When Muzak, the company that pioneered piped music, announced in February 2009 that it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, some of the commentary was less than sober
When Muzak, the company that pioneered piped music, announced in February that it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, some of the commentary was less than sober. “Die, Muzak, Die!” opined NBC San Diego. The Independent called Muzak “the most reviled phenomena [sic] of the 20th century”. Really? Worse than fascism?
The timing of the news was unfortunate for the American company, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary. In 1934 General George Squier, a researcher in the Signal Corps of the US Army, rebranded his company Wired Radio as Muzak. The name combined the word music with the futuristic feel of one of the high-tech firms of the age: Kodak. Squier had invented a technique called multiplexing, which allows telephone wires to carry more than one conversation at a time, and a way of transmitting music over power lines. These technologies meant that music (without the interruptions and adverts of radio) could be “piped” into workplaces and businesses, the service that Muzak was established to provide.
Muzak – the name quickly became generic, applied to all forms of piped or background music – had two immediate applications. Elevators were becoming more common in the 1930s as tall buildings proliferated, and Muzak was used as a way of calming their nervous passengers. The sound of Muzak became indelibly associated with lifts, to the extent that it is often called “elevator music”.
But the company saw its product as being of far greater use in the workplace. Around the time that Squier was founding his company, British industrial psychologists S Wyatt and JN Langdon demonstrated that background music could increase productivity by helping workers engaged in repetitive labour overcome boredom, stress and fatigue. Muzak seized on this research and made it central to its marketing. During the Second World War, the system was found to boost productivity in factories by 11 per cent. After the war, Muzak became widespread; Eisenhower had it piped into the White House, and it was used to soothe American astronauts in space.
Piped music, however, has provoked wild opposition since even before it was widespread. It is considered intrusive, distracting and a form of noise pollution; its reduction of music into sugary “easy listening” is condemned as the height of naff, ersatz junk, or a reduction of transcendent art to mere wallpaper.
Absurd rock dinosaur Ted Nugent offered the company $10 million in 1989 to cease trading. More subtly, Muzak is attacked as a form of subliminal social control, a way of steering people’s behaviour and reducing them to compliant components in Fordist machine civilisation, either as placid workers or unthinking shoppers. From EM Forster’s 1909 story The Machine Stops and Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World through to films, such as The Stepford Wives and Dawn of the Dead, piped music serves as shorthand for inane consumer culture.
This is guilt by association. The 20th century saw the inexorable rise of the non-place, locations characterised by inactivity, passive consumption, or in-between-ness: airports, lifts, hotel lobbies, corporate atria, supermarkets, car parks.
Muzak has been an attempt to relieve the vacuous emptiness of these spaces, and in doing so it has become implicated in that emptiness. This is the use of music as a form of architectural decoration – indeed, whereas Muzak used to sell its product as “planned music” or “functional music”, it now presents itself as providing “audio architecture”. What used to be about the activities that happened in a space is now about providing an identity, and a sense of place. We’ve moved from wanting to be more productive to simply wanting to belong.
And Muzak’s role in the pervasive ennui of modern civilisation makes it culturally significant. Culture has turned around to embrace background music, from the work of minimalist composers including John Cage, Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt through to more mainstream phenomena, such as “new age” music, the electronic genre of trance, and “ambient” music, made popular by artists including Brian Eno and Aphex Twin.
In a world made cacophonous by personal music players and threatened by the rise of piped television, it’s hard not to look fondly, almost nostalgically, upon a naive, ad-free effort to make spaces better through art and psychology.