Musak is in big financial trouble: files for bankruptcy

February 19, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More

A ubiquitous and uniquely American art form is in grave danger.  On February 10, 2009, Muzak Holdings LLC filed for bankruptcy protection. You know, Muzak, often referred to as “elevator music“:

The style of music used was deliberately bland, so as not to intrude on foreground tasks, and adhered to precise limitations in tempo and dynamics. This style of music blended into the background as intended in most situations, but was sometimes noticeable (particularly in quiet spaces such as elevators). Thus the word “Muzak” began to be used as a pejorative for this type of “elevator music.”

Muzak is an acquired taste.  I suspect that many of you haven’t invested the necessary time to come to terms with Muzak.  It takes  persistence and a wide-open sense of musicality to enjoy this specialized art form.   Muzak itself has been at fault for much of this lack of appreciation.  Consider Muzak’s obstinate failure to take its music and its musicians on nationwide tours and its failure to provide Muzak-half-noteappreciation courses for grade-school students.   Nor has Muzak taken the time to go into the inner cities to enrich the lives of underprivileged children with its idiosyncratic art form.  Perhaps, though, these failures were all for the best, given the attendant risk to enjoying Muzak: based on my own personal experience, Muzak is capable of triggering an especially pernicious and annoying form of earworm.

On a serious note, Muzak-type music has intentionally been employed as a social repellent:

During the last ten years, another use of elevator music has emerged, not with the aim of relaxation and pleasure, but to make loitering less attractive for those people who dislike the music (allegedly aimed toward drug addicts, prostitutes). For this purpose serious classical music (e.g. opera, marches or sonatas) is used and played louder than usual. One of the first places it was tested was in Amsterdam.

The bottom line is that Muzak is struggling and we might need to figure out what else we can possibly do in elevators and stores.  Maybe we’ll have to work harder to become interesting to ourselves.

Consider, finally, The Onion’s requiem for Muzak.

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Category: Humor, music

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. The original Muzak formula was to take standard well-known songs and water them down in a particularly trite manner. In recent years the classic Muzak style has been replaced by the ambient and lounge genres, which is music deliberately created to be used a background. Some of it is very beautiful and sophisticated. The old cliche of "elevator music" has been gone for some time, as far as I have seen.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    My brother had an apartment right behind the elevator shaft. The owners wanted music in the elevator, but not to pay the Muzak fee. So they put a radio tuned to easy listening on top of the elevator cabin.

    The music played quietly but incessantly through the thin wall of the apartment whenever the elevator was below his floor. As when waiting at the lobby all night long.

    One day, the radio vanished 😉 and peace descended. I don't think that I know anyone who will actually miss Muzak, or any of its ubiquitous ilk, should they falter.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Several years ago, the courts ruled that the practice of playing music over a store public address system was a commercial use of the music and that the stores should pay the publishers for this use of copyrighted materials. Muzak also provides a music license bundling service for ambient music played in shopping venues. This enables the smaller retail businesses to play ambient music in their stores without having to worry about legal action from the RIAA member companies.

    The larger retail and discount chains are able to provide this service for themselves and that has cut into Muzak's business. The elevator music wass only a part of this, and came about as a way to reduce the overhead by licenses the music from the writers and producing a version that wasn't controlled by the music publishers.

  4. Jim says:

    As a long time customer of and supplier to Muzak I find myself amazed at the total lack of knowledge, understanding and appreciation for who and what Muzak is today.

    Yes indeed when General George Squire combined the names of his two loves, music and a military leaders appreciation for the Kodak company he created the soon to be ubiquitous term Muzak. He found that by playing music in the highly stressful office environment of the early pentagon days productivity was increased and some of the stress was mitigated.

    Soon building designers learned that as skyscrapers dotted the landscape many first time city visitors wear a little weary of stepping into a little box and being elevated to previously unknown heights. So music was piped into the box to sooth the apprehensive and nervous passengers. Oh sure in those early days the technology was not available to play current "hits", so the next best thing and the only available type of content was played.

    Now flash forward to today, where the only tie to the companies 75 years of history is the name Muzak. In this day when iconic American companies are falling by the wayside I would think people would take a minute, perhaps even use this internet for something actually approaching a positive use and do a little research into who the company is today inside of rehashing the "elevator music" title long ago made irrelevant. Thank you Mr. Pulcinella for understanding that today's Muzak is indeed a cutting edge company that employs hundreds of people dedicated to delivering musical experiences.

    Perhaps Mr. Vieth's witticism would actually approach relevancy if he had conducted a little research and due diligence into the Heart & Soul Program of Muzak. He would have learned that the company donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to needy school systems that have eliminated funding for music and art programs. He would also have learned of the "Noise Camp" programs the company runs each year to provide deserving teens 10 days in the company of music industry talent to encourage, support and prepare their journey into the music and entertainment field, all at no cost to the students, schools or parents. Then there are the multitude of musical events, fund raisers, auctions and local band showcases that all contribute to the Heart & Soul program.

    The final place where Muzak would be missed is in the bank accounts of the thousands of obscure to mainstream artists bank accounts. Pretty much every major retail, dining and hospitality business in the country uses Muzak, or one of it's market competitors to deliver entertainment to their clients. There is a fee associated with playing those songs and the artist themselves benefit greatly from those royalties.

    As for becoming more interesting ourselves, I'm all for that, but when dining out, do I really need to listen to the pig at the next table chew like a cow and listen to him drunkenly share some inane story? No thank you, I'll take Clapton and Santana to enhance our evening out and be the soundtrack to our own conversation.

    Losing Muzak means losing a company dedicated to preserving, educating and sharing a love of music with our children. It also serves in distributing current, popular and client (the same clients you shop) requested genres of music, all at no cost to you. They services would only be replaced by other companies significantly less dedicated to education and support of the arts for the sake of music.

    I value and understand the right we all possess to share and voice our opinions, but please, do a little research into your topic and understand that when a company name is iconic (think Zerox or Coke) there is generally an interesting story and rich history in how it became so.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Thanks Jim for the historical background. I am in Nashville where I often hear country remakes of of 1970's rock and r&b hits, at the grocery store.

    While I am aware that Muzak provides a wide variety of subscription music channels in every conceivable genre, It is so umbiquitous that most people don't realize it is Muzak that is providing the service, and still associate Muzak with the low key instrumental jazz covers of the 50's and 60's.

    If Muzak does go out of business, it will be missed. After all, you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

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