Monday, November 28, 2005

Apple #129: Elevator Music

I called a company today to ask them something fairly important and wound up having to listen to Muzak for three songs. The first one was a trombone-laden reproduction of Madonna's "Lucky Star." As I grew increasingly irritated, that fake song gave way to another reproduction so emotionally muted I could not identify it. I got to wondering, who thought up this nonsense in the first place? And what about the musicians? I pictured them showing up for work, unpacking their instruments and taking out the sheet music for "Lucky Star, Lite," tuning up, and actually playing this garbage. What must go through their minds? How does one get a job like this?
  • When some people talk about "mood music," they mean songs that, in their original incarnations, produce a soothing effect, such as "Girl from Ipanema," or "Clair de Lune." What I'm talking about are the re-arrangements, the muted trumpets softly wafting, without words, well-known songs like "Come on baby, light my.... fire," the de-boned and gutted versions of songs that once had fire and grit and spit, but have since been sanitized, corporatized, and rendered numbing and jelly-like. You can see what I think of it.
    • I'm not alone in my opinion. A former employee of the Muzak company, Jonathan Poneman, has called its music "aural fascism" because it anaesthetizes its listeners against their will.
    • Ted Nugent said in 1989 that he would buy Muzak for $10 million, just so he could destroy its tapes.
    • Even so, just this year, Muzak won "the coveted Best Booth award," at a trade exposition for innovative technologies and design in the retail industry. Their booth was a white and silver circular enclosure, with white 70's-aura round plastic table and chairs placed in the center. The walls were circled with glass shelves, which each held little glass vases of water, each vase holding one red rose. Precious.
  • Elevator music is so-called because it was piped into elevators in 1922 when they were first introduced, to help people feel less fearful about riding in the new contraptions.
  • Muzak is actually the name of one company that produces soothing mood music. To say you're listening to Muzak when you don't know who has produced the pseudo-music is akin to saying you've just blown your nose with a Kleenex, when really you might have used a tissue made by Puffs or any other manufacturer.
  • But it's a good bet that what you're hearing comes to you courtesy of Muzak. Somewhere between 90 million and 100 million people hear Muzak's plush tones at some point during each day.
  • Muzak got its start by piping music into homes in Cleveland in 1934, and then focusing its attention on transmitting music into hotels and businesses in New York City.
  • Muzak does not refer to the process of re-arranging popular songs by any such direct term as that. They call it "audio architecture." They define the phrase as "the art of capturing the emotional power of music and putting it to work for our clients to enhance their brand image." It ain't about music, folks, it's about sales.
  • According to Muzak's jobs pages, you can't work as a musician for the company. They offer jobs in sales, marketing, branding, finance, human resources, operations, design, and the wonderfully euphemistic "audio architect," but they employ no musicians. My guess is they contract out the actual performance of the music to various orchestras.
  • Here's one take on what it means to a music professional to work for Muzak. This quote is taken from an interview done by Paul Morris of the Jerry Jazz Musician, talking with Peter Levinson, who wrote a book about Nelson Riddle. Riddle was one of the most highly-respected and gifted arrangers in American music. He worked on songs made famous by none other than Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Linda Ronstadt, and others. Here's what Levinson has to say about Riddle's involvement, late in his career, with the Muzak company:
    • Interviewer: An interesting anecdote in your book is that in his declining years Nelson Riddle actually worked for the Muzak Company.
    • PL: Yes. That is evidence of just how far down he had fallen. In other words, working for the Muzak Company was a job he had to take because he didn't have a lot of work in the 70's and 80's.
This was an admittedly snarky entry. I'll try to give you something more upbeat -- not saccharine-coated fake sugary-happy, but genuinely upbeat -- next time.

Sources's info on
Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong, by Joseph Lanza
CHUM Television, Media education for program entitled Sonic Power, Ted Nugent & Muzak
"Muzak Takes Best In Show Award: GlobalShop 2005," Send2Press, March 31, 2005

Muzak's unsurprisingly annoying website
Work @ Muzak FAQs and Jobs
Jerry Jazz Musician, Interview by Paul Morris with Peter Levinson

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