< The End of Muzak

Transcript

Friday, February 08, 2013

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And now we’ll examine one last word, with a seriously low approval rating, Muzak. We've all mocked it. Elevator music is so bland. It constitutes an insult to real music. We just heard how hard it will be to rehabilitate the word “jihad” but Mood Media, the company that owns Muzak, apparently believes that that word is damaged beyond repair, and this week it's getting rid of it, the word, that is. The service will be bundled with the rest of the company's offerings under the general rubric, Mood. Joseph Lanza is the author of, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and Other Moodsong. Joseph, welcome to On the Media.

JOSEPH LANZA:  Hello.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  We thought that maybe during this interview, we would play some of the easy listening hits that you particularly like.

  [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

JOSEPH LANZA:  Well, I appreciate that, thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] When we hear the word “Muzak” we think of elevators, department stores, waiting room but not the military. And that’s where it started, right?

JOSEPH LANZA:  The inventor of Muzak was Major George Owen Squier. He was in the Signal Corps. And he invented something called multiplexing. It allowed more than one signal to transmit on a telephone line. He called it wired wireless, and he used that for communications during the First World War, in the area of the Philippines to try to relay messages. And near his retirement he decided to apply this technology to a music service. He wanted wire communications over the idea of the wireless, the radio which was popular then.

So he created something called wired radio in 1922, and he wanted to bring the music straight into people’s homes. Later that didn’t prove as practical, but it went into businesses, like restaurants, hotels. And, as the company moved on, it went into larger places, like factories, foundries. In 1934, the company became Muzak, combining the word “music” with “Kodak.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  There was a lot of research that Kodak was a word that could be recognized in any language –

JOSEPH LANZA:  Yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  It’s easy in every language.

JOSEPH LANZA:  It was like an Esperanto word.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS]

JOSEPH LANZA:  And it’s still, even though the company just recently decided to get rid of the name. Muzak will still be associated with that music that they pumped into our lives for many decades.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This major general, was he more of – of a geek or did he have the idea of the manipulative power of music?

JOSEPH LANZA:  He wanted to really do it as a business, but he also saw this idea of just being able to use music as part of the environment, just to help people relax and acclimate. It’s the same reason why – in a strange way, why people use the wires in their ear buds today when they’re on the subway and they just want to block out this harsh and threatening environment.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Elevator music has been the butt of many jokes, but when elevators were first being adopted, the music actually served a really important purpose.

JOSEPH LANZA:  Elevators were terrifying places to many people. They still are, especially if you’re in skyscrapers. In the late forties, Muzak teamed up with Otis Elevator Company to put out an ad in Time Magazine, stating that the music by Muzak made the journey on an elevator much more easy, “gliding on the notes of a lilting melody.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] You wrote that elevators, at the turn-of-the-century, they were seen as “floating domiciles of disequilibrium.”

JOSEPH LANZA:  Yeah, and by the time they became electronic, it was even more so because you didn’t have that many elevator operators greeting you. But that wasn't their main business. It was places like factories, workplaces, offices, department stores.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And in restaurants, you noted in your book, they had different music for breakfast; it would be more upbeat, more caffeinated. And then lunchtime would be like classical and you get the cocktail hour, and so on.

JOSEPH LANZA:  In the early days, they had more of a menu like that, but they developed, by the late forties, a system called stimulus progression. And what they would do is they would program the music in 15-minute blocks. The first track would be kind of a slower tempo, a milder sound and maybe not as much elaborate instruments.

And then they would move on, and by the end of the quarter hour they would make it more up tempo. It worked best in workplaces because when you had music playing in a very under-arranged and not obtrusive setting that built up through quarter hours, worker morale and productivity were a lot better.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What about music for shopping?

JOSEPH LANZA:  They found that if the music was slower, customers would linger longer in aisles, and if you linger longer in aisles, you tend to buy more.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Muzak was also piped into wartime arsenals?

JOSEPH LANZA:  Yes. It was a very tedious work. Later on, they were piped into embassies. There’s a great story about 1975 when we gave up on the Vietnam War, it was playing in the embassy in Saigon as people were getting into helicopters to get out of there.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You cite a Muzak programmer who said that quote, “When musicians are left to themselves to make art for the sake of art and not considering public taste, demographics or psychology, they’ll put together something that won’t please everyone. My task is to amalgamate tastes, imagine trying to please 80 or 90 million viewpoints.” Did he do it?

JOSEPH LANZA:  I would imagine for many people he did. I personally liked the music. I listened to it for many – yeah, you’re, you’re laughing, but it’s true. I mean, I – I liked it. I liked it both in its form of the background music you’d hear in public, and I liked it on record. I thought this was a great parallel world. You would have your rock or your pop version of a song, and suddenly you would hear this different version of the song living side by side. It was – I call it – an aural depth of field. You don’t have that anymore. You go into a retail setting and it’s usually the music that the proprietor of the store likes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So, obviously, part of the reason Mood Media is shedding the name Muzak is to try and shake off the negative connotations that have come with the word. But do you think it can ever escape its Muzak past? Do you think it should even try?

JOSEPH LANZA:  When I hear this blanket statement from so many people that elevator music is bad or people complaining about Muzak, I can’t help to suspect that this is just lazy groupthink.

  [BROOKE LAUGHS]  

If it was so universally disliked, I thought, let me advocate this, and it became a great way of being subversive because anytime you try to defend it or think of theories about why it’s so good, that’s like – almost like being a Communist in the 1950s.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  It’s very transgressive.

JOSEPH LANZA:  Yes, it is.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] Joseph, thank you very much.

JOSEPH LANZA:  Well, thank you very much.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Joseph Lanza is author of Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and Other Moodsong.

Guests:

Joseph Lanza

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone