Monday, April 10, 2006

The Sound of Muzak

Maybe I just need more excitement in my life but I found this article about Muzak, the company that provides public background for countless retailers, very interesting. I've done my share of singing along to instrumental versions of popular songs while shopping but I had no idea how much thought goes into the selection of what is played and when.

The creators of Muzak's programs are known as "audio architects." There are twenty-two of them and all but two of them are in their twenties or thirties. It's their job to design musical packages according to the specifications of their clients. For example:

some customers want to establish different moods at different times of the day; some want current hits to repeat frequently, as they do on Top Forty radio stations; some want programs that are closely geared to the seasons. At some retailers, one of the biggest changes occurs at closing time, when the music becomes louder, more intense, and presumably more likely to include lyrics that could be mistaken for profanity. That’s an after-hours program, designed by Muzak’s audio architects for employees who restock the shelves.

One architect interviewed for the article said that with the proliferation of instrumental renditions she couldn't tell by listening to only one song whether it was produced by Muzak. But:

“...I could tell if I listened to the flow of a few. The key is consistency. How did those songs connect? What story did they tell? Why is this song after that song, and why is that one after that one? When we make a program, we pay a lot of attention to the way songs segue. It’s not like songs on the radio, or songs on a CD. Take Armani Exchange. Shoppers there are looking for clothes that are hip and chic and cool. They’re twenty-five to thirty-five years old, and they want something to wear to a party or a club, and as they shop they want to feel like they’re already there. So you make the store sound like the coolest bar in town. You think about that when you pick the songs, and you pay special attention to the sequencing, and then you cross-fade and beat-match and never break the momentum, because you want the program to sound like a d.j.’s mix.” She went on, “For Ann Taylor, you do something completely different. The Ann Taylor woman is conservative, not edgy, and she really couldn’t care less about segues. She wants everything bright and positive and optimistic and uplifting, so you avoid offensive themes and lyrics, and you think about Sting and Celine Dion, and you leave a tiny space between the songs or gradually fade out and fade in.”

The article concludes with the observation that public background music is, for many of us, a continuation of the background noise with which we fill our private moments and quotes a member of Muzak's marketing department as identifying silence as their biggest competitor.

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