How might this rank in the list of all-time asinine
$5-an-hour first jobs? Alvin Collis, a punk rocker new to Seattle from Canada, spent every
night at the Muzak Corporation (yes, its an actual company, not just the musical
equivalent of a lobotomy) listening intently to 4-hour tapes of syrupy Easy Listening and
Beautiful Music while they were being copied reel to reel. His job was to catch accidental
pauses and dropouts caused by the playing tape skipping over the metal recording head. Hey
Alvin, welcome to America!
Twelve years later, Alvin Collis is getting his
revenge. No, he did not fire a shot at Dan Quayle or send a letter-bomb to the head of the
CIA. Alvin Collis actually survived his hard time in the ditty chamber, and recently he
was dragged out of some back room where his subversive talents were gathering dust
and--get this--was promoted to chief of audio programming for Muzak. The company wants to
go hip. Still a skinhead but now with a ruddy tan, Collis is so bone thin it looks like he
has not been fed in those 12 years (think Kate Moss after two weeks on the stretch rack).
He wears sunglasses at all times, perhaps because he is not yet used to being in the
spotlight, which is where Muzak has thrust him.
"I see my life as a book," said Collis.
"I never expected there to be a chapter in my book where Im a Vice President at
a $100 million company, but I turned the page, and there it was."
For the 85 million Americans each day who are exposed
to one of Muzaks 100 different channels of moodsong, whether its the fem-beat
grooves at Donna Karan stores or Starbucks Blue Note CD or the piccolo-led quartet
in the dentists waiting room, Alvin Collis is *the guy* responsible for what you
hear. As Collis revamps this gigantic play-list, he will either become the most
influential DJ in the world or the only man deserving more hate mail in his In Box than
Under new management for the last year and a half, the
companys had a little bit of a hard time shaking its reputation for decades of
cultural atrocities. Its been two years since they stopped prohibiting blue jeans at
the office, and over a year since their salespeople stopped talking about a patented
scientific method for programming called "Stimulus Progression and Quantum
Modulation," but *gosh darnit!*--the public seems not to have even noticed. People
still think Muzak = *elevator music.* In an attempt to convince the world that
theyve become a really hip music company, they have invited me up to their
headquarters for a few days to verify their claims.
I guess I caught them a month prematurely, when they
were still rehearsing for their grand debut at a national sales convention in October.
Their new brochures had just arrived from the printer, and I saw the corporate-equivalent
of *The Little Engine that Could*: if we keep telling ourselves that were a music
company, then maybe well really *be* a music company. But, this being America after
all, Land of the Comeback, maybe thats all it will take, especially if Alvin Collis
also picks the right tunes.
Hes having a little bit of a hard time with that,
unfortunately. The corporate lobby is being redesigned in time for that October
convention, and Collis is responsible for choosing the music to play continuously from the
overhead speakers. Hes come up with the "brand extension" soundtrack for
Liz Clairborne and +H2O~ and Footaction, but its proving a little harder
challenge to find the songs that really capture what his own company is all about.
"Today, the experience of our lobby is still
car insurance office. I want it to say eclectic. Ive got
In the meantime, hes set the speaker system to
their own Adult Alternative program, one of the 60 channels on their radio satellite (only
one of which, to set the record straight, is instrumental covers). When I sat in the
lobby, this meant Boy George crying out "Karma Chameleon," which was quite
appropriate lyrically, considering the karma that has put Alvin in charge and the
chameleon change that signifies.
That afternoon, I join Collis for a meeting in his
corner office with one of the dozen audio programmers who works for him, David Keller.
Keller is a stockier Plain Wayne-looking workhorse who hauls more than his share of the
load. Hes been here for two years and is a lot happier now that Alvin runs the
department. "A corporation takes on the personality of its boss," says Keller.
"If the top guys a dick, then that *dickness* filters down. The guy who used to
run the department was real cynical. His attitude towards programming was just give
the bastards what they want."
Today Collis and Keller are brainstorming on a retail
food chain that sells, primarily, cinnamon rolls. I have to keep the account name
confidential, so lets call them Big Buns. How do you create the soundtrack for a
Collis explains, "Heres a chain run by men
55 to 65 years old thats entirely focussed on one sticky, brown, hot, buttery thing.
