Where Words Fail, Muzak Speaks

Like Pavlovian dogs with auditory classic conditioning, salivating about the prospect of maximizing utility is not exclusive to canines. Humans, thanks to Major General George Owen Squier and his innovative Muzak, can also be conditioned to salivate and consume.

Squier’s Wired Radio, later changed to Muzak in 1934, introduced music to the ears of the masses. Wiring music, or Muzak, to businesses and their subscribers was the initial model to what eventually became synonymous with ‘elevator music’; Muzak, however, is not elevator music but foreground music designed for specific social tones. Today’s Mood Media, Muzak’s contemporary and well evolved version, handles the ambience problems of businesses and service establishments. Mood Media designs “in-store media solutions” that address a company’s desired stimulus when it comes to sight, sound, scent, social and systems components for a desired consumer response.

Major General George O. Squier, founder of Muzak. In a Literary Digest interview, Squier said his last name is pronounced like ‘square’.

Mood Media and contemporary Muzak can be thought of forms of social engineering utilized by businesses to configure themselves into stimulating production and consumption. If you’re a business owner, a restaurant perhaps, then you hire Mood Media to design an environment that promotes production and encourages consumption. The feng shui of your establishment becomes modified to encourage your business’ prosperity; a flow of sensory energy will stimulate workers to higher efficiency rates and customers will respond with higher consuming rates. Without the slightest irritation to or realization of this sensory overload, Muzak and its various modern forms will help you get the job done.

Muzak describes itself as “Audio Architecture” designed to access the emotions of its listeners to “link customers with companies”. The elusive method of conditioning customers through music is aimed at creating brand loyalty in the long run. This phenomenon aids in morphing or conditioning a subject’s neurons into narrative; similar to the way that makes the consumer associate reliable mobile phones with Nokia’s theme song in the early 2000’s or the low-pitched two notes before your favorite Netflix Original. The introduction of neurological stimulus, catering to the customer’s sensory needs, for desired consumption is not as intuitive as a student unable to write an essay unless his/her writer’s block is demolished by Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings symphonies. It is more complex.

Muzak Pamphlet
A Muzak advertisement pamphlet from the 1960s.

Mood Media’s website reports successful case studies and Ikea’s case seems very easily solved. The multi-faceted Muzak group explains Ikea having a sound system installed to encourage productivity. However, in Bill Hunter’s It’s Muzak Through Your Ears, he cites Muzak’s vice-president of programming, Rod Baum, arguing against the stigmatic simplicity of such problems.

“We can’t afford to play anything that polarizes people or causes them to listen to make a decision [about whether they like it or not].” said Baum, arguing that Muzak is supposed to ease the customer into consumption and developing brand loyalty rather than questioning the credibility of an establishment’s character.

Muzak does not only affect customers and their consumption habits. Hunter also cites a production study in Japan where assembly plant workers in an auto manufacturing company had their fatigue symptoms reduced by 32.4 percent, meaning less headaches, yawning…etc. enabling more productivity.

Music and other sensory activation methods cannot be exclusive to consumer and producer activity. Imagine visiting a medieval tavern to unwind with some ale as you listen to the local bard, a trip to ignite your senses through liquid narcotics and epic story telling. Or imagine going out for a run, preparing for your marathon as you turn on your Spotify app and listening to your favorite tracks. Methods that take the aforementioned sensory activators and transform them to Muzak; your ale and your Spotify subscription become background music to your desired goal, stimuli for your desired response or nonresponse.

mood progression
A sample graph advertising Muzak’s positive effects on mood.

Through cultural osmosis, the popularity of a social concept becoming weaved into the fabric of society, sensory activation has become widely expected. Silence, therefore, is not only eerie and used as a catastrophic foreshadowing in horror movies, but also unwelcomed in daily doings. Silence becomes an indication of dormancy and inactivity where visiting a sensory-dead establishment is just as horrifying as the soundless scenes before the slasher appears and terrorizes the characters on screen. Imagine stopping by a coffee shop and there is no background music, no subconscious sensory reinforcement, and, ultimately, no motivation for the customers and workers to be lively. Dead. The coffee shop you just walked into may repel you but luckily, the advent of Muzak has its well cemented place in society and culture.

