The Pacific Northwest is known for its vibrant music scene, which has produced everything from garage-punk legends like The Sonics to acid-rock icon Jimi Hendrix to grunge sensations like Nirvana. It seems ironic, then, that Seattle has also been the global hub for what the industry originally termed "background music" and later referred to as "functional music," "business music," and finally "foreground music." In essence, foreground music is scientifically designed and programmed "mood-controlling music" - often of the deliberately unobtrusive, supposedly soothing, easy-listening variety that purportedly has a positive impact on the productivity of "workers" and the consumption of consumers. Typically experienced as hold music on the phone, but also in shopping malls, airports, and dentists' waiting rooms. Here, Muzak elicited a mild cultural backlash, with critics deriding it as bloodless, mind-numbing "elevator music." Nevertheless, Seattle became home to four distinct but partially intertwined companies that successfully provided carefully curated music selections to countless clients: Yesco Foreground Music, Audio Environments Inc. (AEI), Environmental Music Service Inc. (EMS), and a company whose very name became the generic slang term for its own product - Muzak.
The story of Muzak began with a former U.S. Army Brigadier General, George Owen Squier (1865-1934), a Washington D.C.-based inventor who earned admiration in scientific circles. Among his inventions was a device that kickstarted the development of high-speed telegraphy in the years before telephones. So, while leading the U.S. Signal Corps during World War I, Squier invented a means of transmitting music from phonograph records over long distances via electrical wires. He was also the first military passenger in an airplane on September 12, 1908, and, in collaboration with the Wright Brothers, he was responsible for the purchase of the first airplanes for the U.S. Army in 1909. But that's a different story. In 1922, Squier patented his new invention and quickly licensed it to a giant utilities company, The North American Company. The company also supported Squier's other venture, Wired Radio, Inc., which soon began testing and, in 1934, brought their services to market under an entirely new company name. It was Squier who - in a move reminiscent of how the phonograph company Victrola was named to cash in on the ultra-successful Coca Cola brand name - combined the word "music" with the camera/film company Kodak and came up with "Muzak."
Initially, Muzak was marketed to residential customers in Cleveland, Ohio, who could subscribe to "sound entertainment" for $1.50 per month - both music and news - available on three separate channels. It was also in 1934 that Muzak began hiring music ensembles to create new and exclusive recordings, "for Muzak's customers to enjoy." The first was a medley of three pop tunes performed by the Sam Lanin Orchestra: "Whispering," "Do You Ever Think of Me?" and "Here in My Arms." Another early session produced the 1918 sheet music hit "Hindustan" by Seattle songwriters Oliver G. Wallace (1887-1963) and Harold Weeks (1893-1967).
Before 1934 was over, Muzak's executives realized there was no competition with free commercial radio, so they changed their business plan and began focusing on selling subscriptions to New York City-based restaurants and hotels - two businesses that understandably preferred not to have ads and DJ chatter distracting their customers. But in 1936, Muzak achieved its real breakthrough by steering its product into the new world of factories and other workplaces. The company's notion that background music would motivate workers by encouraging greater rhythm in their tasks was quickly supported by scientific studies that seemed to establish that "functional music... increased efficiency and reduced absenteeism" and noted "a direct correlation between the sound of music and higher productivity" ("Muzak," fundinguniverse.com). A Muzak-associated manager claimed in The Seattle Times, "Research shows that music prolongs workers' alertness, reduces mental fatigue due to monotony and boredom, relieves worries, and prevents the mind from dwelling on petty annoyances" (Squire).
In 1937, Muzak launched franchises in major cities, including Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Then Hollywood's Warner Brothers bought the company, only to sell it a year later in 1939 to a trio of businessmen, one of whom, William B. Benton (1900-1973), bought out his partners in 1941 for $100,000. After the United States entered World War II in December of that year, the need for greater industrial efficiency soon led thousands of factories and shipyards to receive a "stimulation of Muzak."
In the 1940s, the company adopted a slogan - "Muzak While You Work for Increased Efficiency" - which was undoubtedly better than the other one they were considering, "Muzak While You Work to Control the Workers" (Seattle Times). It was also during the war that the name "Muzak" was first applied to those automated pipe organs that could be found in many large churches in Seattle, such as the organ at St. Mark's Cathedral.
