Friday, October 27, 2017

A Social History of Background Music

"Muzak and mood music [...] emit music the way the twentieth century is equipped to receive it. They have so successfully blended genres and redefined music appreciation that they have become the music world's Esperanto." - Joseph Lanza
Some time ago I was at a thrift store, hovering over an especially unpromising stack of vintage records, when I had an uncomfortable realization.

Over the years, first from working at Disney, then writing this blog and researching historical music loops, has warped my musical taste. I'm much more likely to spin a piece of background music to relax - Epcot's Innoventions music loop, for instance, or perhaps George Bruns' Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii. After a tough day at work, I want to settle into a groove with a drink and some mellow music.

As I stood there contemplating one of these dog eared LPs, I had one of those horrible moments of lucidity that makes one doubt her sanity: I was shopping for easy listening music. I was excited to find elevator music. I went home and began to cue up video after video on YouTube of the most treacly, canned music possible - and I loved it. Theme parks had made me love Muzak.

Gradually I began to wonder if that was such a bad thing after all. Background music cassettes from K-Mart went viral just a few years ago; a cursory search online reveals a raft of websites dedicated to preserving the background music of the past. And yet, theme parks are one of the few places left where you can experience true background music; walk into an average Starbucks or Waffle House and they're playing a sleeker, streamlined kind of BGM that's entirely popular recordings. It's sort of startling to realize that humans as recently as 80 years ago lived in a world where music wasn't constantly blaring out of every ceiling; what's so bad about a preference for music that's atmospheric and relaxing instead of popular hits of the past 20 years?

So I thought I'd take a quick look through the history of moodsong in the 20th century. At first blush this seems to be a tangent for this blog, but the links between postwar elevator music, social engineering, and Walt Disney run deeper than you think - once you go about digging them up, of course. It's a story that stretches over the better part of a century, world wars, and wrenching social changes, all events that can be bridged by strings echoing out of a tinny speaker in the ceiling.

Music To Read By

It was the early 1920s, and George O. Squier had an idea. George had spent a lifetime as an inventor and tinkerer for the US Army - he had invented the method for carrying multiple conversations over a single wire, allowing for the rise of a functional national telephone system, and had flown in one of the Wright Brothers' earliest aircrafts. Now, he wanted to apply his way with wires to send music to homes, offices, factories, and ballrooms across the country. George took the final two letters from "Kodak" and applied it to "music" to end up with "Muzak".

Squier was competing for an increasingly congested marketplace. The original American - which is to say, industrialized and populist - source of background music was almost certainly the radio. A boom market in the 1920s, by the 30s the radio was ubiqutious in American homes - it's been said that if you walked down the street on a hot summer evening during the broadcast of Amos 'n Andy or The Fibber McGee and Molly Show, you could hear the entire program from the open windows without missing a word. In the places where average Americans congregated - cafes, diners, and soda fountains, the radio rapidly gave life a distinct rhythm. And while today we think immediately of the radio stars of old, the fact is that the popular evening radio programs were but a tiny slice of an 18 hour broadcast day - a broadcast day made up of lots and lots of music.

Experiments in the teens and twenties discovered that those early crystal radio sets were best at transmitting a very narrow range of sound. The subtle buzz and hum of early radio transmissions could be counteracted by stringed instruments - especially those played overlapping, in a high frequency range. While George Squire was asking apartment owners to pay several dollars a month for subscription to his wired music services, a crystal radio set could play nearly nonstop all morning and night after the purchase of just one attractive unit that complemented the washing machine and icebox.

Unauthorized use of commercial 78 records, or electronic bootlegs of the same, were so rampant amongst small, rural radio stations that record companies began to stamp "Not For Broadcast" on their record labels. But even the mainstream radio stations of the 20s and 30s had off hours to fill with content, and in-house orchestras were kept gently sawing away between 11 pm and 1 am in stations like Chicago and New York in programs called Music To Read By, Time For Dreams, or Nightcap. The sounds of soft classical music became the defining sound of progress and modernity for a generation.

These early crystal radios were AM only; the superior FM format lumbered along inauspiciously, copying the content of the AM stations until World War II, when political pressure from radio manufacturers and increasing demand for television airwaves caused the US Government to move all of the FM stations further up the dial. This rendered obsolete in a stroke nearly every FM radio in the country. FM stations already just about on the rocks needed to adapt quickly or fold; they began offering their services to two symbols of modernity in urban America: the department store and the self-service grocer. Merchants found that the music helped move product and added and aura of prestige. In later years this format would come to be known as BM Music.

