Muzak: A Brief History of the Satellite Music Pioneers

If you’ve ever been on hold, or in an elevator, or shopping at a large department store, you’ve probably listened to some tunes from Muzak. Any light, easy-listening instrumentals have become synonymous with the Muzak company which has been a part of American culture for nearly a century. Let’s take a look at some of the interesting history of this company, including how they trailblazed a lot of the music access and technology that we enjoy today.

elevator music

Major Music Maker

You may be surprised to learn that Muzak was not invented by a musician at all. World War I Major General George O. Squier came up with the idea when he worked on radio transmissions. He believed that the same technology used for military communications could be used to share music with the world. He founded Muzak in 1934 but with the name Kodak, which later caused some issues and was changed to the name we know today. By the time Muzak technology was ready for mainstream use, however, listening to music on the radio was already really popular and consumers had plenty of options. Squier decided instead to take Muzak a different route: to use as background music in office buildings and other public spots.

The cost of obtaining permission to license much of the popular music was high, so Squier hired musicians to record original pieces instead. As a result, Muzak actually has a pretty unique archive of some otherwise unreleased music from top bands of the 1930s and beyond.

More Productive With Music

It’s pretty well known today that listening to music is calming and can make people feel happier in an instant. Back in the 1940s, though, the science of why music makes us feel so great was still being researched. Muzak capitalized on that, and the rise of industrial production facilities. They began selling their system to factories, and the factories found that Muzak actually worked. When workers would listen to carefully selected blocks of music, their production increased.

As Muzak grew in popularity, and revenue, it was eventually able to pay for the rights to commercial music. This allowed customers to choose the type of music they wanted to hear – the traditional “classic” Muzak items, or other songs by genre or decade. In a lot of ways, the Muzak model paved the way for popular satellite music services like SiriusXM. The idea that you could pick the type of music you wanted, with no commercials, was appealing to Muzak customers. They were willing to pay for such a subscription if it meant they could avoid the random song selections and ads of regular radio play.

Muzak’s Forever Impact

Fast forward to today and Muzak’s once forward-thinking concepts are pretty much in use all over the place. People can create their own playlists on smartphones and mp3 players, and can look up any song they want to hear on sites like YouTube. Still, Muzak remains a retail and office building staple for its ease of use and vast library of songs and genres. The company does business under the umbrella of Mood Media and employs nearly 1,500 people. Muzak know offers video options for businesses to use as well.

Muzak remains highly appealing, despite competition from other music services. Businesses can take solace knowing that when they pay for Muzak services, they legally have rights to the songs. Playing a CD or audio file in a commercial setting is actually illegal without the proper permissions. Muzak takes care of all of those legal hurdles and just gives listeners what they want: easy access to music while they work, shop, eat, or wait.