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November 2010
Orchestrating the Muzak
By Susanne B. Deitzel

     The name Muzak has been a staple of Americana since the company was founded in 1934.

     Since then, the company has survived economic calamities, the fickle tides of technology, and schizophrenic whims of popular culture.

     A close look at ‘the why’ behind Muzak’s longevity reveals foremost, a steadfast commitment to innovation. Originally “Muzak” referred to the invention of the first wired radio, but since then the company has also given birth to ideas like the first 33 1/3 vinyl record, and the first national franchise system.

     Ironically, Muzak’s most successful innovation—connecting mood, music and behavior—also associated the brand with the hard-to-shake nickname of “elevator music”—a languid, lyricless, sonic experience originally used to calm the nerves of anxious elevator passengers.

     Over the past few decades, Muzak has celebrated its deliberate evolution from being recognized as the leading producer of background music, to being seen as an industry vanguard for environmental brand experiences.


Playing It Through

     Last year Muzak experienced an unusual juxtaposition of events—its 75th anniversary and its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Interestingly, their coincidence opened up a compelling opportunity to create anew, and think bigger.

     For CEO Steve Villa, the economic challenges register as a blip alongside many other blips in the long history of the organization.

     “Muzak was founded during the Depression and has survived every downturn by growing, adapting and changing using the emotional power of music,” he surveys. “The concurrence of the anniversary and the bankruptcy was very galvanizing. It gave us a chance to come together as an organization, and communicate our vision and plans to our clients—I couldn’t be more proud of how it has turned out.”

     In the spring of 2008, prior to its bankruptcy filing, Muzak had been engaged in a courtship of competitor DMX, and received antitrust approval for a potential merger and sale to a third party. Due in large part to the tightening credit markets, that potential combination never materialized. Instead, Muzak filed for bankruptcy in the hopes of reducing its outstanding indebtedness and becoming a healthier company.

     In February of this year, Muzak emerged from Chapter 11 as a leaner and more focused company. Three units were created which leverage the use of media (voice, music and video), creative branding strategy and design, and the installation and service of technical systems.

     “I am really excited that we are no longer waiting for things to happen, but are creating our own destiny. We are constantly looking at how we can grow—not just in terms of products, but also in our legacy processes—how we do things and how we view our roles. If we find something that we are doing just because it is convenient—then it’s time to get rid of it,” explains Villa determinedly.

     This bucking of the status quo is a mainstay of the Muzak culture. The company embraces the artistry of its people. The Muzak dress code is just as open to tongue studs and tattoos as ties, and employees are just as comfortable at lunch as at media extravaganza SXSW. It’s also pretty common to hear the remark that Muzak “acts more like a start-up than most start-ups.”

     All this expression takes place in the company’s Fort Mill-based office—an award-winning facility spanning 110,000 square feet. It was designed to emulate a small European city, with neighborhoods that radiate like spokes from what the company calls its “city center.” City center is the hub of the organization, and is where the company’s 500 employees gather to hear company announcements, offer a musical welcome to major clients, or host concerts to showcase and celebrate the musical talent of employees.

     Not surprisingly, the building is wired for sound, with over 47 miles of cabling and wire. Wide open spaces conspicuously absent of offices throb with conversation, movement and music throughout the day. In a somewhat unconventional fashion (at least for CEOs), even Villa’s desk sits underneath a speaker channeling U2, flanked by a bowl of chocolates, a few CDs and a bookcase of memorabilia, including the guitar Villa hoisted performing as KISS in the company’s Muzak Idol event.

     Fashioned after American Idol, Muzak Idol is one of many events that the company hosts to celebrate and showcase the rich musical talent within its walls. Approximately 300 artists including musicians, singers, songwriters, and producers, stream through Muzak’s corridors.

     The only offices with doors in the building are the production studios—a quiet, crescent-shaped hallway where the company’s programmers work their magic.


Architecting the Music

     Perhaps the most recognized role at Muzak is the programmer or “Audio Architect.” Audio architects are responsible for intuiting the essence of a company’s brand, and strategically assembling and choreographing musical selections from “The Well”—Muzak’s archive of over 2.7 million songs. Audio architects use variables such as energy, tempo, mood and other “levers” that determine the flow of the program to create a specific experience for the listener.

     Explains Vice President of Music Programming Dan Turner, “In the age of iPods, almost everyone considers himself qualified to be a programmer, but it takes a lot of talent, skill and experience to understand and package genres in a way that works to meet a client’s brand experience.”