And why do we love those cinnamon rolls so much? Because Big Buns isnt just selling
the roll. They provide an olfactory experience that triggers a memory of being seven years
old, coming home at 3 oclock from Grade 2, and walking into the kitchen where your
Moms been baking. That cinammon roll gives you the emotional experience of family,
of the hearth, of safety."
So rather than setting music to the cinnamon roll,
Collis instructs Keller to find music to fit that emotional memory.
"Good thing Chris Isaak has a new CD coming
out," Keller says.
As the brainstorming continues, I learn that the two
programmers dont just pick their brains for musical suggestions. Apparently, going
from an olfactory experience to a visual memory to auditory score leaves an important
media out--translating this cinnamon roll experience into words. They need to boil down
the said olfactory experience into a list of key adjectives, a vocabulary of
sub-emotions that Keller will attempt to conjure with song.
On the ruled-yellow sheet in front of him, Keller has
the following adjectives written down:
I had no idea how verbally dexterous you have to be to
program music. These guys put wine tasters to shame. Justifying his choice of Chris Isaak,
Keller says, "Hes what Roxy Music would be if they grew up listening to surf
music and rockabilly. He has that khakis authenticism."
Collis wraps up the meeting. "This got us
thinking. But its a tough one. Dave, youre just going to have to make a run at
I swear I am not making this up.
A short history of how it got so bad at Muzak: through
four decades, Muzak was a single channel of insipid elevator music, instrumental covers of
pop songs. In search of an identity it could be proud of, the company bought in to a
Business Week-chic, bragging about profits and sales growth. They wore suits, they did
deals. Some conglomerates sold widgets--Muzak sold widget music. The companys
Scientific Board of Advisors conducted studies to prove muzak enhanced productivity. The
more the music sounded like it came off an assembly line, the better it echoed the image
the company wanted. One of the CEOs favorite slogans in the late 60s was
"boring work is made less boring by boring music."
In the 80s and 90s, all sorts of newfangled
"sound delivery systems" such as digital broadcast satellites and FM sub-carrier
sideband radio let the company recast itself with a nod to High Tech-chic. Suddenly the
company had 100 different channels of music, but with the emphasis on gizmo-tech nobody
was making sure that the "Tropical Breezes" channel, for instance, wasnt
just a bunch of canned Carribean songs. Nobody made sure that Tropical Breezes truly
captured the experience of, as Alvin Collis says with no irony, "A well-educated man
or a woman, age 35 to 45, who should be at work on a Friday afternoon but in her
BMW/Acura/Lexus drives by her favorite restaurant, goes in to sit on the deck in the sun,
puts her cell phone on the table, orders a pink drink with an umbrella in it, and says to
herself, this is the life."
A year and a half ago, the company was sold once again,
and the new owners noticed something. The instrumental-covers channel that is
conventionally known to the world as elevator music was only being used by 10% of their
250,000 corporate accounts. Ninety percent of their music was original artists
recordings. A cheer went up--*Maybe we dont have to be ashamed of working for
Kenny Kahn, the new Vice President of Marketing, hired
one of the countrys elite tactical makeover firms, Pentagram Design. These image
commandos, led by a Brit named Debbie Taffler, undertook the herculean task of making
Muzak look and feel like a music company. Their goal: a shade of gray just this side of
This wasnt just a logo-&-letterhead job.
Though they considered changing the name of the company, they couldnt part with the
brand name recognition, as despised as it was. So Pentagram imported a whole new
vocabulary for Muzak personnel to speak with. The job of DJs like David Keller became
"audio imaging." The video division, which had tried to distance itself from the
stigma of Muzak by calling itself "ZTV," became "video imaging."