BM - Beautiful Music - stuck around for an astonishingly long time and has never really gone away - do a quick search and you'll find a small station probably not far from you who still broadcasts it. BM stations often ended up as a smaller operation inside of a larger radio studio, handled by less experienced operators. Free of commercials or announcements, BM stations churned away silently in the backdrop of modern life in major cities around the country. All across the country, businesses sprouted up like mushrooms with names like The Storecast Corporation of America, Store Radio, and Point-O-Salecast. Muzak's first major success came in arranging, recording, and selling music to BM stations who were becoming an increasingly legitimate and organized business.

Social Engineered Sound Scapes

George O Squier had died in 1934, a decade before Muzak's full ascendancy. In comparison to the wireless music provided by BM stations, all through the 40s Muzak had differentiated themselves by only offering wired music - the fidelity and reliability being said to be much better. Muzak also refused to be content with playing bootlegged light classical music - they recorded their own versions in house, carefully arranged to be as pleasant and unobtrusive as possible.

As early as 1935, Muzak was using red, vinyl discs running at 33 1/3 RPM, making them more or less the inventors of the LP. They also began to target their music to specific periods of the day - marches for breakfast, tangoes at lunch, light jazz at cocktail hour, then classics at dinner and dancing  till midnight. Through the 30s, Muzak had been bolstered by a raft of social studies published by such outlets as the Stevens Institute of Technology who found that "pleasant, functional music" improved worker productivity and happiness. The constant hum of nonintrusive music had become a welcome addition to a world plagued by depressions and worldwide wars.

(Yellow, Green, Red and Blue were Muzak's four programs - Red was intended for small restaurants, Blue and Yellow serviced retail, and Green for home use.)

By the end of World War II, Muzak Corporation had hit upon the concept of "Stimulus Progression". As American culture converged towards an illusion of stability in the late 40s and early 50s, Muzak claimed that workers were happier and more efficient while background music was playing, and that said music was more effective when played in 15 minute chunks, then silenced for another 15.

Muzak installations that offered the Stimulus Progression package came in two varieties: music for factories and music for offices. A 400 hZ signal broadcast over the wires separating the 4 fifteen-minute chunks would tell the office Muzak installations to remain muted during the more upbeat factory installations, or vice-versa. But a company doesn't go from a name brand to a description on novelty alone; you can't go from Xerox to 'xerox' by accident. With Stimulus Progression. Muzak hit exactly the tenor of their time.

By the 50s, except for that annoying Rock and Roll, American taste was flattening out. The generation that had fought a great depression and two World Wars wanted things to be simple, to be pleasant for once, and a growing peacetime economy and a technology boom promised a happy, prosperous America from sea to shining sea. What could be more pleasant, more productive, more futuristic and modern than pleasing, scientifically selected mood music?

What got forgotten in the Baby Boom generation's rush to tear down all of their parent's idols is that many people genuinely liked the sound of this stuff. The seeds planted back in the 1930s with the radio constantly cranking out it light classical tunes eventually flowered in the 50s into an entire genre: Easy Listening. Go to any old record store and there they will be: hundreds upon hundreds of easy listening records, bought back in the 50s and 60s by Mom and Pop while junior held his nose. Muzak went mainstream, and emerged on the other side as muzak - and ended up on the home stereo.

Indeed, a key part of an hostesses' job was selecting exactly the correct record to play on the newly behemoth home record player consoles, which could play five or six LPs stacked up in order - a full evening's worth of mood music. In the era where the home cocktail party or backyard luau was the social glue that held together a generation, the tasteful background of cocktail tunes was an essential skill.
"The musically aware hostess no longer allows the butler, or her husband, to sling records on to the turntable in a haphazard way... she now supplies a ready made background of elegant and suitable music to smooth the evening into one long feast of pleasure and unshattered nerves." - Liner Notes, Velvet by the Frank Chaksfield Orchestra
The boom economy begat imitators. Seeburg, who started off manufacturing orchestrions, had moved into jukeboxes by the 50s and eventually released the Seeburg 1000 BMS1, the Cadillac of background music equipment. It was sized and styled to replace the old crystal radio haunting shelves in diners across the country.

Each Seeburg 1000 played specially-sized records at 16 1/2 RPM; the device would play the underside of a record, drop it down, then play the top. The device would hold over 25 records, each holding 40 minutes of music, for about 16 hours total, and could automatically repeat the process. Every four months, a new shipment of five records would arrive, and five records would have to be removed and sent back to Seeburg for destruction. Like Muzak, Seeburg offered a number of subscription "plans" intended for various settings, which they called Basic, Mood, and Instrumental. The strictly enforced obsolescence of the music discs and the styling of the unit itself makes the Seeburg 1000 highly collectible today, thankfully, interested parties can stream the music online for free at

By the same time, radio stations had moved away from records and towards the new endlessly repeating, automatically cueing Fidelipac cassette tapes, a kind of precursor to the 8-track. Fidelipac tapes were a single length of magnetic tape which spooled around inside its caddy endlessly; while best for voice announcements, it could also be played slowly enough and theoretically made large enough to allow for background music application.

