Opinion: Can’t stop the Muzak

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Commentary by Ward Degler

I’ve often wondered what genius decided we can’t do anything without music blaring in our ears. Turns out that genius might have been an army general by the name of Squier.

In 1910, the general discovered something called telephone carrier multiplexing,  the process of transmitting multiple messages across a single wire.

The technology was good for the army, I’m sure, but it was even better for Squier, who realized he could transmit music into people’s homes through their electric lines. Radio was in its infancy at that time and music programs were rare. The general’s first customer was Staten Island, New York, where the charge for music was simply added to the customer’s light bill. His company was originally called Wired Radio, but was later changed to Muzak.

Two things happened in the 1930s that changed the way Muzak did business. The first was, radio found its footing, so that everyone could listen to music for free instead of paying the electric company for it.

The second thing was the Empire State Building. The elevator, which rocketed from ground zero to the 86th floor of the new skyscraper in less than a minute, was downright scary. The building owners decided to pipe in music to calm the passengers. Muzak suddenly became known as elevator music.

Warner Brothers bought the company in 1937 and switched its focus from residential to commercial customers. Muzak began filling the aisles of department stores and other high-end commercial venues.

Elevator music quickly gained the reputation for what some people called “sleepwalking music.” It was low key, subdued and to some, just plain boring. In fact, acid rock guitarist Ted Nugent called Muzak “everything that was uncool about music,” and seriously offered $10 million to buy the company so he could put it to death. Muzak refused to sell.

Nugent’s objections notwithstanding, Muzak continued to grow and, unfortunately, racked up heavy debts, which forced it into bankruptcy in 2009. Two years later, Mood Media bought what remained of the company and continue filling commercial outlets with the strains of music directly from the Ajax Senior Center.

Most of the time I don’t mind the music, and it is generally so low key I don’t even hear it. But when I’m trying to ask the clerk about fresh lettuce in the produce department where the music is its loudest, I sometimes wish Muzak had taken Nugent up on his offer.

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