"Accounts" became "customers," "employees" became
"colleagues," et cetera. When I was there, every now and then someone would slip
up and use the old term, then catch themselves. Out went the old corporate catchphrase,
"Americas Business Broadcaster," and in came the sentence I heard so many
times in my two-day visit that its ingrained in my brain like a jingle, "We
create experiences with audio architecture." So detailed was Pentagrams
overhaul that they even gave employees a new way of introducing themselves at parties, one
that wouldnt provoke the common "yuk" response: "Hi, I work for
Muzak, were *audio architects.*"
Put a string of these new vocabulary words together and
you get a story. That corporate story is spelled out in a recent memo (on the new
letterhead) from Kenny Kahn with warmest regards to his Dear Colleagues. "Our
Story," it begins, and spells out pretty much what Im telling you here, except
he does it in the new Pentagram-bequeathed official Muzak typeface.
"I see our story more as a book," Kenny Kahn
says, as we head off to lunch at a restaurant that overlooks the Elliott Bay waterfront. I
presume Kenny means this comment metaphorically, but then he says theyre interested
in hiring a writer. "And the first scene of the book will be when our new CEO showed
our National Sales Manager the crazy huge bathroom that had been installed in his office
by the old CEO. Thats how broken this company was--the National Sales Manager had
never been in the old CEOs office long enough to need his toilet."
Thats one heck of an opening scene. Really gets
the plot rolling. I was tempted to use it at the beginning of this article, but I
didnt want to piss off Kenny, who has the sort of buff physique and rigid carriage
of a guy who beat up his classmates when he was in grade school.
Alvin Collis has been dragged along to lunch with us as
well, so I ask him: if their story was written as a book, and the book was made into a
movie in which the opening scene was set in the CEOs bathroom, what would the
soundtrack be? Collis is a little too hip to play along with this game, but Kenny Kahn is
tempted to give it a try.
"Id say Garth Brooks *Aint
Going Down Til the Sun Comes Up.*"
"Thats why we try not to have salespeople
talk about music too much," Collis quips jokingly. He suggests reusing the soundtrack
to the movie *The Third Man,* which is about Berlin being divided into East and West.
"Its got a great hammer dulcimer, very brooding, atmospheric with the
suggestion of espionage."
That might be against the rules, using the soundtrack
from one movie as the soundtrack to another, but I let it go. It sounds like between Kenny
and Alvin theres still a lot of dischord at Muzak about the correct "emotional
experience" their story is supposed to conjure. Maybe Pentagram should have handled
Collis promised that Muzak had made several major
innovations in their Environmental and Easy Instrumental channels. Seeing the hint of a
smirk betray my lips, he reminded me that, "Duke Ellington said that theres no
such thing as good genres or bad genres, theres just good music and bad music."
I sat down with Phil Stewart, the somnolent hoary bear who architects the covers channel.
Stewarts office is the biggest and most cluttered of the audio architects, a dense
thicket of fading posters and rough-hewn CD racks and waist-high stumps of stacked trade
magazines. I was amazed at some of the innovations Stewart had implemented. For instance,
when it comes to those instrumental covers of Jewels *Foolish Game* that you
hear at the grocery store, Muzak is now recording that with *real live musicians.* He
says this as if using live musicians were a patentable innovation. Its a lot more
expensive than drum machines and synthesizers, but I guess a quality fake cant be
One door down from Stewart was Phil Carlson, who, in
appreciation for his years of dedication to the company, was just awarded the Easy
Instrumentals channel to revamp. Carlson used to be a DJ for a local Smooth Jazz radio
station, so he has one of those bass throats such that it always seems like Sunday morning
when hes talking. Hes a sweet big guy. Hes a guy whos really
gotten in touch with his inner Mr. Hyde.
There are maybe 600 songs on the Easy Instrumentals
play list, and Carlson is convincly brutal and cold-hearted when he declares, "When
Im done, half those songs wont be on there." *Just call me Chainsaw
Carlson.* Then, as if hes afraid some supermarket manager in Poughkepsie might
read this article and worry what will happen to his dear old muzak channel, Carlson
backtracks on his quote. "But I wont do it all at once. Ill test new
songs, then phase them in over six months."
Carlson wants to really push the channel to the real
cutting edge in Easy Instrumentals. If there is such a thing, he wants to find it.
"Im going towards lounge. Some lush strings, sort of a Jackie Gleason sound. A
movie soundtrack feel."