The most impressive of these tape systems was the Cantata 700, manufactured by 3M of Scotch Tape fame. Consisting or two giant tape reels spinning around in a massive walnut box, 3M sold the device and tape outright to businesses instead of offering the subscription plan that BM Stations, Muzak, and Seeburg relied on and saw the device fail as a result.

That was in 1965, where the market was already overstuffed enough to see new options floundering. But cultural changes were underway - rock and roll came back, and now it was politically charged and experimental. The lightly relaxing music which once connnoted sophistication and modernity was the squarest of the square; just about the most damning thing you can say about any piece of music, then or now, is to called it elevator music - to call it Muzak.

The Decline of Background Music

Muzak and Seeburg continued trudging along, offering their subscription plans through the 70s and 80s while the various tape machines began to degrade, fall apart, and eventually be replaced by... the radio. Popular radio stations fled the AM band, crowding out BM stations. Grocery and department stores, accustomed to their FM receivers, kept playing the new FM program of popular hits. A few BM stations moved back to the AM band, but most just closed. After 8-track, after compact cassette, it was no longer classy or special to walk into a store and hear music playing - it was just something that happened everywhere.

In 1968, a company called Yesco began offering what they called "foreground music" - popular music of the day, intended to appeal to young Boomers. By the 80s, the writing was on the wall, and Muzak struck a deal with Yesco and began distributing their music programs through the existing Muzak channels. A few years later, both companies were purchased and merged. Yesco's corporate officers and headquarters ate up Muzak, which continued to do business only as a name - their entire strategy was oriented around Yesco's "foreground music".

In the 70s, Brian Eno sat in an airport for a few hours waiting for a flight and was annoyed by the canned background music. In 1978 he produced Ambient 1: Music For Airports, a mellow, experimental soundscape intended to relax listeners. Rolling Stone missed the point entirely, squawking that you could only appreciate the music by listening to it. In 1986, during the Muzak-Yesco merger, Ted Nugent, back then most associated with arena rock, made a public stunt of offering to buy Muzak for $10 million in order to destroy it. In the minds of many, Muzak, which effectively no longer existed, was still associated with inane social programming.

And yet, throughout all of this, wasn't there something unacknowledged just below the surface? In the 50s easy listening boom, records by Jackie Gleason, Henry Mancini, Les Baxter and Martin Denny pictured rigorously sexualized, perfectly up-do'd women staring temptingly out from the record sleeves. Compare this to the cover of any Mantovani album and perhaps we begin to wonder if the marketing of the Les Baxters of the world were perhaps overcompensating for something. Since the 50s, those who rail and rally against the constant musical backdrop of mood song have danced around what would otherwise seem to be their core complaint. Don't their protestations ultimately come down to the music being a little wimpy, a little emotional, a little... feminine?

Women were the ones who heard, supported, listened to, curated, purchased and played the genre we now know as easy listening. It was women who were home all through the 30s to get the taste for the light classical constantly blaring out from the crystal set. Women supported and enjoyed the addition of background music to take the drudgery out of factory jobs as they flooded the workforce during the war effort. And the modern cocktail hostess, armed with a fleet of up to date wonder devices like the washing machine and self-cleaning oven, provided the social lubricant of the 50s and 60s with her easy h'orderves and jello molds made with convenient, shelf-stable products. Mantovani, Liberace, Frank Chaksfield, Ray Conniff and Lawrence Welk played music that appealed to women, and there may still be a sublimated hint of sexism in today's detestation of the genre.

Today, aural relaxation techniques include everything from nature sounds to ambient music. Pop hits, perhaps from several decades ago, are more likely to be heard at workplaces than peppy little marches. The few businesses that do play light classical or jazz music do so in a deliberate attempt to differentiate themselves. While in the American lexicon "muzak" is today synonymous with any sort of canned music, you'll have to look pretty hard to find any genuine examples.

That is, except at Disneyland. Just as it won't take much online searching to bring up people who insist that background music contains "subliminal messages", Disneyland has always reflected the surface optimism and social engineering of the 1950s that some have always found so sinister. In 1957, Muzak was even purchased outright by Jack Wrather, television mogul and owner of the Disneyland Hotel. It's probably a safe bet that Disneyland used Muzak's "aural wallpaper" in several areas around the park in the early days.

