'Muzak Fills the Deadly Silences'

Muzak developed during the era of Art Deco architecture and “jazzy” design. Like Art Deco, Muzak was meant to inspire office workers to move along to the increasingly fast pace of the modern corporation. Just as design and architecture evolved from Art Deco to the International Style, Muzak moved to the Stimulus Progression.

The streamlined geometry of Art Deco design attempted to mask the repetitive nature of office work with a representation of the speed and tempo of modern music. But Art Deco failed to keep its promise: fixed in architectural form, it could only represent change, and was not itself capable of changing over time. As workers grew accustomed to Art Deco, they grew bored of it, associate its forms with the overheated exuberance of the 1920s and the desperate salesmanship of the Great Depression. As International Style modern architecture spread in the postwar era, Muzak spread with it. Muzak punctuated activity on the floors of the Johnson Wax Company building, Lever House, the Seagram building, the Chase Manhattan bank building, the Pan Am building, the Sears Tower, the Apollo XI command module and countless other modernist structures. Muzak is the hidden element in every Ezra Stoller photograph of a modernist office interior. By 1950, some 50 million people heard Muzak every year.

Muzak made modernism palatable sonically. The new, hermetically sealed office buildings that the glass curtain wall and postwar air conditioning system permitted were capable of blocking out distracting sounds from outside, but without these sounds, two new conditions emerged. In some areas, office machines, building control systems, and fellow employees became more distracting while in others, you simply had too much quiet making the artificial lack of environmental sound uncomfortably noticeable. Broadcasting Muzak ensured a superior, controlled background condition.

Muzak’s slogan during this period was “Muzak fills the deadly silences.” But Muzak isn’t just invisible to the eyes, in the company’s own words, Muzak “is meant to be heard, but not listened to.” Aimed at a subliminal level, the immaterial gestures of the Stimulus Progression were neither ornamental nor representational, but rather physiological. Workers did not think about Muzak, they were programmed by it. As soon as Muzak received any requests for songs, they immediately removed them from the library. Like the Fordist worker, Muzak that drew attention to itself was deemed unsuccessful and dismissed.

By filling the deadly silences, Muzak supported modernism and made the impersonality of the Fordist management system more palatable. In bridging melody (individuality) and monotony (the abstract field), Muzak provided an element of accommodation against a background of abstraction, acting as a palliative for both the modern office and for modern architecture. Interactions between individuals that would otherwise have been uncomfortable, such as disciplinary reprimands, terminations, and general office tension could all be alleviated by its soothing background tones.

Composed almost exclusively of love songs stripped of their lyrics, the Stimulus Progression provided a gentle state of erotic arousal throughout the day. Desire, union, and disappointment could all be felt collectively, albeit subconsciously, thereby adding color to the day and blunting the impact of such emotions when real life erupted in the workplace. James Keenen, Ph.D., the Chairman of Muzak’s Board of Scientific Advisors concluded that “Muzak promotes the sharing of meaning because it massifies symbolism in which not few but all can participate.” Muzak provided the same symbolic experience as the pre-Industrial song did, but this sharing of meaning happened below the threshold of consciousness.

Whereas in the 1930s Muzak was essentially the same as popular music and radio, by the 1940s it had gone its own way, creating a different level of attention and its own medium. Muzak had pioneered the use of long playing 33 1/3 rpm records in order to create more seamless soundscapes for its functional music. In contrast, RCA Victor’s 1949 introduction of the smaller and less expensive 45 rpm disc format allowed popular hits and youth-oriented rock music to be taken almost anywhere and listened to over and over. Small hand-held personal record players are some of the most important consumer objects of the twentieth century, helping to forge radically new communities among young adults based on consumption and consumer identity, rather than work itself. After a period of economic and technological growth from the first two world wars, a surplus of income allowed teenagers unprecedented freedom from familial restraints and societal mores. Personal record players encouraged listening in private, offering media consumption free from supervision. As the first purely consumer market, youth culture relied heavily on the purchasing and playback of music to express itself and create identity. Young listeners would take apart songs, transcribing lyrics and music and playing the songs themselves. The resulting rock and roll music of the 1950s was the most dramatic singular youth culture movement in history, cutting across class and even chipping away at racial divisions.

