Believe it or not, Muzak still exists, though it has had as many ups and downs as the elevators the company once dominated. Today, Muzak, in one form or another, reaches more than 100 million people each day, according to the company. More than ninety music programs, along with custom programs, are produced for businesses and played in over half a million locations worldwide.
While Muzak is remembered for endless loops of generic music programs, these days, Muzak customizes programming to the specific customer base of a business. Now it is more likely to compete with satellite radio than with silence. That’s why Muzak has come of age, using decidedly hip, recognizable music and tailoring its programming to businesses like Barnes & Noble, Cold Stone Creamery, The Gap, and McDonald’s.
Including lyrics in its programming has been nothing short of a sea change for Muzak. In the old days, the company avoided controversy by using only instrumental versions of popular songs. That doesn’t work now—consumers want to hear the words. As a result, Muzak must listen to every word of every song before it is approved for its playlist. According to an article about Muzak that appeared in USA TODAY, “workers also listen for what they think is being said. A song is out if workers think they hear an offensive word, even if the artist didn’t say it.” Yes, it is censorship of a sort, but it’s a necessary evil for music that is piped into all kinds of stores in all kinds of places.
The company has diversified beyond soundtracks as well—Muzak also creates custom on-hold and in-store voice messages, and designs and installs professional sound systems, commercial television, drive-through systems, digital signage, and sound-masking systems.
Muzak will be 75 years old in 2009—all the more remarkable since the brand could just as easily have died with the advent of digital music. Instead, Muzak reinvented itself. The turnaround happened in 1997, when a new senior management team took over.
In terms of corporate identity, Muzak was as fragmented as a company could be, according to “Muzak on Key” (@issue Journal, Volume 7, Number 1, published by Corporate Design Foundation). Apparently, sales people and franchisees alike were so leery of Muzak’s old reputation that they tried to hide the name more than embrace it. “We were so insecure about our own identity that our business cards and trucks often looked more like our vendors' identities than our own,” said Kenny Kahn, vice president of marketing for Muzak.
Muzak’s management knew a big change was needed, so the company engaged a corporate identity firm, Pentagram, to revamp its image. The logo that was finally chosen reduced the emphasis on the company’s name, according to @issue Journal: “A first step was to develop a unifying symbol for Muzak that could go on everything from business cards to trade show booths, videos and sales materials. ... In the end, a silver-and-black M in a circle prevailed.”
Just as important, the company began to reposition itself from science and technology to art and artistry. A large dose of emotion was added to the company’s pitch, and creativity became an integral part of the company culture. In 2000, Muzak moved its corporate headquarters from Seattle to a small town outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, relocating to warehouse space instead of an office building.
The new building was designed to match the company’s creative aspirations, says @issue Journal: “[Architect James] Biber configured the interior with a piazza at its center and bridges joining open areas. … Throughout the building, the visual language of the brand is presented in subtle and impactful ways. The circle, which is a key part of Muzak's new identity, is integrated into the architecture. "The building is incredibly unique," explains Kahn. "Our clients arrive here and realize that we’re figuring out something here and it is really special.’”
Muzak followed up its building with bold new ways to market its music. In 2003, for example, the company created a unique “Sensorium” for GlobalShop, the world’s largest annual store design and in-store marketing trade show. According to Exhibitor magazine (“The Sound of Muzak,” June 2003), the dome-shaped Muzak Sensorium makes you “feel like you’re in a Jacuzzi, massaged by swirls of sound instead of water.” People lined up to hear the music inside.
A revitalized Muzak now faces perhaps its biggest challenge yet. The company is planning to merge with its chief rival, DMX. In April 2008, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice said Muzak and DMX were cleared to proceed with the proposed merger. The intent, according to the companies, is to merge and offer the combined entity to a third-party buyer.
There is no word yet whether the Muzak name will be retained. Maybe it will be retired to the brand graveyard. But whether it lives or dies, Muzak is likely to be remembered by many, not unlike a song that you just can’t forget.