Like many music-obsessed New Yorkers, Oliver Truman navigates the honeycomb of city streets with headphones plugged into his ears. Mr. Truman, a 26-year-old marketing assistant with a beanstalk frame and curly-q’d chestnut hair, has a playlist called “walking” on his iPod, loaded with songs ranging from The Buzzcocks to The Four Tops.
On a recent weekend afternoon, he listened to The Jam while flipping through a magazine and Screwdriver while depositing a check at the bank. But when he got to the ’Wichcraft on 20th Street, he pulled those insect-size earbuds out of his ears.
“This is one of the places where I actually like the music they’re playing, it’s not the same stuff you hear everywhere, like R&B, top 40’s, T-Pain or whatever,” he explained between hefty bites of a chicken salad sandwich. The Velvet Underground played in the background. “Sometimes it’s like I never took my [iPod headphones] off.”
What’s the difference? IPod or no, we are perpetually surrounded by music these days, and often by the thumping beat of the Arcade Fire song “Laika” or the insane carnivalesque psychedelia of 60’s Brazilian bizarros Os Mutantes. Our restaurants, retailers, doctors’ waiting rooms and business offices silenced the languid keyboard covers of top 40 tracks or the smooth jazz that misted from their ceiling speakers long ago. Classic rock from Led Zeppelin? Harmless R&B from Mary J. Blige? Electronic blips from Brian Eno? Even pop jazz (blech) from Kenny G? Those are moldy elevator music choices. Now it’s all about obscure electroclash and bass-heavy baile funk. Underground hip-hop and grimy punk. The Kinks. The Clash. Black Sabbath. Even … Minor Threat? This is the new background music, and you can’t get away from it.
In the era of the earbud, businesses are making their own playlists using iTunes or getting custom-made “audio personalities” from music companies and trend-savvy DJ’s. No more gentle piano notes, smooth synthesizers and a string instrument or 20 to help the shopper buy, the client relax, the worker work. Then, background music was meant to literally fade into the background, whispering sweet nothings just out of earshot while the din of consumerism and socializing (couples chatting, plates clinking, cash registers clanging) took the main stage. But now companies are pummeling us frontally, with a half-ironic rock ’n’ roll sneer, slinging music from bands like Sri Lankan beat-mistress M.I.A. and emo-punk pioneers Jawbreaker into our ears.
The original, instrumental elevator music developed by the Muzak Corporation, the 74-year-old company that made so many languid synthesizer covers of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” was, actually, controversial: Angry listeners accused it of deploying mind-controlling, Orwellian tricks. It was, they claimed, formed as an emotional sedative, coaxing consumers into mindlessly and happily conforming to the capitalist society by buying useless things.
But this new background music, these punk, hip-hop and rock bands, made revolutionary sounds that were meant to wake us up. We wonder whether iPods constantly being in everyone’s ears lays a mental fog over the brain. Do we even listen to music anymore? Or is it all just sinking into the background, surrounding us like air-conditioning?
“I can’t help wondering if the incidence of earworms and musical hallucinations is higher now, with background music in every public place,” said Oliver Sacks in a recent interview with Wired about his new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. “The brain is very sensitive to music; you don’t have to attend to it to record it internally and be affected by it. I think we may be exposed to too much loud and repetitive music. One patient of mine has epileptic seizures induced by music and has to wear earplugs in New York City. It’s a dangerous place for him.”
For all of us!
Grilled Peasant Bread With Side of Siouxsie and the Banshees
’Wichcraft partner Sisha Ortuzar, 35, orchestrates the sandwich shop’s playlists. He downloads songs off a site called eMusic.com that sells mp3’s for mostly independent artists. Using iTunes, he organizes the songs into playlists, one for each day of the week. Devendra Banhart in the mornings, Spoon and Enon during their busy lunch hours. He freshens the playlists about once a month, taking suggestions from workers and utilizing his own taste in music.
“You make an effort to find stuff because it’s fun, but also to find stuff that is not played out, not played at every restaurant or every other business.”
