The Clash … Goin’ Up?

But it’s not just restaurants that are making their music distinctive. The new background music is everywhere. A doctor’s office in Murray Hill, where you’d expect to hear some mellifluous jazz to silence your inner hypochondriac, recently thumped a Beastie Boys song. A deli in South Park Slope blares ear-piercing popular Bollywood tracks and keeps their customers coming back. Sonic Youth played live to provide background music for Marc Jacobs’ fall ’08 Fashion Week show. (Kim Gordon, the spiritual big sister of the 80’s downtown art-punk scene, is a Jacobs fan.)

Since when did Sonic Youth become our soundtrack to ogling at couture? And why would Minor Threat, a band that raged against consumerism, make us want to buy toasted Gruyère sandwiches? Punk, hip-hop, metal and even psychedelic rock gave anthems to society’s meeskeits. This was the music that scared your grandparents. It incited riots. How did it become music to buy furniture to?

Joseph Lanza wrote the bible on background music: Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and Other Moodsong.

“What happened in the 80’s and the 90’s was all these baby boomer rock stars got older, and so their music got more middle-of-the-road, so that replaced the easy listening or elevator music,” said Mr. Lanza, calling from his Jersey City home, where he recently finished his new book Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films. “The background music you would usually hear in most places, I mean the music that would’ve been pumped in by Muzak, were instrumental covers of popular songs, you know, either current pop tunes or oldies or whatever. But in about ’85, they started experimenting with background music and called it ‘foreground music.’ From there, it just mutated into all sorts of noise.

“I always thought that elevator music, in the traditional sense, was like air-conditioning, where what you’re hearing now is like a designer scent being pumped into the system, kind of
forced on you. Regular elevator music was more neutral. People like me who liked it could listen to it actively, and others could just tune it in or out—I think that was the purpose of it. Whereas now people are just dying to see how much noise they can make and how many CD’s they can sell at the cashier.”

In fact it was the septuagenarian Muzak Corporation that spearheaded the “foreground music” movement. Their “audio architects” assemble 24-hour playlists, ranging from gritty hip-hop to saccharin pop hits, for 80 business music programs. They also make custom playlists for clients, based on their marketing goals, demographics and products.

Muzak uses The Clash “a lot” in their current playlists for clients. “They really bridge that realm between punk, classic rock and 80’s rock,” said Steven Pilker, 27, an audio architect for Muzak. He was calling in from Muzak’s North Carolina outpost outside Charlotte. “If we need a punky song, if we need something for a very classic-rocky program, they’re great. If a client wanted something hip but also a little retro, a little classic rock, they fit in well in that kind of context.”

Muzak’s clients, which include Saks Fifth Avenue, Dean & DeLuca and Four Seasons, want their customers to keep coming back for the surprising music choices. It’s all about branding—creating an audio personality.

“We’re pretty free to use whatever kind of music we want, as long as it’s within reason and good for the client,” Mr. Pilker said. “We push it pretty far, but … occasionally there’s a client who’s like, ‘Freak me out a little bit.’”

A self-professed dubstep and “new-rave” fan, Mr. Pilker worked at an independent record store during his college years and was hired by Muzak five years ago. He says many of Muzak’s workers are record store geeks with librarian-like knowledge of obscure music.

“We don’t really have problems telling people how into music we are,” Mr. Pilker said. “Sometimes that leads to creative arguments about, you know, ‘This is a sacred cow,’ ‘This is not a sacred cow,’ or ‘I’m not going to that show because those people sold out,’ or ‘They didn’t sell out,’ or define what selling out actually is.”

True, Muzak still has business channels like Cashmere (playlist picks: James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” and Paul Simon’s “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love”). But Muzak representatives are also going to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and will return with fresh music. Muzak is using emerging, unsigned artists. Muzak is on MySpace.

“What you’re seeing is a shift in how people use and relate to music,” said Damon Williams, vice president of programming and production at Music Choice. “It’s a bigger part of people’s lives than [it’s] ever been.” Music Choice, a Muzak competitor, is a cable, phone and Internet music provider that creates programming for commercial spaces and also builds music playlists for all those cable music channels, including Retro-Active (Crowded House, Depeche Mode, the English Beat) and Party Favorites (Cyndi Lauper, Paula Abdul, Fall Out Boy). “People have a lot more access to music,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s not just the radio anymore, it’s the Internet and live shows and television. So we have to make sure we’re fresh, we’re something different.”