The Day the Muzak Died


Muzak has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection -- but it doesn't put the blame on illegal downloads of its marzipanny melodies. Instead, the company pointed to longstanding debt and the cancellation of contracts by companies put out of business during the recession. A New York Times notice mentioned that much of Muzak's debt was owed to music companies whose songs it licensed. Still, an L.A. Times piece quotes Danette Christine, the owner of another company offering piped-in office tunes as saying, "Being an old company, they were developing based on the old music models, but they must have missed a step somewhere because music is done differently now."

In fact, it's hard to imagine Muzak operating any other way. The South Carolina-based company has been around since the Great Depression and its product is often referred to as "elevator music" -- the kind of unobtrusive, decaffeinated noise that would take a passenger's mind off his or her cares while riding alone in an Otis car. But it's really more accurate to think of Muzak as the music of waiting, for most people have encountered it while thumbing through months-old copies of Time in doctors' offices or while waiting in a dentist's chair for the Novocain to take effect.


Americans have grown old and numb in those chairs listening to

string-heavy versions of "Moulin Rouge" or "Eleanor Rigby." Existing

somewhere between white noise and the Ray Coniff Singers, Muzak's

instrumentals never made the stylistic leap past basic pop -- we've yet

to stand in a DMV line and be lulled by fluffy orchestrations of "God

Save the Queen" or "Straight Outta Compton."

Perhaps American

music became too schematized to be further reduced into an even blander

formula. Or maybe with the advent of iPods we have no need for

speakered sound tracks. Ironically, Muzak is falling

victim to the very recession that is now sending millions into

the waiting rooms of welfare and unemployment offices. Now, in

the silent vacuum, the only thing many will have in their heads are

voices blaming themselves for their fall. Those voices will be far from

soothing.

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