Carlson fires off a salvo at the last person who
programmed the channel, making a point of saying ominously, "she doesnt work
here anymore." She ignored what it was being used for, Carlson explains. Hotel
lobbies, kitchen appliance stores--those are *emotional* places. Not just any
instrumental fits in. Hotel lobbies are places where great adventures are either beginning
or have just ended. And kitchen appliances--home, Mom, cinnamon rolls, et cetera. Carlson
wants to reinvigorate the channel with music that makes an emotional connection.
"Just this morning, for instance, I was listening
to Tchaekovskys 6th. I was taken right back to summer music camp, where I had played
Tchaekovsky as a kid on the cello. And to my first girlfriend, who I taught to kiss.
Coincidentally shes getting remarried this weekend, so as I listened to the music I
sent her an email, and in my eye--there was a real tear in there."
*Lush strings fade out.*
In the afternoon of my second day, I head out on a
sales call with a local rep to see how the local community responds to Muzak. Steve Mason
is a black jeans/black T guy, definitely New Regime, under which his sales have climbed
from six new sites a month to ten, though he admits, "about a third of the time when
I hand my business card to the receptionist, she still blurts out the boss
isnt thinking of installing elevator music, is he?"
At the University Village mall, we pop in on a
blonde-haired nice-looking lady who squeals with delight and says, "the timing is
perfect for you." Not only is her retail chain expanding from 11 to 25 stores this
year, but her special assignment for the companys annual meeting is standardizing
the music in the stores, which are decorated sort of Martha Stewart Goes To Africa. The
shop definitely has the hypermedia quality Muzak is perfect at--standing a few feet inside
the doorway, which is as far as I would go for fear I might not be able to get the candle
scent out of my hair--you feel like youre less in a store than in the pages of a
Country Living magazine, or at least a slick spring catalog.
I cant just tell you the name of her store
because she is afraid she will say something stupid. You be the judge. Among the things
she says, when Mason tries to get her to talk about the stores *emotional
-- "I cant really say what it is, you know,
but like, I know what its *not.* Its not a barn. Its not Gap.
Nothing cookie cutter."
-- "Im pro-music."
-- "In the afternoons, when we put on our girls,
like Sarah McLachlin or Beth Orton, wow, we get some big days. The register really starts
ringing. But when we turn the music off, its no fun to be in there."
-- "I think we try to create a lofty aesthetic.
Yes, thats it. By the way, how do you spell aesthetic? Is there an h in
Mason agrees to forward her project to one of the audio
architects and get a demo out to her soon. But he adds cautiously, "One of the audio
architects will probably need to call you. I only got one adjective, *lofty aesthetic,*
and hes going to need some more."
After two days, I have been won over. I have come to
the conclusion that despite how silly their work can get, the new crew at Muzak will
probably vastly improve what gets heard by its audience of 85 million. But theyre
awfully self-conscious of it. The funniest thing I found about Muzak wanting to be hip was
the way that nobody, absolutely nobody, wanted to cough up their age. Bones Birrone, who
just back from a week of clubbing in Amsterdam, didnt want to tell me that hes
been DJing at clubs for twelve years for fear I might figure out hes not the 24 he
looks. Not even the lady at the Martha Stewart Goes To Africa store wanted to give hers
away. If pressed, they would say "Im in the 25 to 35 demographic," trying
to fool me that they might be 27, but are really a 37 year-old who feels 34 and hangs out
with 29 year-olds.
Because age isnt really important at Muzak.
Whats important is the *age experience* one relates to. Reality isnt very
important either. Nobody really just *lives* there--everyones walking around
in their own book or magazine layout, which is the feeling you get when your life is
accompanied by a pre-recorded soundtrack.
So thats whats happened to music. The
ultimate standard of cool is no longer "what do you listen to?," but "when
they make the movie of your life, are you hip enough to play yourself?"
Muzak almost never loses a customer. Statistically,
their average business stays with them for 17 years. What they found is that as bad as the
Muzak got in all those years--and as many complaints as it provoked--nobody ever wanted it
turned off. Because once youd gotten used to having piped sound around you at all
times, the only thing more frightening than Muzaks saturated aural gauze was silence
itself--otherwise known as the sound of being disconnected, or the sound of the movie
running out, or of the pages in the next chapter being blank.