The word Muzak has become part of American slang, referencing for several decades now the soothing music played softly in elevators around the nation.
Although Muzak has long been associated with dull or mildly annoying instrumental tracks, the inventor and founder of the company had always intended to create background music that improved the mood of customers and employees in retail and office settings. Today, the original Muzak company that is owned by Mood, an audio service who purchased it in 2011, is now just one modern option for providing background music for business settings. While the history of the Muzak company is long and impressive, the concept that music impacts psychology is universal and, in the past decade, has been taken up by a few modern music services that might be right for your business.
The Early History of Background Music
Muzak – both the company and the wired wireless method for piping music into spaces – first appeared in the 1920s as a music “utility” on subscribers’ electricity bills. Created in 1922 by George Owen Squier, the idea for Muzak first came about when Squier was tinkering with technology and different modes of transmission as a major general in the United States Army’s signal corps, This led him to create a wireless music transmission service that supplied subscribers with their own gramophone, which was capable of picking up music he specifically beamed to their frequency. By the time Squier’s gramophone technology matured, however, home radios had become inexpensive and prevalent, allowing customers to listen to free broadcasts of music, news, and audio dramas.
In 1934, after a few years of calling his service Wired Radio, Squier officially named his company Muzak. The new name was partly a play on Kodak, the popular film and camera company of that time, and, after some reorganization, the company focused its sights on commercial clients, such as offices, restaurants, and retail spaces. Muzak sent its first broadcasts to clients in 1936, and the following year the company was purchased by Warner Brothers, who then sold Muzak after World War II.
Shifting Focus: From Streaming Technology to Music Psychology
During the 1940s, companies not only wanted their employees to be more productive but also hoped to see their customers spend more money in-store. Thus, this idea that music could influence a shopper’s mood or even make them feel happy, linger in the store, and eventually purchase more items because they felt good, became a core part of Muzak’s identity. In the early 1940s, Muzak’s team began to focus more on the psychology of music in commercial spaces than on the technology that got it there. This led to the company patenting the term “stimulus progression,” an approach to music programming designed to make office workers more productive. The strategy was to make instrumental music ramp up in speed and intensity in 15-minute intervals, going from easy listening to slightly more intense.
At the same time, the company exercised a deep influence on pop music trends, as many people purchased albums of the company’s music and played them at home. With the concept of “stimulus progression” remaining a core part of Muzak’s philosophy until the 1990s, Muzak also thrived on creating background music for many settings, triggering specific emotions in movie viewers or different types of listeners at certain key points. Even the astronauts on the Apollo 11 Mission listened to Muzak to calm themselves down.
With Muzak offering the most calming and trusted instrumental options available at the time, many businesses turned to the psychology-driven brand, inextricably tying the brand name to background music for small spaces. Indeed, while the company’s music has been played in thousands of settings all over the world for decades, the brand name’s strong association with elevator music is perhaps the most obvious signal of its success in businesses. Elevator music was designed to calm people who became nervous in elevators, and as more elevators were added to larger department stores, the music service was able to make its mark in retail and office spaces.
How the Curated Playlist Changed Music Business
A major ideological competitor arose in the 1990s. A Seattle-based company named Yesco began creating curated playlists of pop songs with lyrics that were intended as foreground music, an intentional jab at Muzak’s pervasive background music. While the company’s unpopularity had been rising since the 1960s, Muzak offered a specific set of sounds that businesses could rely on. The landscape began to change with Yesco, not just because their philosophy was different, but because the company used famous songs or genre-specific music, like grunge, pop, rap, and country.
To compete with the curated playlists and licensing provided by Yesco, Muzak reorganized again, this time creating teams of “audio architects” who created “atmospherics” for business clients. These atmospherics were custom-built sound landscapes using the music that Muzak already owned. These were not merely playlists but ways for a company to set itself apart from surrounding businesses. The soundscapes in the business would be associated specifically with that business, and if a customer happened to hear that “Muzak” anywhere else, they would be reminded of the original brand.
Unfortunately, the pseudoscientific approach to customized business tunes could not last forever. Muzak acquired Yesco, but then Muzak itself filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
While the company Mood bought the elevator music giants in 2011 and phased out the term Muzak, the philosophy of creating soundscapes for business customers continues to drive its operations.
Today, companies everywhere understand and strive to capitalize on the ways music affects our mood and emotions. In fact, Cloud Cover Music, one of the leading music streaming providers for businesses big and small, was founded on the idea that listening to the right music at the right time can boost the desired ambiance and motivate positive behaviors. Then there’s still Mood, who also explores how sight solutions, scent solutions, integrated social media strategies, and hardware can improve the quality of lights and sounds in commercial establishments. Though most all of the modern options for businesses today exhibit a keen understanding of how music influences consumer habits, it is important to find a music streaming provider that protects you from in-store music laws, all of which have strict policies on what exactly businesses can and cannot play for their customers.
The Internet’s Impact on Entertainment Law and the Music Industry
With faster and more reliable internet connections, mobile devices and apps, and higher-quality digital music, streaming services have become very prevalent.
Born out of free MP3 sharing services that originated with Napster, the music industry struggled in the late 1990s and early 2000s to contain illegal downloads and file sharing. In 2001, Napster was forced to shut down after facing major lawsuits involving copyright violations. However, the online demand for easy-to-access music is still strong today.
In 2003, Apple launched its iTunes store. This music library managed copyright licenses with specific recording companies and performing rights organizations (PRO), charging less than $1 per song to download and listen to the music privately. Apple linked iTunes with its first few generations of iPods, then to its other devices, and now, the software is available to play music on any computer or mobile device.
Apple proved that the millions of people who downloaded free MP3s would be willing to pay for their music as long as the price was reasonable. As smartphone and mobile device technology improved even more, companies developed apps for streaming services like:
- Sirius XM
- Apple Music
- Slacker Radio
As more users download streaming services and listen to ads or pay for ad-free music, more and more people get used to the presence of this technology and assume that their personal access translates into universal access.
If you are a business owner and you play your streaming playlist or station in your store, however, you are breaking copyright law. Unless you purchase music licenses or choose a business-focused music streaming company like Cloud Cover Music, as mentioned above, your business remains at risk.
Streaming Music in Your Business Today
Business-focused music streaming companies manage licenses from performance rights organizations (PROs), who organize catalogues of music with the artists or copyright holders. PROs are what ensure that artists, composers, and performers receive royalties for their work, although much of their business is done through blanket licenses that cover specific uses of the organization’s entire catalogue.
Mood, formerly Muzak, is just one company today that uses digital and streaming technology, along with the option of their trademarked hardware, to provide businesses with a full complement of office or retail solutions and playlists. They have a music streaming service geared toward the ideal background music for small businesses, called Mood Mix, which uses their specific catalogue of calming songs to enhance customers’ experience.
However, if you’re a small company looking to grow, or an enterprise-level business, Cloud Cover Music is the recommended legal solution for background music and audio advertising. With thousands of locations in the US and Canada playing Cloud Cover Music, the company seamlessly manages the operational, IT, and legal challenges related to installing and operating a music service for companies that simply want to focus on their brand and customers that come to know it.
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- Muzak History: The Background Story on Background Music. (July 19, 2011). Mental Floss.
- Whatever Happened to Muzak? It’s Now Mood, and It’s Not Elevator Music. (July 7, 2017). Los Angeles Times.
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- Musicology: The History of Music Streaming, From Napster to Now. (October 27, 2014). Mixdown.
- ASCAP, BMI, SESAC: The Guide to PROs. (May 3, 2018). Songtrust Blog.
- Sound Solutions. Mood Media.