The new Muzak


A fascinating piece from the New Yorker on the new Muzak, exploring the way Muzak is now about creating custom dj-mix equivalents for their customers (stores, malls, public/private spaces).

As our own tastes become more eclectic – see almost anyone’s iPod or browse a few random Last.Fm pages – the difference between Muzak and own own tastes narrows – especially when you consider the different uses of music in your own life to mark certain occasions, events, or moods. In Last.Fm users are already tagging songs as ‘moody’ or ‘uplifting’ etc rather than by genre/sub-genre which reveals how people really listen to music – that is, not by genre at all, but by how they wish to feel at any particular time.

People at Muzak sometimes speak of a song’s “topology,” the cultural and temporal associations that it carries with it, like a hidden refrain. When McKelvey works on a program for a client whose customers represent a range of ages—such as Old Navy, whose market extends from infants to adults—she has to accommodate more than one sensibility without offending any. The task is simplified somewhat by the fact that musical eras and genres are not always moored firmly in time. Elvis Presley (who is represented in the Well by fourteen hundred and five tracks) sounds dated to many people today, but teen-agers can listen to Beatles songs from just a few years later without necessarily thinking of them as oldies.

Spanning musical generations can pose technical challenges. If a track that was recorded last year is played immediately after one from the forties, fifties, or sixties, the difference in texture can be jarring. (Anyone who has downloaded music onto an iPod or other digital music player is familiar with the difficulty of maintaining consistency from song to song.) One of the techniques used at Muzak is dynamic range compression, which consists of turning down the loudest parts of a signal and then turning up the entire signal; it’s the reason that television commercials often seem louder than the programs they interrupt even though the commercials and the programs are technically limited to the same sound level. In addition, audio architects frequently use tracks as bridges between music from different eras—say, placing a Verve remix of a jazz standard between an Ella Fitzgerald classic and a recent release by Macy Gray. Tracks in the Well are catalogued not only by artist and title but also by producer, label, and date. Recordings from particular studios in particular eras often share a characteristic sound—like wines from particular vineyards and vintages—and some juxtapositions work better than others.

and later –

A business’s background music is like a aural pheromone. It attracts some customers an repels others, and it gives pedestrians walkin past the front door an immediate clue abou whether they belong inside. A chain like J. C Penney, whose huge customer base includes al ages and income levels, needs a program tha will make everyone feel welcome, so it soundtrack contains familiar and relativel unassertive popular songs like “Kind an Generous,” by Natalie Merchant. The Har Rock Hotel in Orlando, which appeals to more narrowly focussed audience, plays “Girls Girls, Girls,” by Mötley Crüe, and cranks u the volume. (Imagine how teen-agers woul perceive the jeans and t-shirts at Abercrombi & Fitch—not a Muzak client—if those store played country-and-Western hits.) Audi architects have to keep all this in mind as the build their programs. They also have to b aware of certain broad truths about backgroun music: bass solos are difficult to hear, extende electric-guitar solos annoy male sports-ba customers, drum solos annoy almost everyone and Bob Dylan’s harmonica can make it har for office workers to concentrate. Audi architects also have to screen lyrics carefully They removed the INXS hit “Devil Inside from many of the company’s playlists after devout Christian complained, and they are eve vigilant for the word “funk,” which almos everyone mistakes for something else.

but this doesn’t ‘sanitise’ in the ways you might think –

I went through the same imaging process during my visit to Fort Mill. Steven Pilker, a twenty-five-year-old audio architect—he had worked in a record store while in school at U.N.C. Charlotte and, when he graduated, was offered a job by a Muzak executive who had been a regular customer—asked me seven or eight questions, none of which had anything to do with music. (“When you’re not working, what do you like to do?” “If you could choose an actor / actress to star in your biographical movie, who would it be and why?”) A couple of weeks later, he sent me a six-song program, which contained nothing connected to what I think of as my main musical phenotype (“classic rock”); in fact, five of the six tracks were by artists I’d never heard of. Yet I liked all six very much, and later bought CDs by two of them (Sufjan Stevens and Jamie Lidell). Pilker’s selections aren’t definitive, of course; another audio architect surely could have had another take on my “brand.” But I was struck that Pilker, after spending very little time with me, had created an appealing musical program that was based on his sense of who I was, rather than on any direct examination of the music I actually listened to if left on my own.


About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.

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