How Muzak Shaped A Conformist America

Tonya Riley via All That is Interesting:

Although it might be easier to ignore in an age where nearly ever American carries thousands of songs in their pocket, the unmistakable sound of Muzak still haunts us all. An estimated 100 million people (nearly a third of America’s population) are exposed to Muzak’s background music each day, whether in an elevator, on hold with the cable company or elsewhere. Although the Muzak brand technically went bankrupt in 2009 and lost its name in 2013 after new owners moved in, its technology set the stage for almost a century of bland, instrumental music that became the soundtrack to postwar America and continues to this day.

Muzak was founded in 1934 by former Army General George O. Squier, who had led the U.S. Army’s communication efforts during World War I. Squier was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1919 after his patented multiplexing system allowed for multiple signals to be transferred over one phone line. This was the technology that made the invention of Muzak possible (a fan of Kodak, Squier thought giving his company a similar name would optimize marketing success). For just $1.50 a month, home consumers could have the latest hits played by Muzak’s orchestra through their phone line.

Of course, Squier’s brilliant idea was soon replaced by radio technology, so the company did an old-fashioned pivot and switched its focus to providing businesses with license-free music to play in their stores and workspaces. A hallmark of the Fordist economy, Muzak ads touted all the latest science of work productivity, promising that the carefully curated playlists would boost worker efficiency and happiness levels. The company patented a “Stimulus Progression” technique where 15-minute blocks of music were arranged by tempo to match an optimal work speed. According to surveys done by the company with their early clients (including Prudential Life Insurance, Bell Telephone, and the Federal Reserve), only 1.6 percent of employees found the background noise distracting.

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