century.” That seems a bit extreme. After all, the pop music — or, more likely, television shows — played in waiting rooms and restaurants today makes me long for the heyday of relatively harmless Muzak. Or — even better — silence. I am old enough to remember a time when one could walk the aisles of Piggly Wiggly without being subjected to the outrageous ululations of some R&B diva. For most people, however, the sound of silence would have some sort of catastrophic effect one dare not imagine. Indeed, the only thing evidently worse than silence is classical music. This brings me to a story Theodore Dalrymple likes to recount in which the Belgian writer Simon Leys describes the alarming effects of classical music on your average person:
Leys was sitting in a café where other customers were chatting, playing cards, or having a drink. The radio was on, tuned to a station that relayed idle chatter and banal popular music (you are lucky these days if popular music is banal only). But suddenly, and for no apparent reason, it played the first movement of Mozart’s clarinet quintet, transforming the café into what Leys called “the antechamber of paradise.” The customers stopped what they were doing, as if startled. Then one of them stood up, went over to the radio, and tuned it to another station, restoring the idle chatter and banal music. There was general relief, as if everyone felt that the beauty and refinement of Mozart were a reproach to their lives to which they could respond only by suppressing Mozart.
So who needs Mozart? In the hands of a great composer, even canned background music can approach the sublime. This was certainly the case in the ambient sound recordings of Brian Eno, particularly his “elevator noir” masterwork Music for Airports, recorded in 1978. The idea for Music for Airports came to Eno, not surprisingly, while his flight was delayed at Cologne Bonn Airport and he was forced to endure hours of uninventive, grating background music. Today Eno’s music graces those same terminals. And while insipid background music inspired Brian Eno, Eno’s ambient works inspired Muzak’s recent venture into audio architecture.
Society’s default cultural setting is set incredibly low, and seems to inch lower every year. Far from reversing the trend, I fear Muzak’s passing will only drag us deeper into the cultural abyss.