Walt Disney was one of those twentieth century conservatives who supported large scale effort to improve the lives of the middle class. Born of blue collar cities at the turn of the 20th century, the product of the hangover from 19th century utopian fiction and the fallout of the great depression, Walt believed in massive public and private efforts like the building of the Eisenhower interstate system. I'm sure his EPCOT City would have played wall-to-wall Muzak inside its covered downtown, apartment complexes, monorails, and Peoplemovers.

It seems that, at least inside Disney, the association between a continuously flowing musical accompaniment and an automated, futuristic world never quite went away - EPCOT Center opened in 1982 with an entire, carefully orchestrated and custom recorded aural soundscape intended to set to mood. The styles ranged from bombastic at the entrance to ambient outside Journey into Imagination to unambiguously Easy Listening in World Showcase.

In the late 60s, Disney hired ex-radio DJ Jack Wagner to act as their permanent in house background music specialist. Jack's job was to clear the rights to and compile music into pleasing musical programs to play in the park - essentially, nothing but Disney's version of the "Stimulus Progression" concept. Prior to his assignment, Jack always maintained that "you'd go down Main Street and they'd be playing '60s musical hits like 'Mrs. Robinson'", which sure sounds an awful lot like something Muzak would have provided. But the story of Jack Wagner and his contributions to theme park background music are a story for another article.

While malls, grocery stores, department stores, and workplaces were switching over to the invasive hum of the radio, Disney held true to their convictions and background music eventually became an accepted facet of theme parks. In the 90s, Universal Studios Florida played pop hits from popular movies - none of that lame easy listening stuff! But their second theme park, the beautiful Islands of Adventure, had a much more traditional theme park musical background, setting the stage for their attempt to out-Disney Disney. The Port of Entry BGM remains one of the finest ever created.

Background Music and Moodsong in Context

Today, we are all music curators. The iPod taught everyone how tough it is to create the perfect playlist, and the disastrous effect following up Duke Ellington with Radiohead can have. What's more, theme parks are one of the only places left where you can watch background music still working. You can watch people pick up the pace in tune to the music on Main Street, or take on solemn, attentive postures inside the Hall of Presidents. It may be subliminal messaging or social programming, but it also works and makes people happy, which is what these places are all about.

There's never going to be consensus about background music, because there are as many people as there are options. But, you know, Muzak, or specifically Yesco - now called Mood Media - are still around, and they still sell sounds and even smells to retail chains. The "Muzak Principle" is still a sound one - consider how the teenagers who frequent, say, Abercrombie & Fitch would feel about those clothes if Garth Brooks were playing in the stores. Or how the patrons of Bass Pro Shops would feel if Run-DMC were playing at the entrance.

Meanwhile, certain sectors of the 50s and 60s Easy Listening genre have managed to shed their toxic reputation and bounce back to respectability. Thanks to his hipster image, Frank Sinatra has never really stopped being cool, but it's easier to find people enthusiastic about Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, or Nat King Cole than it was even twenty years ago. The re-emergence of cocktail culture in the United States has lifted a great number of moodsong purveyors of the 40s and 50s, and the subsequent re-emergence of Tiki as a popular drinking subculture means that exotica music is back in a big way. If you enjoy Percy Faith when he's orchestrating faux-Oriental nonsense under the auspices of a midcentury idol, you'll probably enjoy him in other contexts, too.

Ironically, the concept of background music may be making a resurgence. For many, just getting through a week is getting tougher and tougher, and any kind of stress-free outlet is appreciated. Next time you've had a hard day at work, try playing some Henry Mancini or Mantovani when you get home. It may not be chic, but it still works if you let it.

In 2015, Downtown Disney in Florida became Disney Springs, and the radio-style pop music which once haunted the streets of Downtown Disney was replaced with a mellow, nearly ambient selections of light jazz tracks. The new custom loop for the Marketplace is an hour and a half of unbroken ambient riffing which occasionally breaks into recognizable Disney tunes. It's as if the long arm of Stimulus Progression is reaching through time to gently guide us along, after all.

Elevator Music by Joseph Lanza, St Martin's Press, 1994
The Soundtrack of Your Life by David Owen, New Yorker Magazine, April 2006
A Brief History of Beautiful Music Radio by Richard O Connor, Percy Faith Pages, 2009
History of Muzak, Inc - Funding Universe
Seeburg 1000 BMS1 Background Music System - Techmoan
3M Cantata 700 - Techmoan


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