During this time, Benton introduced a new business plan, selling Muzak to clients in packages that included a continuous supply of replacement records and (crucially) playback equipment. As Muzak grew, it sent out field representatives to visit factories and offices and "design" a specific selection of background music for each location. For instance, Muzak recordings, typically made by a company-owned ensemble, might be "programmed" to provide a mix of classical and light popular music to a dentist's office, while a machine shop would receive a program composed of more rhythmic and percussive selections. Each individual recording was called a "stimulus progression," and every day Muzak shipped out thousands of them. In 1949, Muzak reported $3 million in annual sales, while the Wall Street Journal reported that Muzak's clients were paying the company $8 million per year. In that same year, the company was already operating as far afield as Rio de Janeiro, London, and Beirut. Meanwhile, Benton continued to write articles and deliver lectures arguing that "background music in stores, offices, factories and other places of work has demonstrated that it does improve the quantity and quality of work done."
But Muzak wasn't the only company selling background music, and this led to a lawsuit that produced a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1950. In 1949, Muzak filed a $1.5 million antitrust suit against AEI and EMS, charging that they conspired to divide the nation into territories and agreed not to sell their services in each other's territory. Benton also contended that "five other companies" were part of this conspiracy, including a company run by former Muzak executive Charles Simpson (Seattle Times). AEI and EMS countersued, charging Muzak with monopolistic practices.
In 1950, the Supreme Court let stand a decision in favor of AEI and EMS, but refused to rule on their conspiracy charge. For some reason, AEI and EMS decided not to proceed with their antitrust case, and the suit was never resolved. Nevertheless, the Court's decision had the effect of breaking Muzak's stranglehold on the business of background music. Furthermore, the legal entanglements were the beginning of the end for Muzak in Seattle. By 1951, the company had moved its headquarters to the Chicago suburb of Northfield, Illinois. Meanwhile, Muzak's client base in Seattle had been seriously eroded by the arrival of competing companies, notably Yesco Foreground Music.
Yesco Foreground Music was the brainchild of Merle N. F. Thorpe (1902-1972), a former pianist and bandleader who was then the music director at Seattle's Frederick & Nelson department store. In 1939, he had resigned his position and started a Muzak-like service that provided customers with background music. It became instantly successful and grew quickly, but its name had to be changed when Benton took Muzak to court over the use of the name. Thorpe eventually won the suit, but to avoid further legal wrangling he changed his company's name to Yesco Foreground Music. Thorpe's company may have been too similar to Muzak, but his original idea was to provide live music over telephone lines, while Muzak was then mostly relying on phonograph records. In 1948, Yesco created a similar nationwide network of regional franchises, including in Seattle, which was established in 1950.
By the early 1950s, Yesco's offices in Seattle were located at the same address as King Broadcasting. Then, in 1954, King purchased Yesco. Four years later, King Broadcasting purchased a competing background music company, AEI. For a time, both Yesco and AEI continued to operate as separate entities, but the writing was on the wall. It was only a matter of time before Yesco Foreground Music and AEI became integrated into the giant King Broadcasting empire. Meanwhile, King Broadcasting was in turn eventually absorbed by the holding company of The Seattle Times.
Throughout the 1960s, Muzak continued to expand its market and influence worldwide, while at the same time fighting the stigma of being associated with "elevator music." In the 1970s, the company introduced a new image, emphasizing its role in enhancing consumer experiences in various commercial settings. Despite its detractors, Muzak remained a major player in the background music industry for many years.
Muzak continued to evolve in the following decades. With the advent of digital technology and streaming services, the company shifted from physical records and tapes to digital music delivery systems. In 2011, Muzak rebranded itself as "Mood Media," reflecting its focus on creating custom music experiences for businesses, enhancing branding, and improving the overall customer experience.
In 2009 Mood Media filed for bankruptcy first time, since that 3 more times, but the company continued to operate. While its prominence in the industry has diminished over time due to changes in how businesses curate and deliver background music, Mood Media continues to provide audio and visual solutions to businesses globally.
Today, the concept of background music in commercial spaces and workplaces has evolved further with the proliferation of streaming platforms and customizable playlists. While the name "Muzak" may be associated with a specific era of background music, the idea of using music to enhance the atmosphere and mood in various settings remains a significant part of the modern consumer experience.