Frank Bruni, restaurant critic for The New York Times, has jammed to the background music in Little Giant, the Lower East Side fresh market eatery, which includes tracks from English New Wavers Squeeze and alt-country/rock band Wilco. In his 2005 review, he wrote: “During a typical dinner, I grabbed a slice of grilled peasant bread, slathered it with the restaurant’s evanescently sweet chicken-liver mousse, took a bite and smiled not just at what was happening in my mouth but at what was happening in my ears. Siouxsie and the Banshees? Circa the early 1980’s? Didn’t I own that album?” In The New York Times blog Diner’s Journal, Mr. Bruni is chronicling the music that has titillated his eardrums on his dining adventures across the country, like Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” in Dallas, Texas, at a fancy boite “with a clientele that doesn’t really dovetail with an angry pop tirade against infidelity.”
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.”
Companies like Muzak and Music Choice boast about breaking new bands that can’t get radio airplay. Two years ago, before “Hey There Delilah” became the omnipresent radio hit beloved by preteens across the country, Music Choice put Plain White T’s music into its song rotation and hyped the band with interviews and videos. By the summer of 2007, “Hey There Delilah” was topping the charts.
Devin Bolton, 24, a Brooklyn-based DJ who goes by the name Dances With White Girls, worked for Music Choice’s urban programming unit, selecting new songs to drop into their rotation. “The idea is to make sure [that] what is popular in small markets that will become popular on a national level is reflected,” Mr. Bolton told The Observer.
You can still hear the elevator music of yore when you’re on hold with the post office or at Grand Central while you’re waiting for Metro-North. But Mr. Lanza, elevator music’s premiere enthusiast, usually has to listen to records by “mood maestros” Percy Faith and Ray Conniff at home. “We hear less and less of it,” he said. “Now it’s almost nonexistent. The less you hear, the more mysterious it becomes, and people ask questions: What was this like?”
The Day the Muzak Saved My Life
Muzak was founded by an American two-star general named George Owen Squier, who patented the transmission of background music in the 1920’s. Originally named Wired Radio (how 90’s!), Muzak began transmitting canned music over telephone lines, later expanding its broadcasts into hotels and restaurants. Muzak pumped its instrumental music into elevators not long after the strange metal boxes were installed in skyscrapers. Their soothing music was meant to ease passengers’ fears of falling to their deaths.
Musak gave comfort through the Great Depression, broadcast army training instructions while World War II raged and flourished during the Cold War, when the country needed healing music to mollify their anxieties about a nuclear war.
By March 1936, Musak transferred its Cleveland headquarters to New York City studios on Fourth Avenue. “Music by Musak” served upscale clients including the Stork Club on 53rd Street, where Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe were spotted. Cover versions of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “There’s a Small Hotel” were popular choices.
In his book, Mr. Lanza recounts how an Army B-25 bomber on a cross-country mission crashed into the Empire State Building’s 79th story on July 28, 1945. Flames raced up the elevator shafts, burning cables and licked dangerously close to 50 people stuck inside of a glass-encased observatory on the 88th floor. The front-page article in the July 29th issue of The New York Times reported: “Even at this terrifying juncture, however, the ‘canned’ music that is wired into the observatory continued to play, and the soothing sounds of a waltz helped the spectators there to control themselves. There was no panic, but within a few minutes the heat and choking fumes from the fire below made the observatory uncomfortable.”
Some of Musak and easy listening’s pioneers studied at Juilliard. Composer Jane Jarvis, who started arranging languid tracks for Muzak in 1963 and eventually became corporate vice president, was hired by the New York Mets in 1964 to play the organ at Shea Stadium. She banged out the “Let’s Go Mets” theme while the ballplayers took the field, and the “Mexican Hat Dance” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Gershon Kingsley studied at Columbia and Julliard, becoming the musical director for several Broadway shows before forming the First Moog Quartet with partner Jean-Jacques Perrey. They hunkered down in an experimental New York City laboratory to apply their “electronic sonosynthesis” to songs like “The Unidentified Flying Object,” “Electronic Can-Can” and “Jungle Blues from Jupiter,” according to Mr. Lanza’s book.
Nick Perito, best known as Perry Como’s composer who worked with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, was also a graduate of Julliard. He was one of Muzak’s “major maestros” during the late 60’s and early 70’s. He told Mr. Lanza before his death, in 2005, that he lamented the passing of traditional elevator music. “The music was
wonderful balm for the up and going, the frantic, the running, the hurried,” Mr. Perito said. Muzak was “putting a little shawl around you. It didn’t attack or provoke. When we recorded Muzak music, I liked to think that we weren’t going to war; we were going to the peace table.”