February 21, 2008

Noses Up: The Sound of Muzak

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At first Muzak may seem to be the most boring possible topic for a column about music. A quick online stroll to www.muzak.com, however, will quickly dispel any worries of boredom that come with the idea of background music, which is usually attached to that lame, Barry Manilow-esque orchestral sound one hears in airplanes and elevators. At this website, you are greeted with the intriguing question: “What does chocolate sound like?” and upon further probing you will be introduced, as I was, to the fascinating and chilling idea of Audio Architecture.

When cheesy background music went out of fashion, Muzak, little did I know, changed with the times. Today it is a vast, multi-billion dollar enterprise employed by pretty much every chain store, restaurant, or coffee shop you enter. Put simply, Muzak and its team of audio architects have designed the soundtrack for your corporate location. More than that, they have decided where to put the speakers, how loud the music will be, whether each song will cut off sharply or if there will be radio-style transitions, and most important, how the music will “make the customer feel.”

If this sounds vague and trite, read through their simple pitch to companies. Straight from the website: “Audio Architecture is emotion by design. Our innovation and our inspiration, it is the integration of music, voice and sound to create experiences that link customers with companies. Its power lies in its subtlety. It bypasses the resistance of the mind and targets the receptiveness of the heart. When people are made to feel good in, say, a store, they feel good about that store. They like it. Remember it. Go back to it. Audio Architecture builds a bridge to loyalty. And loyalty is what keeps brands alive.”

This punchy and poetic 88-word piece, itself a sort of musical performance in its rhetorical glory, is amazing to me because it sums up everything that attracts the lover (and worries the critic) of capitalism. Emotions, perhaps the last bastions of thought independent of the marketplace, can now be crafted by the marketplace and, indeed, someone is paid extraordinarily to craft them. Starbucks, with its jazz solos and indie rock, sounds like the universal marker of urbanism. Old Navy, with its uptempo pop, sounds like wearing laid back clothing. Prada, with its electronic dance music, sounds like the club in which you are meant to wear (where?) its clothes.

These associations are all the more apparent when you take into account the seemingly unstructured playlists of Stella’s and CTB, as well as the peppered silences of Olin and Uris, and how different those atmospheres are from the designed music spaces. Surely, aspects other than music account for atmosphere as well, but music is important because it is the one with — in the words of Muzak — a powerful subtlety.

I certainly cannot predict whether you are excited while reading this or disturbed or in between, but the romantic in me is certainly not excited. I think what Audio Architecture does is far, far more important than simply attract customers to the marketplace that they would arguably inhabit anyway (or perhaps you wouldn’t go to a silent Starbucks or a silent Old Navy? Sounds creepy.)

Audio Architecture binds taste and subculture to consumption in a startling way. It is definitely not uncommon to hear people talk about liking particular musicians, composers, and songs because they remind them of a specific time or place, a specific boyfriend or girlfriend, or a specific memory of belonging. All the romance of this identification, which is perhaps the heart of why music has the popularity it does, is robbed when the glory of jazz is its association with the experience of drinking coffee at Starbucks. The polar, dystopian version of this involves everything you listen to being associated with a nice memory of buying something, but I don’t think that this is such a stretch from what Muzak envisions.

My examples are of course extreme, and perhaps my paranoia is unfounded and all I want to do, in a sophomoric, liberal collegiate fashion, is attack yet another company that only wants to provide a good and/or a service to other companies and to shoppers.

When Radiohead made their new album free to listeners, it was startling and the subject of a lot of talk, but I avoided the subject because I worried that people were too surprised by music released outside of the marketplace. It seemed obvious to me that free music, when the artist was able to afford its release, was such a cool idea that messy worries about “how much to pay,” would only mess with the simple act of downloading, listening, and liking or disliking. This is what I got out of Radiohead’s move, but Muzak and Audio Architecture show that we are a lot farther down the road to music appreciation based only on economic concerns than I had previously thought.