Why Muzak, as a concept at least, will never die

A visual representation of Paul Westerberg, Muzak-style.
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.

Muzak just joined the ranks of words like aspirin, brassiere, cellophane, escalator, granola, kerosene, linoleum, trampoline, yo-yo, & zipper. These were brands that became the colloquialism for the thing itself, and the word lives on well after the brand itself has gone to that great Piggly Wiggly in the sky.

As of February 5 of this year, Muzak is no more. It has now been absorbed into its newest parent company Mood (formerly Mood Media). While a lot of people have taken the time to make terribly clever headlines like "The Death of Muzak," or "The Day the Muzak Died," it really isn't dead. You can breathe a sigh of relief that next time you call your cable providor -- your half-an-hour wait can still be a jazzy, super-schmaltzy trip on the A Train.
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The Muzak brand's death, however, is the end of a strangely American institution. It's technology originally designed for the military that encourages productivity and relaxation -- used ultimately to free up you wallet when your at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Muzak was founded in 1934 by the Army's Chief Signal Officer during World War I, Major General George O. Squier. He originally thought it would be helpful in battle prep, but beat out by the radio, he instead sold it to shops, hotels and the like, effectively ending the careers of lobby piano players across America.

The mighty Muzak General

Muzak also helped to make rides in the new invention of the time, the elevator, palatable. In the era of "if man was supposed to fly he'd have wings," an elevator ride was tantamount to a mechanical coffin run by someone you wouldn't trust with your car. Hence, calming music to make the journey all the more pleasant, ie: mind-blowingly frightening.

Honestly the history of that sound and the technology is sort of fascinating. If you want more, may I suggest Joseph Lanza's book Elevator Music, which is sort of the definitive work on the subject and a way more fun read than you'd think.

Muzak as a concept will never die. It sort of evolved into two forms, the first being what it was originally intended for: a distribution method for music to calm you and make you want to shop. Muzak's roots were really in in how the sound could change your mood.

Ask any of your friends who are semi-serious record collectors, and more than likely they have a copy of one of the "Stimulus Progression" records which were meant to showcase how Muzak worked in an office or factory environment. They created a subconscious "good mood" and a sense of forward movement, all set up in 15-minute blocks in order from least to most stimulating, with the value determined by tempo, rhythm, and instrumentation. Each block was accompanied by by 15 minutes of silence, so that employees would only hear it for half the time that they were working. It was supposed to increase productivity, and create a more peaceful environment. (They did seem to have a lot fewer workplace shootings back then.)

While this notion might seem quaint, you experience it in action anytime you set foot in a clothing shop, except now it's about more than trying to make a calm place to shop. It's about digging the whole experience to push you to be a consumer, through not just the music they play and how they play it, but also the signage and even the smells. It's that logic that makes a step into any Abercrombie & Fitch a bombastic assault of the senses that can only be akin to what it must be like to sit next to Rush Limbaugh on a plane.

If you take away the style concept of Muzak, you realize that it's more popular than ever. It's so much noise that it becomes lost entirely. So much so that it really becomes the background, a sound to cover the sliding of clothes hangers and the click clack of bank cards running through credit card machines.

Hear a Muzak take on the Replacements' "Skyway" below:

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