Probably not the only idiotic thing Nugent has done or said.

The Public Sphere, as explained by Jürgen Habermas’ The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article, ensures the position of Muzak amongst people. Habermas explains the Public Sphere as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.” Given the immense and undeniable popularity of Muzak with individuals and entities as businesses or other, the public opinion has already been formed. Whether by Habermas’ sociological approach or Hunter’s scientific one, the use of sensory activation in various settings for any desired outcome has become the norm.

In a 1998 New York Times column, SPENDING IT: A Sales Pitch Right Under Your Nose, Kate Murphy highlights another form of sensory manipulation. Murphy stated “businesses are increasingly regarding ‘environmental fragrancing’ as a key design element.” Murphy reported on the Christmas store in Disney World and the utilization of evergreen and apple cider scents that encourage the feel of Christmas all year long.  Other businesses like Victoria’s Secret and Thomas Pink Inc., according to Murphy, use specific scents for their brand image with “feminine scents” and “line-dried linen” respectively. Murphy also mentioned aromatherapy, the alternative medicine approach of using essential oils and scents to address physical and mental ails.

To put sensory activation and manipulation to the test of effectivity, with Muzak and sound particularly, let the Laughing Goat café and Vic’s Espresso café be examined.


Muzak Examination

The Laughing Goat

Known to its regulars as the Goat, the Boulder, CO. based café allows its workers liberty in music choice. The branch examined lies in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Norlin Library. Found in the commons area where sound and verbal communication is unrestrained, the Laughing Goat could be heard blasting an array of 80s pop, classical music, dubstep and other genres. The lack of constraints on music choice, as explained by barista Robin Blagg, was bargained for by co-owner Johnny Jenkins.

“We can play whatever we want as long as we don’t disturb people,” said Blagg “It helps, you know, the music makes me do my job well.”

The Goat, often with loud and crowd pleasing music throughout its business hours, may not appeal to all tastes. Student Hamad Almutawa isn’t always pleased with the music choice.

“I don’t always like what they’re playing but at least it’s [the music] not boring.” Said Almutawa, receiving his hot chocolate as he sarcastically nods his head to electronic music.

The Goat’s Muzak, in this case, is overall appealing to workers and customers. The maintenance of a friendly and easy going atmosphere promotes the idea of serene consumption as the customer base for this branch, disgruntled college students, have their academic anxieties soothed by a welcoming establishment.

Vic’s Espresso

Found on 30th and Iris Street in Boulder, CO., Vic’s Espresso is a mellow counterpart to the Goat. With a regular looping of smooth jazz and tempo fluctuations, the café is archetypal in its Muzak selection; the calm-vibe coffee shop with a jazz only soundtrack designed for those in need of a quiet and unruffled experience.

“Jazz, man. Nothing says coffee shop like some good ol’ jazz.” Said Ryan, the smiling barista explaining with a hint of pride.

The clients in this social setting, unlike the Goat’s frantic students, are well aged and not too troubled by a calculus exam or a 6-page media studies paper. The clients were as calm as the soothing jazz. Some were having a little visit, others occupied on their laptops and most were in for a quick caffeinated fix.

“I like this. I come here knowing exactly what to expect and that’s nice.” Said Mary, hinting at the importance of predictability in a business.

The Laughing Goat and Vic’s Espresso, as is the case with Mood Media’s work with Ikea, depend on Muzak. Microscopically, Muzak aids a business in maintaining its desired atmosphere and mood. Macroscopically, Muzak develops the entire brand and forces productivity and consumption to go up a notch or two. As for the entire elements influenced by Muzak, the incorporation of manipulated sound has paved the way for other sensory utilizations to build up the business as a whole. Society and the individual self, similarly, has grown to be more dependent on the idea of triggering the senses for a desired outcome.

Elevator music, as skeptics and cynics have dubbed Muzak to be, has not faded. Muzak has simply evolved, infiltrating and shaping our everyday lives through other senses.

Muzak, one could say, has turned the volume up.










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