Muzak: From The Elevator To The Future Muzak made its mark on American culture by producing generic-sounding songs for office buildings, retail stores and the dentist. 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.

Muzak: From The Elevator To The Future

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(Soundbite of song, "Song Sung Blue")


Ah, the sounds of elevator music. The company Muzak made its mark on American culture by producing these generic-sounding songs for office buildings, retail stores, the dentist's office.

(Soundbite of song, "Song Sung Blue")

BLOCK: It's been 25 years since Muzak stopped producing those instrumental covers and switched to providing clients with mixes of popular songs, and yet Muzak is still trying to shake its elevator-music reputation as it tries to emerge from bankruptcy. Our story comes from Greg Collard of member station WFAE.

GREG COLLARD: Elevator music made Muzak a huge success, but Shawn Moseley says it's also made the company a punch line.

Mr. SHAWN MOSELEY (Muzak): Every day, I have to have a conversation with somebody and say, we're not elevator music. We're not your father's Muzak.

COLLARD: Moseley works at Muzak's headquarters in Fort Mill, South Carolina. The place is actually hip.

(Soundbite of music)

COLLARD: Music is everywhere you go. There are more than 250 speakers in this huge warehouse that has a sort of modern, stainless steel look inside. But Muzak's been around for 75 years. Bruce McKagan is Muzak's unofficial docent. The store includes interesting historical tidbits, like former President Lyndon Johnson owning a Muzak franchise in Austin, Texas.

Mr. BRUCE McKAGAN (Vice President, Content Services; Muzak): And Lyndon Johnson sold it to the White House while Eisenhower was there. Yeah, so there was Muzak in the White House because of LBJ. Isn't that a great story?

COLLARD: But again, this isn't your father's Muzak. Steven Pilker's in charge of today's sound. He heads Muzak's audio architecture unit. 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.

Mr. STEVEN PILKER (Head, Audio Architecture Unit; Muzak): Like, someone like Mosquitos that you would not necessarily associate with a mainstream act...

(Soundbite of music)

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

Mr. PILKER: You hear something casually and you start - you know, you're watching television or you're in a bar, and you're like, this would totally fit for this client. Like you don't ever turn off from that job experience.

COLLARD: 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. 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.

Mr. HAL DIAMOND (Analyst, Standard and Poor's): Now, when you walk into a store, you may have video, and people are carrying iPods with them everywhere they go. So, this has restricted Muzak's ability to raise prices as well.

COLLARD: 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. Muzak has a plan to make itself more valuable as the privately held company tries to emerge from bankruptcy later this year. It now offers in-store video signage, and a service that tries to connect products to songs - like a free song download if you buy, say, a bottle of shampoo.

Yes, the name Muzak carries some baggage, but it also has its advantages. As Muzak's Shawn Moseley points out, at least prospective clients always take his calls.

For NPR News, I'm Greg Collard in Charlotte, N.C.

(Soundbite of song, "I Love Your Smile")


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