     In addition to sequencing musical components, programmers also design special transitions between songs, and “day-parting” where they shift the musical experience according to audience changes. For example, a program for a restaurant targeting a family audience for dinner but a lively bar scene after 9 p.m. would be designed with an ear for significantly different listener experiences.

     Turner says that audio architects train for at least three years, and a large part of their experience includes what he calls “Living the Life.” He explains, “I tell our programmers to read the same magazines, go to concerts and clubs, and dig into the musical personality they are working with. Music is not a static proposition—it is our job to ensure it is reflective and dynamic while at the same time serving the client’s needs.”

     An industry veteran and XM Satellite expatriate, Turner is clearly impressed at Muzak’s ambition. He shares that Muzak is on the precipice of the largest programming line-up shift in the company’s history, adding and revising core programs, and adding new holiday programs that increase the Muzak lineup to beyond its current 100-plus core programs and 200-plus custom programs. He also says that he is working on an explosion of foreign language-based programs, like Thai Pop and Indian Pop—sounds that contribute to an increasingly global repertoire with innovative applications.

     Turner is also responsible for supervising the voice department, where alongside the creation of musical experiences, his staff designs messaging to speak directly to customers via in-store ads and phone hold messaging.

     In 2009, Muzak began offering digital signage alongside its audio solutions, and the vision for a fully integrated media offering came into view. Muzak became able to synthesize music, voice messaging, video, and even aroma-marketing to create a fully integrated brand experience.

     It was clear that Muzak’s understanding of its client’s brand experience went far beyond music. So in March of 2010, it launched Touch: a Muzak Company—an in-house agency that designs and develops brand experiences using integrated media solutions. Bob Finigan, vice president and general manager of Touch, says that the agency infuses a strategic edge into the development process, “isolating specific brand objectives, directing creative services, and creating opportunities for customers to take the brand experience with them—using vehicles like e-mail, Web-based, and social media solutions.”

     The Touch offering has been dubbed “Media Architecture,” and a recent promotion with Cost Plus World Market provides a powerful example of its application. When Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book Eat Pray Love made it to movie screens this past summer, the World Market cross-promotion used story elements from Italy, Indonesia and India, matched with somatic elements like sound, video and aroma in its merchandizing program. Touch also integrated an e-mail campaign with the importer’s in-store explorer rewards program.

     Other examples include outdoor outfitter The North Face which engaged Touch to design an integrated media solution to convey its bold approach to exploration, and an integrated online platform to enable customers to experience and share music featured at Qdoba Mexican eateries.


Playing to Its Strengths

     Muzak is also finding that there is incredible potential residing in industry-specific solutions. Medical and dental offices, banks, universities, hotels, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants all have unique needs and touchpoints that are being effectively managed by Muzak’s brand architecture.

     Villa says that Muzak is emphasizing specific solutions like reducing perceived wait times, upselling and other metrics reflecting their clients’ business or brand objectives.

“In the 1990s we really tapped into the emotional power of the brand experience; a key part of our strategy going forward is integrating aspects that help us measure factors influencing consumer behavior and business development,” he explains.

     Another dimension to the Muzak model is its evolving relationship with the music industry. Muzak pays licensing fees for the rights to play artists’ music (legal security is a key benefit to choosing a Muzak system over other sound solutions). However, as the music industry encounters challenges, it seeks new ways to introduce new artists into a crowded marketplace. A rich opportunity appears to exist in Muzak’s 100 million listeners as they shop, wait in line, or fill up their gas tanks.

     Bruce McKagan, director of company communications, provides a clear example of the shift. “In the 1980s, the band Guns and Roses hit #3 on the charts with 997,000 record sales. Compare that to Velvet Revolvers new disc that hit #2 on the charts in 2008—but reached only 35,000 in record sales—and the conclusion is dramatic. When you also take into account that we get 25,000 new tracks sent to us every single month, it is clear that there are ways for us to partner with the music industry and artists to spread good music.”

     Villa says that in addition to serving listeners, Muzak is passionate about supporting young musicians who face school music program budget cuts. In 1998 the company started its Heart and Soul Foundation—a 501(c)(3) which strives to support and redefine music education through Music Matters grants, and an annual Noise! Camp for 15-18 year olds who want hands-on experience and interaction with music industry experts in places like L.A., New York and Nashville.

     Says Villa eagerly, “Muzak has a lot of unfinished business as a company. We are finding new and exciting ways to demonstrate the influence that our products offer, continuing to listen to and provide what our clients need more effectively and efficiently than other solutions, and leveraging the talent of our people to create an exciting new era of growth.”



Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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