Muzak: From The Elevator To The Future

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Muzak 300

An elevator girl from Marshall Fields department store demonstrates correct posture in 1947 with the help of some Muzak. Credit: George Skadding/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Credit: George Skadding/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Muzak made its mark on American culture by producing generic-sounding songs for office buildings, retail stores and the dentist. Muzak made elevator music, but it's been 25 years since the company stopped producing those instrumental covers and switched to providing clients mix tapes of popular recordings. Today, Muzak is still trying to shake its elevator-music reputation while trying to emerge from bankruptcy.

Elevator music made Muzak a huge success, but Shawn Moseley says it's also made the company a punch line. Moseley, who works at Muzak's headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C., says the place is actually hip.

"Every day," Moseley says, "you have to have a conversation with somebody and say, 'We're not elevator music. We're not your father's Muzak.' "

Music is everywhere you go: There are more than 250 speakers in this huge warehouse, which has a sort of modern, stainless-steel look inside. But Muzak has been around for 75 years.

Steven Pilker heads Muzak's audio architecture unit and is in charge of today's sound. This is the group that creates many of those mix tapes you hear when you go out to eat or shop — say, at an AT&T store.

"Like someone like [the band] Mosquitos," Pilker says, "you wouldn't necessarily associate with mainstream acts, but it's perfect for someone like AT&T. It's very lively, very springing, without being over the top."

The Audio Architects

Pilker says many of his audio architects are musicians or people who used to work in independent record stores. No, they're not music snobs. Pilker says they're just passionate.

"You're watching television or you're in a bar," Pilker says, "and you're like, 'God, this would totally work for this client.' You don't ever turn off from that job experience."

It sounds like a cool job, but Muzak isn't hiring a lot these days. In February, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with $436 million in debt. The stock market declined, and a failed merger with a competitor made things worse. Also, Muzak is heard in 350,000 locations, but that number hasn't changed since 2005. Standard and Poor's analyst Hal Diamond says Muzak has new competition.

"Now, when you walk into a store," Diamond says, "you may have videos and TVs playing. In health clubs, you have TVs. People are carrying iPods with them everywhere they go. That's restricted Muzak's ability to raise prices."

The typical business pays Muzak $50 a month. That cost varies depending on location, the number of businesses in a chain and customization of playlists. The privately held Muzak has a plan to make itself more valuable as it tries to emerge from bankruptcy later this year. It now offers in-store video signage, as well as a service that tries to connect products to songs — like a free song download if you buy, say, a bottle of shampoo.

Today, the name Muzak still carries baggage, but it also has its advantages. As Moseley says, at least prospective clients always take his calls.

Greg Collard reports for member station WFAE in Charlotte, N.C.



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