But like the prewar modernism of the avant-garde, rock and roll was the subject of constant, engaged attention. In contrast, Muzak corresponded to postwar corporate modernism and was apprehended through distraction. While rock became increasingly abrasive and strove for shock value, Muzak desired not to be heard. Unlike rock, popular with young people but hated by their elders, by the early 1950s Muzak consciously eliminated genres that commonly perceived as objectionable.

Theodor W. Adorno may well have outlined the program for postwar Muzak in his 1938 “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” when he stated that since contemporary music is “perceived purely as background,” it no longer has anything to do with taste: “To like it is almost the same as to recognize it.” In a world of completely identical choices, recognition itself has become impossible. Preference, Adorno suggests, “depends merely on biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard.” Adorno contends that active listening is at odds with contemporary music as it would reveal the banality of its arrangement. Instead, of attention, Adorno suggests, contemporary music is based on mindless repetition of certain material and performers.

Like air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting, Muzak originally emerged as an acclimatization technology for the extreme environment of the skyscraper but it soon undid its host structure. Muzak made vast, horizontal interior spaces, previously usable only for warehouses, habitable by covering up the noise that would build up in large floorplates. The lower costs of building these new, flat structures in less expensive suburban locations and the growing efficiency of the same data communication technologies that Muzak itself employed, soon made tall buildings obsolete. During the 1960s, Muzak began to shift its attention, calling itself “environmental,” thereby acting as a sensory stimulant that added coloration to a space.

The development of cybernetic theories after the war transformed management structures and capitalized on the new horizontality, making the office floor a source for innovation and positive change. Having learned from the Hawthorne Effect, managers no longer acted as overseers trying to keep employees from wasting time and becoming distracted from their tasks and instead encouraged employees to take on greater responsibility for themselves and their own positions within the corporation. In order for employees to share information and expertise, social interaction became crucial and open environments replaced closed offices and executive floors. Large interiors facilitated greater freedom of communication. In particular, the open plans and horizontal methods of organization developed by proponents of Büro Landschaft became a major aspect of both late modern architecture and management strategy.

Open plans eliminated walls completely or replaced them with partitions to allow for greater flexibility in programme and increased interaction among employees. This openness, however, also enables the unimpeded circulation of unpleasant background noise as well, including the distracting sounds of office machines, ventilation systems, coworkers, and exterior traffic. Muzak masked these background sounds, helping employees and customers focus on messages and sounds that matter while adding a layer of sensory engagement to an otherwise blank architecture.

The horizontality of the open plan is the very basis of contemporary society. It enables fluid structures that can more effectively respond to changing conditions. In this condition, Muzak’s ability to structure an environment invisibly becomes a model for control. In his “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Gilles Deleuze traces the transition from a society of discipline to a society of control. As both Bataille and Foucault point out, architecture was the instrument for discipline and order throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Devices for creating enclosure and allowing for the supervision of many workers by a few managers, buildings structured society. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, this model no longer held power. In place of the 'molds' made by enclosures, Deleuze suggests that we are entering into a time of modulations. No longer driven by fear, work is now based on identifying with, and entering, the flow. The Stimulus Progression ensured the success of modulation in the workplace.

Muzak now faces individuals with a changed sensorium. The constant flow of changes across society has made us less responsive to any particular change. Over time, our sensorium has grown more able to tolerate the shock of the new. Once shocking, both skyscrapers and sprawl have become everyday. This condition is also evidenced by changes in our relationship to music. While Elvis was radical in the 1950s, he is background today. The speed by which we assimilate newness in musical culture has increased greatly over the last twenty years. Played over and over, “God Save the Queen” and “Like A Virgin” have become tunes we hum along with absent-mindedly, their radical message sublimated. These popular hits work the same way that Muzak’s earlier instrumentals did, acting as a stimulating but blank texture within the empty spaces of work and consumption.

