Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Trademark of the Muzak Corp. of Seattle, the most famous purveyors of piped-in music for work-places and public places. An ex-WWI signal officer had devised means of using the electricity network to distribute the equivalent of a broadcasting signal; a public utilities holding company formed a Wired Radio division, but development slowed during the Depression of the '30s. The music business was in the doldrums then, while a new technology of transcription recordings had been developed to enable broadcasters to accommodate time- changes across the continent. The quality of transcription recordings was then better than the telephone-line transmission that broadcasters had to use for delayed broadcasts to the next time zone; in effect it was 'high-fidelity' sound, but the recordings could not then be mass-produced and the record- playing equipment was far too expensive for the home. Transcription companies incl. World, Standard, LangWorth, McGregor and Associated, which was part of Associated Music Publishing, a holding company for non-ASCAP music; all were trying to think of ways to make money.

Wired Radio launched Muzak '34 to lease music to restaurants, hotels, night clubs etc; Muzak failed '38 to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission to compete directly with broadcasting using the electricity supply, a decision in favour of broadcasting (then the most lucrative industry in the USA) which looks silly 60 years later, when cable and satellites have made 250 TV channels available to virtually every American home. So Muzak concentrated on 'special music services' to offices and factories. The custom label for its transcription recordings was AMP; also in '38, Philco designed a 45 r.p.m. record player for Muzak, who were thinking of going into the commercial record business (Philco was formerly the Philadelphia Storage Battery Co. and had launched the first car radio '27, and in '48 built the first players for Columbia's commercial long- playing record.) Muzak was sold to Warner Brothers, who introduced franchising, then sold Muzak to advertising interests; by '50 competitors incl. Transit Radio and Storecast, who used the infant FM radio industry to broadcast ambient music to public transport and retail premises; a few years later when sound archives were being transferred to magnetic tape, Capitol Records' Magnetronics division got into the act.

What was intended as a means of broadcasting of high technical quality has resulted in music that nobody asked for being heard in virtually every airport, supermarket and shopping mall. This cheapens and degrades music, to say nothing of the fact that the piped-in product is deliberately kept uninteresting in order not to offend or distract anyone, with the result that most of it is awful. During WWII it was claimed that piped-in music raised production in factories, but the purpose of it was to make money, and other studies show that when everybody gets fed up with the music, production goes up again when it is turned off: any change in the environment relieves the boredom of production-line work (which is why cigar makers used to hire people to read to them). The principle that everybody is entitled to a jolly background noise has resulted in pubs and restaurants playing stretched and worn-out tapes on inferior equipment, entirely oblivious to the appalling quality of what they are doing. It is probably too late to do anything about it, despite brave pressure groups like Britain's Pipedown; it is part of the dumbing-down of nearly everything in the name of profits. In the early '90s Muzak had 500 employees, 18 offices and 180 independent affiliates, the 'environmental channel' still about 80 per cent of the business; there were East Coast and West Coast feeds so that Americans could all hear the same Muzak at the same time of day. Britain's Tape Techniques Ltd began recycling heavy metal tunes in the '90s (Motorhead's 'Ace Of Spades', AC/DC's 'Highway To Hell'; Kiss was next): MD Phil McCauley said, 'If you can whistle the first few bars ... then you will remem- ber that track and that era. It helps you to bond with your shopping environment.' And the rest of us have to hear it whether we like it or not.