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Muzak Inc.

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, it’s 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 I’m 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 Muzak’s 100 different channels of moodsong, whether it’s the fem-beat grooves at Donna Karan stores or Starbucks’ Blue Note CD or the piccolo-led quartet in the dentist’s 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 Jesse Helms.

Under new management for the last year and a half, the company’s had a little bit of a hard time shaking its reputation for decades of cultural atrocities. It’s 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 they’ve 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 we’re a music company, then maybe we’ll really *be* a music company. But, this being America after all, Land of the Comeback, maybe that’s all it will take, especially if Alvin Collis also picks the right tunes.

He’s 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. He’s come up with the "brand extension" soundtrack for Liz Clairborne and +H2O~ and Footaction, but it’s 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.’ I’ve got five weeks."

In the meantime, he’s 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. He’s 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 guy’s 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 let’s call them Big Buns. How do you create the soundtrack for a cinnamon roll?

Collis explains, "Here’s a chain run by men 55 to 65 years old that’s entirely focussed on one sticky, brown, hot, buttery thing. And why do we love those cinnamon rolls so much? Because Big Buns isn’t just selling the roll. They provide an olfactory experience that triggers a memory of being seven years old, coming home at 3 o’clock from Grade 2, and walking into the kitchen where your Mom’s 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 don’t 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:

Emotionally Upbeat

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, "He’s 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 it’s a tough one. Dave, you’re just going to have to make a run at it."

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 company’s 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 CEO’s 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, wasn’t 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 don’t have to be ashamed of working for Muzak anymore!*

Kenny Kahn, the new Vice President of Marketing, hired one of the country’s 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 Indie-chic.

This wasn’t just a logo-&-letterhead job. Though they considered changing the name of the company, they couldn’t 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, "America’s Business Broadcaster," and in came the sentence I heard so many times in my two-day visit that it’s ingrained in my brain like a jingle, "We create experiences with audio architecture." So detailed was Pentagram’s overhaul that they even gave employees a new way of introducing themselves at parties, one that wouldn’t provoke the common "yuk" response: "Hi, I work for Muzak, we’re *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 I’m 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 they’re 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. That’s how broken this company was--the National Sales Manager had never been in the old CEO’s office long enough to need his toilet."

That’s 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 didn’t 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 CEO’s 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.

"I’d say Garth Brooks’ *Ain’t Going Down Til the Sun Comes Up.*"

"That’s 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. "It’s 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 there’s still a lot of dischord at Muzak about the correct "emotional experience" their story is supposed to conjure. Maybe Pentagram should have handled this one.

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 there’s no such thing as good genres or bad genres, there’s just good music and bad music." I sat down with Phil Stewart, the somnolent hoary bear who architects the covers channel. Stewart’s 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 Jewel’s *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. It’s a lot more expensive than drum machines and synthesizers, but I guess a quality fake can’t be compromised.

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 he’s talking. He’s a sweet big guy. He’s a guy who’s 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 I’m done, half those songs won’t be on there." *Just call me Chainsaw Carlson.* Then, as if he’s 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 won’t do it all at once. I’ll 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. "I’m 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 doesn’t 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 Tchaekovsky’s 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 she’s 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 isn’t 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 company’s 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 you’re less in a store than in the pages of a Country Living magazine, or at least a slick spring catalog.

I can’t 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 store’s *emotional experience*:

-- "I can’t really say what it is, you know, but like, I know what it’s *not.* It’s not a barn. It’s not Gap. Nothing cookie cutter."

-- "I’m 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, it’s no fun to be in there."

-- "I think we try to create a lofty aesthetic. Yes, that’s it. By the way, how do you spell aesthetic? Is there an ‘h’ in it?"

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 he’s 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 they’re 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, didn’t want to tell me that he’s been DJing at clubs for twelve years for fear I might figure out he’s 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 "I’m 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 isn’t really important at Muzak. What’s important is the *age experience* one relates to. Reality isn’t very important either. Nobody really just *lives* there--everyone’s 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 that’s what’s 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 you’d gotten used to having piped sound around you at all times, the only thing more frightening than Muzak’s 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.