When present, emotion becomes sublimated into affect that can be turned on and off at will. Violently rejecting the hippie ethic of free love and peace to the world, Punk rock was the last musical or cultural movement that presented an alternative emotion. By the late 1970s, New Wave had finished with emotion altogether, partly because new amplification technology made it no longer necessary as a means of reaching audiences (it is no accident that the Cars were the loudest band of their day). Thus John Lennon’s 1970 Plastic Ono Band was a raw wound, informed by Arthur Yanov’s Primal Scream Therapy in its quest to break through the veneer of rationalism that Fordism created through the aural expression of accumulated pain. In contrast, Tears for Fears 1983 the Hurting addressed the same theme via the inflectionless lines of a synthepop dance song: “Shout, shout/Let it all out/These are the things I can do without/Come on/I’m talking to you/So come on.” Ten years later, the commercial acceptance of Kurt Cobain points out how all resistance, sadness, and pain can be experienced as affect today. With Nirvana, alienation was no longer a matter of struggle but rather could be accepted as a mood or intensity. Even prior to Cobain’s death in 1994, Muzak, which happened to be based in Seattle during the decade of the “Seattle Sound,” had created an instrumental version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Cobain’s inheritance is “Emo Rock” which reduces emotion to a genre. No longer does music have to be as inflectionless as New Wave. Now it can mime emotion, comforting us with the knowledge that it is just a mood to plug in and out of at will throughout the course of our day.

Always ahead of the curve, Muzak abandoned the Stimulus Progression in favor of “Audio Architecture” in the 1980s. At this point, the amount of stimulation received in the daily environment far exceeded any ability of the engineers at Muzak to modulate such forces. Overstimulated, individuals can no longer be affected by increases in data alone. In response, today Muzak’s programmers don’t style themselves as engineers or scientists. Instead they harness this excess of data to become “Audio Architects,” a term that indicates that they construct environments, and that Muzak is as much art as science.

The sensorial overload of contemporary culture means that even original songs are no longer distracting. Today most of Muzak’s channels broadcast originals, not reorchestrated versions. The result is that Muzak’s audio programming has become even more invisible: if the music is audible, its source is no longer discernible.

The culture industries have made it possible for even the most wild and subversive content to be consumed by everyone. With repeated airplay, song lyrics lose their meaning, turning all music into a background of moods without emotional depth. Today, in a radically segmented demographic market, Muzak’s customers can choose from a variety of programs that include all forms of music, picking the channels and moods most appropriate to their audience’s needs and can request custom selections designed to enhance their unique brand personality.

For the post-Fordist marketplace, Muzak addresses its audience’s emotions, creating moods rather than seeking to manipulate attention. Muzak employs the technique of “Atmospherics” to create a distinct ambient audio environment for a particular retail environment. Through a careful choice of music, together with appropriate selections of colors, furniture, and accessories, a store can conjure the image of an entire lifestyle.

Inside a store, Muzak’s cozy, ordered atmospherics offer a contrast to the chaos outside and stimulate the consumer’s desire to purchase. Disoriented by noise, the proliferation of signs, and the emptiness and hustle that occurs within the vastness of either the mall or the contemporary city, the individual enters a store seeking solace and emotional comfort within a clearly ordered set of goods and experiences.

Atmospherics also solve an earlier problem that Muzak faced in stores and restaurants. Directed at transient occupants of a space, the old public area Muzak channel had a shorter programming cycle, thereby irritating workers who had to be in the space for the entire day and felt relentlessly sped up. In contrast, Atmospherics aim at a culture that unites workers and shoppers in a total community. Within the workplace, Muzak not only helps stimulate employees so that they produce more, Atmospherics form a corporate culture that supports group hegemony and shared cultural references among radically different individuals. With Muzak, the ultimate product of the retail or corporate space becomes consumers and workers themselves.

The transition from the Stimulus Progression to Atmospherics echoes the shift from Fordism to Post-Fordism. The Stimulus Progression was a manifestation of the Fordist plan: it was temporal, linear, and directed at the individual, who would use it to fine-tune his or her own self. The Stimulus Progression was primarily, although not exclusively, about production. In contrast, Atmospherics are spatial, nonlinear, and self-contained. Atmospherics replace the Stimulus Progression with Quantum Modulation, which does not vary in intensity or mood. On the contrary, under Quantum Modulation, songs are numerically indexed according to criteria such as tempo, color (light or dark) rhythm, popularity and so on to ensure that the same intensity can be maintained even as the music appears to have changed. Atmospherics address individuals as they traverse different ambiances throughout their everyday lives. Unlike the relatively simple goals of the Stimulus Progression, Atmospherics propose that work is a form of consumption and that consumption is a form of work.