Muzak: It's Not Just Elevator Music Anymore

muzakTo people of a certain age, Muzak is a word like "Kleenex," or "Xerox." It stands for that annoying, easy-listening entertainment piped into elevators and played during on-hold phone calls. And even if you're not old enough to know Muzak by name, you know it from experience.

Muzak, a company celebrating 75 years in business, accepts some of that stigma, as it works to prove that the company is more than elevator music. There's a good chance it impacts your daily life -- at work, when shopping, when eating, even while giving birth.

-- See average salaries for a music therapist, musician and music recording engineer.

The company says that more than 100 million people experience Muzak every day. With a library of almost 3 million songs playing in airports, retail establishments, spas, hospitals, restaurants, gyms, casinos, and the like, it certainly seems possible to touch that many people. The company adds 15,000 new songs to its library every month. We're not talking Kenny G instrumentals anymore. These are songs by artists including Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones, Peter Bjorn and John, and even Death Cab for Cutie.

How music becomes ... Muzak

The process of creating sound for specific clients or uses begins with what's called "sound imaging."

"The imaging process takes into account a wide range of brand-specific factors in addition to other nuances like geographic location," said Muzak's VP and General Manager, Bob Finigan. "What does the brand stand for? What are they trying to communicate? Who are their customers? Is the business located in just one state, or all 50?"

In one hospital maternity ward, for instance, a particular song is played after a birth to both celebrate the moment and alert the staff. Muzak also programs entertainment for Seattle's Space Needle and the Rose Bowl.

Companies work with Muzak's "music architects," people adept at translating a brand into sound.

Take the franchised restaurant Qdoba. Most people know what Tex-Mex food smells like. But Muzak helped the company figure out what it sounds like.

-- See average salaries for jobs at Qdoba Mexican Grill.

"It's a familiar but unique sound," said Doug Thielen, a marketing and PR exec for Qdoba. "It's something that's kind of artisanal that's new and different but familiar. Rooted in popular music but 30 percent of the music is Spanish. We're a Mexican restaurant with an American twist."

Thielen said that before the change, customers used to say things like, "I love your food but I can't hear Debbie Gibson again."

But now, with Qdoba's 350-song list, patrons don't hear the same song twice in one visit. The company added an online component where customers can hear the music online and comment on the choices. "The comments we're seeing online now are surprise and delight. Guests are impressed that our sound is current," Thielen said.

Muzak soothes the savage beast ... and makes it work harder

Studies have determined statistical impacts of music in different environments. Music can increase productivity, make people stay longer as in a romantic bar, leave sooner as in a fast-food restaurant, or spend more as in a retail store. A University of Strathclyde, Scotland study reported that when slow music is playing, customers spend a significantly greater amount of time dining than when fast music is playing, and music tempo also impacted money spent.

Muzak systems are not cheap. But compared to paying for music licensing fees and potential legal fees for copyright infringement, business owners see the value. It's illegal to play music (like straight from an iPod or from digital cable) in a retail establishment. Muzak pays the licensing fees for their clients.

"Royalties must be paid to the company or artist who owns that song," Finigan noted. "To make things even more complex, a different amount of royalty must be paid based on the way the song is delivered; so satellite, IP delivery or a physical CD can have slightly different rates."

Muzak also provides the smell of a space, in line with branding and voices for "please hold" messages. Every opportunity to connect with a customer or potential customer in these alternative ways is a chance to define and communicate the company's brand.

The next time you find yourself humming along in the shoe department or a restaurant, it's by design. Ideally, it enhances your experience. But don't curse that song you can't get out of your head: There's consolation in knowing millions of other people may be going through the same thing. And if it's in your place of business, you just might be working harder -- and that may translate to money in your pocket.

Next:So You Want to Be a Rock Star? >>

Read Full Story